Island Life: the story of Island Records

One label has been bringing Caribbean music to the world for 50 years. David Katz tells the story of Island Records

David Hinds of Steel Pulse. Photograph by UrbanImage.tv/Adrian BootIsland Records founder Chris Blackwell with Jamaican producer Steven Stanley at Blackwell’s Compass Point Studio in the Bahamas. Photograph by UrbanImage.tv/Adrian BootJamaican-born Grace Jones. Photograph by UrbanImage.tv/Adrian BootJimmy Cliff. Photograph by UrbanImage.tv

Reggae fans have many reasons to be grateful to Island Records. In addition to Bob Marley’s best-known works, the label has been home to ska stars such as Laurel Aitken and Owen Gray, Jimmy Cliff and Toots and the Maytals, before reggae found its feet, Burning Spear and Lee “Scratch” Perry in the roots era, UK-based reggae acts Aswad, Steel Pulse and Linton Kwesi Johnson, plus Sly and Robbie, Black Uhuru, Chakademus and Pliers, Buju Banton and Luciano in the dancehall phase.

Island was more than just a reggae label. During the mid-1960s, the company hosted the Spencer Davis Group, whose leading light, Steve Winwood, went on to form the influential rock band Traffic. Experimental artists Jethro Tull, Spooky Tooth, Free, King Crimson, and Mott the Hoople also released notable material on the label during the late 1960s and early 1970s, while folk-rock troubadours such as Cat Stevens, Nick Drake, Fairport Convention and John Martyn were also groomed in its stable. As styles shifted in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Island made a new-wave diva out of Grace Jones and revived the career of Marianne Faithful, helping to launch the world-music craze through exceptional releases by African artists King Sunny Adé, Baaba Maal and Anjelique Kidjo. And the label was also responsible for the rock phenomenon that is U2, one of the most successful acts of all time.
Island Records’ founder, Chris Blackwell, although born and educated in London, spent his formative years in Jamaica, and identifies strongly as a Jamaican.  His mother, Blanche Lindo, was part of the family that controlled the Wray and Nephew rum firm, while his father, Joe Blackwell, was distantly related to the head of the Crosse and Blackwell foods company. Following Chris’s dismissal from an elite English public school for selling alcohol to fellow students, a job was secured for him at accounting firm Price Waterhouse Coopers, but the jazz-mad youth had other intentions. After a brief spell as assistant to Governor General Sir Hugh Foote and a stint running the water-ski concession at the Half Moon Hotel, he founded Island Records in 1959 to capture the magic of Jamaica’s expanding music scene.

Island’s first releases featured the hotel’s resident pianist, a blind Bermudan called Lance Heywood, followed swiftly by a handful of singles with upcoming Kingston-based vocalists.

“I used to go to shows in Jamaica, and on one of the shows, there was an artist called Wilfred ‘Jackie’ Edwards who sang a lot like Brooke Benton, and I loved Brooke Benton, so I just felt that I’d like to record him,” Blackwell explains.  “I think any of us who love music, we want to get as close to it as we can, so that was my way of getting as close to the music as possible.

“I recorded Wilfred Edwards, Owen Gray and Laurel Aitken, pressed the records at the pressing plant and took them around to sell them; I also managed 63 jukeboxes for somebody else, so I used to travel around Jamaica putting records in the jukeboxes, arguing with the people who owned the little bars or clubs as to what records should go in.

“Then, in 1962, Jamaica became independent, and I thought that, in view of my complexion, I’d be more associated with the past than the future of Jamaica. Plus there were other people making records in Jamaica like Coxsone, Beverley’s, Duke Reid, and their records were much better than the records that I was making.

“So I decided that it made sense for me to go to England to represent my competitors. Other than Prince Buster, all of them gave me their records to release in England, and that’s basically how I started.”

After scoring a worldwide smash hit with Millie Small’s “My Boy Lollipop”, Blackwell had enough ready cash to begin signing artists to Island. One of the earliest was Jimmy Cliff.

“Jimmy Cliff is one of the really great artists from out of Jamaica, and we tried really hard to break Jimmy Cliff in England,” Blackwell laments.  “I brought him over to England, and we just couldn’t find the song that would break him.  Then Jimmy went off to Brazil for a song festival, and on the way back, he made a record called Wonderful World, Beautiful People, which I consider the first album conceived as an album in Jamaica. It had really, really great songs on it, but it just didn’t happen.

“And in fact, he left Island a couple of weeks before I met Bob Marley and the Wailers, because he felt that we hadn’t really given him the success that he felt he should get.”
The arrival of the Wailers in 1972 was a pivotal moment that changed the course of music history forever.

