Nineteen sixty-two was a big year for Jamaica and Chis Blackwell alike. The country gained its independence and hosted the first James Bond movie, Dr No, on which Blackwell worked as a fixer, recommending locations and recruiting his musician friends as grips, extras, even as musicians. So impressed was co-producer Harry Saltzman that he offered Blackwell a job as his PA. The 25-year-old wavered; he was already knee-deep in Jamaica’s frantic music industry and about to leave the island to establish his own label, Island, in London. Only after consulting “a downtown Lebanese soothsayer” did he choose music ahead of film.
His decision was the world’s good fortune. Over the next 40 years Blackwell helped revolutionise popular music, his label becoming a byword for uncompromised artistry and era-shaping acts. In the 60s came Traffic, Cat Stevens, Free, Fairport Convention and Nick Drake, followed by Roxy Music, U2, Robert Palmer and Grace Jones. Then there are the passing oddballs (Sparks, Frankie Goes to Hollywood), venerable bohos such as Tom Waits, and always there was reggae; from Millie Small’s 1964 international smash My Boy Lollipop, two minutes of teenage joy, to Bob Marley, the downtown rebel who became the first developing nation superstar.
Born into the upper classes (think Crosse & Blackwell), Blackwell has an exotic background. His father was an Irish guards officer, his mother, Blanche, a Costa Rican-born Jamaican heiress and glamorous socialite, pursued, post her divorce, by Errol Flynn and Ian Fleming, both of them regular visitors to the Caribbean island where Blackwell grew up. As a boy, he was sickly and reclusive, conditions that sending him to English public schools did little to cure. He hated Harrow, where his hijinks brought a public caning and expulsion at 17. He found work at both ends of Jamaican society, becoming a gopher for governor Sir Hugh Foot, and the JA licensee of Wurlitzer jukeboxes, which involved criss-crossing the island to load the all-important local jukebox with sides from black America and, increasingly, from JA’s own booming music scene – “a job for which there no qualifications and I was good at it”.
Blackwell’s account of his time scuffling around Jamaica’s young music scene, dealing with swaggering producers such as Coxsone Dodd and a matrix of sound systems and labels in cut-throat competition, is rich cultural history. At first, Blackwell was an exporter, sending hot ska tunes to the UK expat market and licensing them for his own Island imprint. In London he cut a rakish figure, with good looks, an upper-class drawl, a West End mews house and a model girlfriend, skittling to Neasden or Lewisham, his racing green Mini Cooper stuffed with boxes of 45s by Derrick Morgan and James Brown – the latter because Blackwell had cut a deal with New York’s Sue Records, a cult soul label.
Quick to find his feet in the British music business, Blackwell signed the Spencer Davis Group and their sought-after singer, Steve Winwood, who graduated from tough R&B hits such as Gimme Some Loving to form Traffic, whose debut album, Mr Fantasy, made them instant hippy darlings. The record was the first on the pink Island label, “the colour most removed from ska and reggae”.
Marley and Blackwell were a perfect fit – they both attracted CIA files
Island Records’ progress was imperious, enabled in part by Blackwell’s canny way with property – offices, studios, hideaways. Blackwell devotes long, fascinating chapters to Cat Stevens and tortured recluse Nick Drake, and of course to Bob Marley. People thought Blackwell crazy to finance an album by the Wailers, a trio of Trenchtown toughies turned deep Rasta, but 1973’s Catch a Fire proved a triumph that transformed reggae, even as it split up the Wailers. Purists castigated Blackwell for “commercialising” the group, but the ambitious and infinitely charismatic Marley always had a date with destiny and global fame. He and Blackwell were a perfect fit. Both attracted CIA files. Marley’s demise left Blackwell deflated, though he rallied after meeting Grace Jones, “a Jamaican who came from everywhere, who had absorbed hippy, LSD, New York, Paris... She was an orgy of hybrids”. Putting Jones with reggae’s ruling rhythm duo, Sly and Robbie, made perfect sense.
His vision flatlining, Blackwell sold Island in 1989 for $300m, hanging on inside the company for a few years, continuing to fly the flag for innovators such as Tricky and championing African acts such as Sunny Ade and Baaba Maal. His story, warmly told with an unobtrusive ghost writer, is unique in popular music, its hero being not Blackwell but Jamaica itself. (Those early, red-and-white Island 45s today cost a mint.) As a young man Blackwell was a gambler, until losing money hurt too much. The music industry became his casino, and with his ears and enthusiasm involved, his bets proved astute and often inspirational.
• The Islander: My Life in Music and Beyond by Chris Blackwell with Paul Morley is published by Nine Eight Books (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply