In its early years, the Island Records story was synonymous with one name -
Chris Blackwell. From founding the label in Jamaica in 1959 with capital
of just £1000 until he sold Island almost 30 years later for undisclosed
millions, Blackwell built the most diverse and enviable back catalogue of
any independent label in history. From Island's early Jamaican roots in ska
and rock-steady, through the label's expansion to become the cutting edge
of progressive rock in the late 60s, and then on to the signing of such
international superstars as Bob Marley and U2, Blackwell brought to Island
a unique vision and passion which still informs the label's approach to
Jamaica - Ska's the Limit
Blackwell came from a wealthy Jamaican family and when he issued his first
records in 1959, he took his nascent label's name from Alec Waugh's novel
Island In The Sun. The pattern was set early when he enjoyed almost
immediate success with Boogie In My Bones by ska singer Laurel Aitken,
which stayed at number 1 on the Jamaican charts for 11 weeks.
The first album released on Island came a year later with the release of
Lance Heywood at The Half Moon Hotel, featuring the jazz pianist of the
same name, and top Jamaican guitarist Ernest Ranglin. The catalogue number
was CB 22; Blackwell was 22 years old at the time. "When I first recorded Laurel
Aitken and those people, I never thought it would be the start of a popular record
company," he recalls. "I was just recording the music because I wanted to do it and I
loved it. Jamaica is a very small place, and I was only thinking in very simple terms
at that stage".
But his ambitions were growing rapidly and in early 1962 Blackwell
transferred his burgeoning Island operation to London with the help of a
5,000 dollar loan and a town house rented from the Church of England
Commissioners. It was a move which he hoped would provide an international
platform for Jamaican music. "I went to the UK rather than the US because
there was a huge Jamaican population. I bought a list of the 20 major
record stores catering for black music from Carlo Kramer at Esquire Records
and started from there," he says.
According to legend, Blackwell used to hawk boxes of his imported Jamaican
discs around UK record shops in a Mini Cooper - and from the back seat of
that tiny vehicle grew one of the world's most influential recording
labels. "That's absolutely true," he chuckles. "In those days you could
get around pretty fast in a Mini ."
Initially Island marketed its records at the sound systems which played the
all-night blues parties in Brixton, Notting Hill and the other heartlands
of the British Afro-Caribbean community. But early ska recordings on the
label by the likes of Derrick Morgan and Jimmy Cliff swiftly found their
way onto the dance floors of swinging London's trendiest clubs, such as
the Flamingo in Wardour Street and the Roaring Twenties in Carnaby Street.
In the clubs, the new Jamaican sounds were played alongside imported
American r'n'b and Blackwell as ever was swift to see the crossover
potential of both. Ska had always owed much to American r & b and the
Island boss hit upon the idea of marrying the distinctive rhythms of ska
to an old r'n'b hit called My Boy Lollipop by Barbie Gaye.
He asked the teenage Jamaican singer Millie Small to cover the song in
early 1964 with a band directed by his old Jamaican friend Ernest Ranglin
and knew he had a big hit on his hands. Yet he feared Island as a label
was too small to cope with the demand and licensed the track to Fontana. He
was rewarded with the first international Jamaican hit, selling seven
million copies world-wide and reaching number two in both the US and UK
Always a maverick, Blackwell explains his unconventional methods of the
time. "I started in a very dodgy way," he admits. "I used to go to New York
and buy r'n'b records and then sell them on to the sound systems in
Jamaica. I'd scratch off the labels so nobody knew what they were and so I
could charge any price I liked for them. But I kept tapes of everything I
imported and one of the tracks was My Boy Lollipop. I was playing the tape
one night and when I heard the song again, I knew it was perfect for
Around the same time, Blackwell teamed up with Guy Stevens to start an
Island subsidiary called Sue, which he used to introduce a British audience
to the very best of imported American r'n'b, such as Robert Parker's
Barefootin' and Bob & Earl's Harlem Shuffle. The impact of both his
Jamaican and American records was huge. "There was a feature in the music
weekly Disc in the mid-60s in which each of the four Beatles was asked to
name their four favourite records," he recalls. "Out of 16 records, seven
of them were on Island or Sue."
The Prog Rock Years
In early 1967 Blackwell took the decision to diversify into the white rock
market. He began by signing Art (shortly to become Spooky Tooth) and
Traffic, led by Stevie Winwood, who he had discovered a couple of years
earlier, singing with the Spencer Davis Group. He had signed the SDG on the
strength of Winwood's remarkable voice, but felt that Island was not yet
strong enough to release their records. Once again, he licensed the group's
singles to Fontana, including such hits as Gimme Some Lovin and Keep On
Runnin', which displaced The Beatles' Day Tripper/We Can Work It Out from
the top of the UK charts in January 1966. "I'd seen independent labels
die because they had a hit," he explains. "They'd run up a huge bill
manufacturing the records and then they would have difficulty getting paid
on time by retailers and they'd go bankrupt. I wasn't going to risk that
But encouraged by the success of the Spencer Davis Group and intrigued by
the emerging counter-culture around groups such as the Pink Floyd and Soft
Machine, it wasn't long before Blackwell's instincts told him the time was
right to place Island at the forefront of the emerging 'progressive' rock
or 'underground' scene. "It was the end of an era and the beginning of a
new one," he recalls. "Up until then I had spent 75 per cent of my time on
Jamaican music and only 25 per cent on pop and rock. I realised it was time
to reverse that."
