Does the name Chris Blackwell ring a bell? No? Don’t sweat it, he is not that well-known to most people I guess.
Anyway, he’s the founder of Island Records, one of the most influential labels of the twentieth century.
This pioneering company – acquired by Polygram in 1989 and today part of Universal Music Group – introduced the world to acts such as U2, Tom Waits, Eric B & Rakim, Roxy Music and the late Amy Winehouse. But also a large number of successful reggae singers and bands. Bob Marley being one of those.
The story behind Island and its artists has now been described in the beautifully illustrated celebration The Story of Island Records – Keep on Running, edited by Suzette Newman and Chris Salewicz, and released in conjunction with the label’s fiftieth anniversary.
The story of Chris Blackwell and his label is a fascinating and impressive one. A true entrepreneur with a determination to present new music to the world.
Chris Blackwell’s biggest accomplishment is probably bringing Jamaican music, and especially reggae, to the mainstream. He did so initially with his own production Boogie in My Bones, an early Jamaican shuffle/RnB tune by Laurel Aitken put out in 1958.
The first worldwide hit on Island was Millie Small’s My Boy Lollipop released in 1964. And from there on the success stories just pile up, especially with UK rock music and reggae.
In the 70’s and 80’s Island put out several of the most acclaimed reggae albums to date, including Catch a Fire by The Wailers, Marcus Garvey by Burning Spear, Funky Kingston from Toots & The Maytals and Black Uhuru’s Sensimilla as well as the soundtrack to the cult movie The Harder They Come.
Island also put out a number of wicked albums from UK reggae bands such as Aswad and Steel Pulse. The label was also responsible for a bunch of forward-thinking releases, for example Ijahman’s Haile I Hymn and The Upsetters’ Superape.
Chris Blackwell was a clever marketer and knew how to promote reggae to the general public, and the white European middle class.
In the 70’s Island was challenged in the roots reggae market, especially by another UK independent label – Virgin. Richard Branson and his colleagues managed to sign artists such as The Gladiators, The Mighty Diamonds, Culture, Johnny Clarke and U Roy.
Viewed in retrospective it seems that Island probably reached a broader audience, while Virgin put out albums that were more for hardcore enthusiasts.
The Story of Island Records gives a broad picture of the label and includes essays by ten contemporary music critics, including well-known reggae authors and writers such as the aforementioned Chris Salewicz, who has written several books including the authorized biography of Bob Marley titled Songs of Freedom, Lloyd Bradley, responsible for the comprehensive Bass Culture, Vivien Goldman, who has written two books on Bob Marley and David Katz, who has written People Funny Boy and Solid Foundation.
Included in this chronological and comprehensive retrospective is also rare photographs, artist portraits and album cover art. It’s essential to every music fan or anyone interested in design.
Chris Blackwell once said “If you felt the artwork was intriguing then there must be something going on in the inside”. This is true not only to the albums released by Island, but also to this great book.