Music icon Chris Blackwell: How I met Bob Marley, why I never signed Elton


When it comes to rock and roll, the London-born Chris Blackwell, 84, is a familiar name. As the founder of Island Records, the label he established in Jamaica in 1959 and England in 1962, Blackwell has propelled a long list of music icons into fame: Robert Palmer, Melissa Etheridge, The Cranberries, U2, Bob Marley and many more.

Others know Blackwell as the patriarch of GoldenEye, author Ian Fleming’s famed home where he wrote all of the James Bond novels — now a luxury resort and celebrity hideaway.

In fact, before music, Blackwell got his professional start in the travel industry more than four decades ago when he worked as a waterski instructor at Half Moon resort in Montego Bay, Jamaica.

He went on to own and run properties in Miami and the Bahamas. He still runs Strawberry Hill, in Jamaica’s Blue Mountains and the Caves set on a clifftop in Negril, while splitting his time between the island and NYC.

Now, Blackwell’s storied carrier working with the world’s most famous artists is being chronicled in a memoir: “The Islander: My Life in Music and Beyond” (out June 7 and available to pre-order now).

Blackwell, who is a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, spoke to The Post about his ventures in hospitality and recording and discovering the stars whose songs we all sing out loud.


You’re know for GoldenEye but you’ve always worked Jamaica’s travel industry?

The Island Records founder first came to Jamaica as a teenager.
Mark Sagliocco/GC Images

My cousin John Pringle opened Round Hill in Montego Hill in the 1950s, which attracted an elite crowd right away because of his wide network of friends. Noel Coward came to stay, and so did the Kennedy family before John became president.

I was a teenager at the time and so impressed by the whole set up that I was inspired to get into hotels.  I started by teaching waterski lessons to guests at Half Moon, which was near Round Hill. At the same time, air travel to Jamaica picked up, and Montego Bay was becoming popular with tourists. I loved the energy.

Isn’t it your hotel work that led to your music career?

Yes. Bands would play at the restaurants and bars on the weekends at both Round Hill and Half Moon, and I was drawn to their music, especially jazz. One time a band from Bermuda came to play at Half Moon that had a blind pianist. A couple of drinks in one afternoon, I told them that I wanted to record them. I knew nothing about recording, but that was the rum talking.

A few days later, we drove to Kingston, which was three hours away, and went to a recording studio. After that experience, I started going to concerts and recording different Jamaican bands who I liked. That was the how Island Records began.

After devoting more than 20 years to music and leaving hotels behind, you dipped your toe back in again in the early 1980s. Why?

Chris Blackwell at Compass Point (Bahamas) Studio with engineer Steven Stanley (far right).
Chris Blackwell at his Compass Point, Bahamas, studio with renowned Jamaican audio engineer Steven Stanley (far right).

I was going to Miami to meet a singer from Detroit and I was shocked at how run down all the hotels were in the city. I saw this derelict hotel in Miami Beach that was for sale and spontaneously decided to buy it. I had just met the fashion designer Barbara Hulanicki who was designing the costumes for this singer and asked her if she wanted to do the interiors. She agreed. That property was called the Marlin and among the first nice hotels to open in Miami Beach. I ended up buying and running seven more properties there including the Tides and the Leslie.

They thrived throughout the 80s, but I eventually became frustrated with how things ran: you had to close the properties every time a hurricane was in the forecast. I sold the hotels and moved to the Bahamas where I opened two hotels in Nassau: Pink Sands and Compass Point.

I was still running Island Records, so I built a recording a studio there. Robert Palmer recorded his hit “Addicted to Love” in it.  

You still own three hotels in Jamaica. What makes them unique?

Exterior of the GoldenEye resort.
Blackwell’s GoldenEye resort was the onetime home of James Bond-creator Ian Fleming.
Christian Horan Photography / is

Strawberry Hill is 3,100 feet up in the mountains and stunningly beautiful. The Caves has just 15 rooms and is right on the sea in Negril. You can jump from the cliffs there right into the ocean.

GoldenEye is famous for being Ian Fleming’s home and where he wrote all the James Bond books. The beauty of property is its simplicity. It has more than 60 rooms and four different beaches and is one big open space. There are no corridors, and you feel very free.

You knew Fleming personally. Where did you meet him, and what was he like?

English writer Ian Fleming (1908 - 1964), best known for his James Bond novels, in his study at Goldeneye, his home in Saint Mary Parish, Jamaica.
Author Ian Fleming and his dogs at his GoldenEye estate in 1964.
Harry Benson/Express/Getty Images

Fleming first came to Jamaica in the late 1940s when I was around nine or 10.  My uncle, who was a writer for the local paper, met him through a mutual friend, and the two of them became close friends. I was in boarding school in England but used to see him when I was home from school holidays.

He was very warm and very disciplined. He followed the same routine daily: a long swim, then breakfast, then hours of writing while locked up in his bedroom. He would emerge at 1:30 for lunch and go back to more writing.

You’re brought so many stars to fame. Who is the most memorable?

It has to be the first person I discovered: Millie Small, who grew up on a sugar estate in Jamaica. She had the most unique high-pitched voice, and I brought her over to England in 1964 to record “My Boy Lollipop.” It ended up being a huge hit and made her very famous.

Suddenly, I catapulted from becoming the guy who was running around London trying to sell Jamaican music to the guy who was in television studios with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

Tell us about discovering Bob Marley.

Chris Blackwell with (l-r) Junior Marvin, Bob Marley & Jacob Miller, en route to Brazil, 1980.
Blackwell with (left to right) Junior Marvin, Bob Marley and Jacob Miller, en route to Brazil in 1980. Blackwell says he met Marley by chance in London after lending him a spot of cash.

I was in London working when Bob Marley and the Wailers went to Scandinavia to record a movie, but it fell through. They had no tickets or money to get back to Jamaica and ended up in London. A friend asked me to help them get home. I loaned them money, and we instantly connected. They did a record for me, and that was the beginning.

What do hotels and music have in common? 

Both industries are about entertainment and meeting people.

Who stands out to you the most among all the rock stars you’ve met and why?

Maybe Elton John. We met in London well before he was famous. He was the most incredible songwriter but very shy. I made the mistake of thinking that he wouldn’t be someone who would be very strong on stage. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

But among the musicians I’ve worked with, I never got to know anyone too personally. I’m more of a loner and most content alone.



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