Chris Blackwell has led a charmed life. Born into wealth he has a fascinating genealogy. The BBC could produce an entire series of Who Do You Think You Are? on the Blackwell clan. Following his parents’ divorce his mother became close to Ian Fleming around the time he was writing the James Bond novels. The connection with Fleming gave Blackwell the opportunity to work as a production assistant on the first Bond film, Dr. No.
Although Blackwell had a privileged colonial upbringing on Jamaica he witnessed appalling injustices inflicted on some of the poorest natives. These experiences left a deep impression on young Blackwell. He became rebellious and restless, embracing different cultures and eccentric personalities, qualities that subsequently served him well in the music business.
Like most serial entrepreneurs he is an individualist and not afraid to go against the grain. He has the humility to acknowledge that an element of good fortune and good timing contributed towards his success. The good fortune, for instance, to accidentally stumble across a young Steve Winwood performing with the Spencer Davis Group at a small Birmingham pub in 1964. The recruitment of Winwood became pivotal to the growth of Island Records and helped attract other talented artists to the label.
Blackwell didn’t always have the Midas touch though. He passed up the opportunity to sign a shy singer-songwriter whom he felt didn’t have much of a future as a performing artist. Shortly thereafter Reg Dwight morphed into Elton John to become one of the biggest stars of the following decade. In 1968 Blackwell narrowly missed out signing Led Zeppelin and also passed on Pink Floyd, Dire Straits and Madonna.
The book contains numerous entertaining anecdotes. In 1969 Cat Stevens auditioned for an ambivalent Blackwell who was about to turn him down when he played a stunning new song called Father and Son. At the time Stevens was unhappily locked into a contract with Decca and keen to leave. Blackwell suggested Stevens issue Decca with an ultimatum. His next album would be a classic but in order to make it he needed the works. A full orchestra with choir, a large recording budget, and so on. The horrified suits at Decca took the bait. Thinking Stevens had completely lost the plot they dropped him like a stone and Decca’s loss became Island’s gain.
As for Free approximately half of Chapter 8 is devoted to his time with the band. Blackwell recalls their reluctance to accept a radio-friendly edit of All Right Now and dismay at having to appear and mine on Top of the Pops. Blackwell sensed he had a hit on his hands, stood his ground and was ultimately vindicated as ARN shot up the charts across the globe. After hanging out with Miles Davis he had acquired a taste for fast cars and used some of the profits from ARN to treat himself to a new Mercedes sports car.
Blackwell gives the impression Free were often in turmoil and liable to implode at any point. Things came to a head in May 1969 when an increasingly isolated Paul Kossoff became fed up of being bossed around by the younger 16-year-old Andy Fraser. A disillusioned Kossoff discreetly auditioned for Jethro Tull and The Rolling Stones. Blackwell cottoned on to this and tactfully had a quiet word with Kossoff behind the scenes persuading him to stay on thereby keeping Free alive. Phew!
If Blackwell hadn’t intervened and held the band together at such a critical point, the only recorded output of Free on Island Records would be Tons of Sobs and the Broad Daylight single. There would have been no Fire and Water, Highway or Free Live! and you wouldn’t be streaming the likes of Heavy Load, Be My Friend and Mr. Big Live. It’s almost unimaginable.
There are a few factual errors in the book. ARN was not conceived at Durham University in March 1970. Free didn’t play any gigs at Durham University during March 1970 by which time they were already in Trident Studios recording the song. In numerous interviews throughout 1970 both Andy Fraser and Paul Rodgers said the bad gig happened at Manchester. And of course Free initially split up in 1971, not 1970 as stated.
Some of the most interesting parts of the autobiography are the final few chapters and cover the financial difficulties Island encountered during the mid-1980’s. A potential crisis was averted when U2 wisely agreed to take a minority stake in Island in lieu of royalties owed. Blackwell realised it was time to exit and after the enormous success of U2’s The Joshua Tree he sold Island to PolyGram in 1989. Quite a journey from the days of driving around London selling 45’s from the boot of his Mini to the various Jamaican communities.
Blackwell will most likely be remembered in the music industry for his association with Bob Marley, Cat Stevens, Grace Jones and U2. To my mind though the golden age of Island Records will always be synonymous with Guy Stevens, pink label pressings, the front cover of the LP You Can All Join In, and the emergence of Steve Winwood, John Martyn, Traffic, Jethro Tull, Nick Drake, Spooky Tooth, Fairport Convention, Mott The Hoople and Free. What an incredible roster of artists and what a legacy.
Arise, Sir Christopher!