“When I first met Bunny, Peter and Bob, the three of them walked in like kings, in spite of the fact that they were stranded in England at that time. The three of them had a tremendous charisma and power, and that was amazing, so I was immediately taken by them.

“And I was not really doing much in Jamaican music at that particular time with Island Records, because I was much more involved with rock music, but my heart was always in Jamaica and Jamaican music, so this just seemed like a great opportunity, to have this kind of black rock band.”

By marketing the Wailers in this way, Island was eventually able to bring reggae to a new audience, particularly during the later half of the 1970s. By the end of that decade, Blackwell had opened a studio of his own in the Bahamas called Compass Point, forming an innovative house band by pairing Jamaican drum and bass duo Sly and Robbie with African keyboardist Wally Badarou and English guitarist Barry Reynolds. The resultant futuristic sound made major stars out of Grace Jones and Black Uhuru.

“I put together a studio in Nassau because Nassau is like a blank canvas. It has little or no character to it, but it’s a very good place to go and work, if you have done all your own creativity where you live.

“The band that I put together was particularly for Grace Jones, because I felt that Grace needed to be projected as a kind of new-wave artist, rather than a disco queen as she had been before, and I felt to get the right kind of sound, I needed a Jamaican rhythm section and a European mid-range, so I put together the band – and from the very first track, it just gelled.”
Since he grew disillusioned with the machinations of the music industry, Blackwell has concentrated on his chain of boutique hotels and other ventures, although he is still involved with the Bob Marley Estate and the careers of artists such as Baaba Maal. But it was perhaps inevitable that he would retreat once Island was no longer independent.

“A major company is pretty much ruled by the stock markets, and as such, it’s not really suited to the music business, or any business which is to do with art. If I had a job as an A&R man at a record company, I would get fired…I had a different approach and it worked for me with my own company, but it probably couldn’t work for somebody who had a job.”

However, after a series of recent live events in London highlighting Island’s incredible legacy, further celebrations are being considered, including a gala to be held in Jamaica in November.

Blackwell remains rightly proud of what he achieved with the label, though he gives the ultimate praise to the talent behind his label’s product.

“It’s so fantastic to see how this music started in Jamaica, a little tiny island, and this music has gone everywhere in the world. If you think what Jamaica has produced, Jamaica has changed the whole course of music; there’s just been so much invention that has come from Jamaica, so much creativity, and sure, I played a part in it, in that I released it in England and it became wider and wider. But it’s really what Jamaica has produced and the people themselves in Jamaica which has made it great – it could not have happened otherwise.”

Ten of the greatest original Island reggae releases:

The Harder They Come various artists
Film soundtrack featuring Jimmy Cliff, Toots and the Maytals, Desmond Dekker, the Melodians, and more

Catch A Fire Bob Marley and the Wailers
The beginning of the Wailers’ international phase

Marcus Garvey Burning Spear
Deep roots music, led by Winston Rodney’s emotive voice, tackling the themes of liberation, historical injustices, and the black icon of self-determination who gave the set its title

Blackheart Man Bunny Wailer
Bunny’s magnus opus, a meditation on his Rastafari faith

Super Ape The Upsetters
A stunning work from Lee Perry’s Black Ark studio that straddles the realms of standard vocal recordings and the dub remix

96 Degrees in the Shade Third World
Complex roots reggae with fine harmonies, great lyrics and supreme musicianship

Handsworth Revolution Steel Pulse
Fantastic debut by one of the greatest British reggae groups

Forces of Victory Linton Kwesi Johnson
Hard-hitting political poetry set to the solid, intricate backing of reggae maestro Dennis Bovell

Live and Direct Aswad
Great recording of the band in live action at the peak of their powers, recorded at the 1983 Notting Hill Carnival

Anthem Black Uhuru
The first reggae album to win a Grammy

Ten of the greatest Island compilations:

Tougher than Tough: The Story of Jamaican MusicDefinitive box set tracing reggae’s evolution

Lee Scratch Perry: Arkology
An in-depth guide to Mr Perry’s sonic genius

Bob Marley and the Wailers: Songs of Freedom
Box set of Marley & Company classics spanning his entire career

Black Uhuru: Liberation – the Island Anthology
Double disc guide to Uhuru’s best work

Linton Kwesi Johnson: Independent Intavenshan
CD set with the cream of LKJ’s crop

Grace Jones
: Private Life – the Compass Point Sessions
The diva’s finest moments, driven by Sly and Robbie’s complex beats

War Inna Babylon: An Island Reggae Anthology
Three CDs tracing 50 years of Island reggae

Island Life: 50 Years of Island Records
Overall compilation of the entire label’s output

Strangely Strange but Oddly Normal: An Island Records Anthology
Island’s oddball rock sounds

Meet on the Ledge
: Island Records Folk Box Set
Collecting the label’s folk output.