The Sound of Young Jamaica
Motown wasn’t the only label to launch in 1959 that would revolutionize black pop music. But the label in question had its greatest impact in two different countries.
Like Berry Gordy, Chris Blackwell always had a bit of the hustler in him. Blackwell, the son of a wealthy Jamaican landowner, had scuffed around for a bit in his youth, soaking up the jazz in New York City for a bit, before taking a government job back home. When the government leadership changed Blackwell was left out of a job, so he turned to making something of the music he’d been hearing across the island.
Back then, in the late ‘50s, Jamaican pop music was still heavily indebted to American R&B, but there were some traces of the island’s own pop music identity beginning to emerge. Blackwell started an enterprise, Island Records (named for the book and movie Island in the Sun, to record some of the new sounds, starting with Laurel Aitken’s “Boogie in My Bones”.
The business was decidedly small-scale for a couple of years, until Blackwell moved to England in 1962. That just so happened to be the year Jamaica received its independence from the UK, and its music started to shed its American flava began to sound like, well, the Jamaican pop music the world has been digging ever since.
The Island sides Blackwell pressed while in Jamaica did a decent trade there, but attracted more of a following among Jamaicans who had immigrated to England and were eager for reminders of their native culture. So when Blackwell hopped across the pond, he took his business (and contacts with some well-placed figures in the Jamaican music scene) with him.
Things took off in 1964 with Millie Small’s worldwide hit “My Boy Lollipop” (which Blackwell licensed to a larger label that could manage the volume). Blackwell continued to document and market the busy Jamaican music scene, as the sound evolved from jaunty ska to poppy rock steady, to slowed-down, dreaded-out reggae.
He also branched out into rock, starting with a connection he’d made while promoting Small. At a taping of a British TV show, Blackwell met a teenaged Stevie Winwood, then starring with the Spencer Davis group. When Winwood formed his own band, Traffic, in 1967, Blackwell signed it up. Island went on to record a diverse line-up of British rock acts, as well as distribute acts on smaller labels. The burgeoning catalogue ranged from the proto-arena rock of Free, to the proto-glam of Mott the Hoople, to prog rock pioneers King Crimson, to folkies Fairport Convention, and from them Richard Thompson. Island’s bonafides as an artist-friendly, forward-thinking label stem from this wing of the operation.
But it was reggae music that kept the cash coming in – and soon in a bigger way than anyone had conceived. In 1972, Island financed a movie about a struggling Jamaican singer running up against the shady side of the business, The Harder They Come. The film was a minor hit on the American midnight movie circuit, but the soundtrack of songs written for the movie and recent Jamaican hits found an audience among young Americans looking for post-hippie era thrills, and made a global superstar of lead performer Jimmy Cliff.
Also that year, Blackwell came to the aid of Jamaica’s top band when they found themselves stranded in England without money to get back home. The Wailers – Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer at the time – had done everything they felt they could have done within Jamaican confines by then, and had struck out on various plans to reach the international market. Blackwell signed them up promptly, and saw in their sound an opportunity.
To their dark, dubby demo of songs like “Concrete Jungle” and “Stir It Up”, he added sweeteners – guitar solos, electric keyboards – to help catch the ear of American rock audiences. The result – 1973’s Catch a Fire—grabbed a foothold among some hippies, stoners and, most importantly, a handful of FM deejays back when they had a lot more freedom (and were expected to use it) in choosing what to play. The Wailers became Bob Marley and the Wailers after Tosh and Wailer left, and the rest became history.
Throughout the ‘70s Island became virtually synonymous with reggae music in America. Marley’s growing success opened the floodgates for the entire country, and the label put out essential music from just about every major artist of note, from Lee “Scratch” Perry to Gregory Isaacs, from the Heptones to Black Uhuru. Island also branched afield from Jamaica to release collections of pop music from Africa; 1982’s Juju Music introduced America to Nigerian superstar King Sunny Ade, helping to establish the “world music” section of your favorite music store.
Island also managed to keep its finger on the pulse of rock, with punk-era releases from the B-52s, Ultravox and the Slits, among others. But their superstar rock signing came in 1980 – a scrappy Irish quartet named U2. Years later, when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Bono said that had it not been for Blackwell’s confidence in them they would not have made it to even a second album.
In 1989, one year after Gordy cashed out of Motown, Blackwell did the same at Island (although he stayed around in an advisory capacity for another decade). Today, Island is just another name in a string of merged little guys into one faceless corporate conglomerate (Island Def Jam Music Group); its American website features not one reference to Blackwell or Island’s storied history. But Island’s historic catalogue of artists is mindblowingly extensive, and probably has a higher quotient of multi-genre, eclectic coolness than any other label. (What other current or former indie imprint can claim the likes of both Nick Drake and Eric B. & Rakim, or Grace Jones and Amy Winehouse?)
Island’s 50th anniversary is a non-event in America, but it’s big deal in Europe, with a coffee-table book, reissue packages, art exhibit, a tribute concert of Island artists at the Montreux Jazz Festival, and a website which features what may be the current Internet’s hippest streaming jukebox. Blackwell, far from his days selling 45s from his trunk, is widely recognized as one of the most important figures in British pop music history.
Yet for all of Marley’s brilliance, and the astonishing level of music that came from Jamaica in its first two decades of independence, it can be argued that part of the groundwork for the acceptance of pop music from a tiny black island in the Caribbean came from something else that started in ’59: a full appreciation of the power of the drum.
// Notes from the Road
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