When Winwood left the Spencer Davis Group, with Blackwell's encouragement he
formed Traffic, who enjoyed instant success in both the singles and albums markets.
Soon Island boasted what today reads like a who's who of British rock from the period,
including King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Free, among others.
At the same time, Blackwell developed a strong reputation for nurturing the label's
talent and his hands-on, highly personal approach fostered the idea of Island as a
musical family as much as a conventional record company.
Blackwell and Island also developed a strong relationship with a young
American producer called Joe Boyd, who brought to the label such folk-rock
acts as Nick Drake and Fairport Convention. Another Blackwell signing in
the acoustic rock field was John Martyn. Even more successful was Cat
Stevens, who had grown disillusioned with his career as an ephemeral pop
singer. With Blackwell's encouragement he reinvented himself as an acoustic
singer-songwriter and went on to become one of Island's most enduring acts
Sounds Of The Seventies : Rebel Music
By the beginning of the 1970s, Island was the undisputed brand leader in
British 'prog rock'. But the label was also constantly on the lookout for
new sounds and in 1972 Roxy Music joined the Island stable, helping to
usher in the glam rock era. Solo recordings by Eno and Bryan Ferry and the
signing of former Velvet Underground man John Cale also did well for the
Yet it was a return to Blackwell's love of Jamaican music that was to
give Island its greatest coup, when in 1973 the label signed Bob Marley and
the Wailers. Of course, Marley was a uniquely talented artist. But the way
he blossomed was also a tribute to the vision of Blackwell, who devised a
plan to exploit the singer's rebel image and to turn him into "a black
rock star as big as Jimi Hendrix."
As Blackwell recalls, many warned him against the signing, warning that
Marley's ghetto attitude was trouble. Undeterred, in late 1972 he gave the
group £4,000 to record Catch A Fire, their first album for Island. It was
an investment that ultimately was to be repaid a million times over. "Everybody
said I was crazy, that these were bad, unreliable guys who would rip me off,"
Blackwell remembers. "But I backed a hunch that it wouldn't quite turn out
like that." Marley went on to become the Third World's first international
superstar and Island's biggest-selling act.
With Marley turning the once minority sport of reggae into a multi-million
pound business, Island was ideally placed via Blackwell's Jamaican
connections to become the leading player, just as it had done only a few
years earlier with prog rock. By the late 1970s the label had an unrivalled
roster of top reggae stars, which included the likes of Toots and the
Maytals, Aswad, Steel Pulse and many others.
The 1980s : U2 And Beyond
Perhaps surprisingly, Island showed little interest in the punk revolution
that erupted in the late 1970s. They signed The Slits, but Blackwell left
much of the running in the field to Virgin, which signed the Sex Pistols,
and whose owner Richard Branson freely admitted that his entrepreneurial
role model was the Island boss. Instead, Blackwell concentrated on
consolidating the label's success with classic rock acts as Robert Palmer,
Stevie Winwood and Grace Jones, one of the label's first American signings.
But it was Ireland that was to provide Island with its most important
signing since Marley when an unknown rock group from Dublin called U2
joined the label in March 1980. Once again, Island showed its commitment
to the long-term development of its acts, and it was not until 1983 and the
group's third album War that they enjoyed their first number one. Before
long they were the biggest rock'n'roll group in the world.
By the 1980s as Island passed its first 25 years, it was no longer a
specifically-British based label but an international presence, with many
leading American artists such as Tom Waits and Melissa Etheridge on its
books. In 1989, Blackwell sold Island to Polygram which was taken over by Universal.
As part of a larger conglomerate, Island retained its special identity and
continued to go from strength to strength signing cutting edge artists such
as PJ Harvey, Pulp, DJ Shadow and Portishead who have thrived alongside the
label's arena filling rockers Keane and the Fratellis and pop classicists The
Feeling, Mika and Sugababes as well as Brit Rock master Paul Weller. The turn
of the century saw the label sign an artist that Chris Blackwell has described
as 'a classic Island maverick', a singer from North London that has since gone
on to conquer the world - Amy Winehouse.
As the label's 50th anniversary celebrations approach Island is in rude health
representing an array of established stars and exciting new talents.
Says Blackwell: "When I recorded 'Lance Hayward at the Half Moon' in 1959 at
Federal Records Studio in Kingston, Jamaica, I had no inkling what path this
had set me on. It was always my intention at Island to make records that stood
the test of time, and I'm proud that Island is still a potent force in music 50
years since that first release."