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Beyond Babylon

Fifty years after starting the label that launched everyone from Bob Marley to U2, Island Records founder Chris Blackwell is feeling irie.

Author JASON FINE Photography GEMS/REDFERNS

CHRIS BLACKWELL was a 22-year-old waterskiing instructor at the Half Moon Resort in Montego Bay, Jamaica, when he got the idea to record a blind cocktail pianist who performed in the hotel bar. “I was just a fan,” says Blackwell, who at 72 has thinning hair and a voice that blends an English accent with a rasta patois. “I loved music, and this was a chance to get closer to it. I really didn’t see it as a business opportunity that would last for fifty years.”

Blackwell pressed 250 copies, the first release of what would become Island Records. It didn’t sell, but over the next three decades, Island grew into one of the most groundbreaking labels in the world, releasing albums by a roster including Jethro Tull, Traffic, Cat Stevens, Roxy Music, Grace Jones, Tom Waits and U2.

But at the core of the label’s identity was Blackwell’s devotion to the music of Jamaica, his mother’s home nation. Island introduced the Caribbean groove to the rest of the world with landmark recordings by Jimmy Cliff, Toots and the Maytals and, most important, Bob Marley.

Marley and the Wailers were already Jamaican stars in 1972 when they showed up in Blackwell’s London office, desperate, stranded and broke after a film project in England had been canceled. Blackwell offered the group £4,000 to record an album. “Everybody said I was mad, that I would never see that money again,” says Blackwell. “The Wailers had a reputation as total rebels who were impossible to deal with.”

But Blackwell saw Marley’s messianic genius. “Bob was a very charismatic personality—he had some kind of aura to him, this sense of greatness. Reggae at that point was known to most people as a novelty music, but I felt Bob could be bigger than Jimi Hendrix.”

Blackwell sold Island to Polygram in 1989, and he retired from the label completely in 1997. But he still keeps tabs on Island’s artists and says the one he’s most excited about is the supremely talented (and equally troubled) singer Amy Winehouse. “To me, she’s the one right now—she’s got it,” Blackwell says. “I hope she can pull herself together.”

Meanwhile, Blackwell has launched two new enterprises: Palm Pictures, a music and film company; and Island Outpost, a chain of boutique hotels that includes the magnificent Goldeneye, on Jamaica’s north shore, originally the home of author Ian Fleming. Blackwell spends much of his time there, living in a rustic cabin overlooking a lagoon. He still shows up for business meetings in shorts and sandals, fresh off his jet ski. “I was never really cut out for corporate life,” he says.

Reggae aficionado JASON FINE is the executive editor of Rolling Stone.

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