Island Records, the legendary label founded by Chris Blackwell in Jamaica on July 4, 1959 with a series of local reggae hits, continued its yearlong 60th anniversary celebration on Saturday with an afternoon reception at the Grammy Museum in downtown Los Angeles. Blackwell and current Island Records President Darcus Beese sat for a wide-ranging conversation with Grammy Museum executive director Bob Santelli about the fabled, artist-friendly label – known as the home of Bob Marley, U2, Traffic, Amy Winehouse and Shawn Mendes.
The London-born, but Jamaica-raised Blackwell, who started the label with a $10,000 loan from his parents, began by selling soul and R&B records he bought for 46 cents in the U.K. to competitive Jamaican sound systems for 200 GBP apiece. His first No. 1 Jamaican, two-sided hit was Laurel Aitkens’ “Boogie in my Bones” with “Little Stella” on the B-side, but his real breakthrough came in 1964, when he recorded a 15-year-old Jamaican singer named Millie Smalls he’d heard on a sound system, having her record a high-pitched version of “My Boy Lollipop,” a global hit that went on to sell more than six million copies. “Her parents just let her come to London to record the song with me,” says Blackwell laconically. “She was only 16.”
Blackwell recalls hearing Bob Marley for the first time singing a song called “One Cup of Coffee” on a compilation from producer Leslie Kong, but remembers it was listed under the name Robert Morley, which he mistook for the portly British actor. “It was only later on, I was introduced to Bob, Bunny and Peter when they were in London by their manager Brent Clarke,” though he had previously licensed several of their recordings from sound system giant Coxsone Dodd.
Beese, who marked his own one-year anniversary in the post this past July after replacing David Massey and moving from London to New York, is a label lifer. He recalled how he started out as a “tea-boy” for the promotions department (“That’s what we called interns in England… I brewed a mean pot”) before finding his calling in A&R, going on to sign Amy Winehouse, Florence & the Machine, Dizzee Rascal and Jessie J. “I was standing on top of this floor-to-ceiling, rolling ladder entering the radio adds on a white board, but I had to climb down to introduce myself,” he recalled of his first meeting with Blackwell during a visit the label founder made to the London office.
A keen A&R man himself, Beese described chasing down Amy Winehouse’s manager for an opportunity to bid to sign the singer, who was fully committed to being a jazz artist at the start. Blackwell nodded when explaining jazz remains his own favorite music genre through the years, telling Santelli how he discovered a young Stevie Winwood, hearing his high-pitched version of Ray Charles emerge from a bar in Birmingham, U.K. while on a business trip. Winwood, as a member of Spencer Davis Group and then Traffic, helped mark Island’s successful transition as a home for left-of-center rock in the late ‘60s and ‘70s that continued with the likes of U2, PJ Harvey, The Killers and Florence & the Machine. “Of course, we’re always looking for the microwave-ready pop hits, but there’s always room for real artists with vision at Island Records,” concluded Beese with an appreciative nod to his predecessor.
Beese reiterated how committed Island remains to Blackwell’s original artist-centric vision, introducing new Grammy nominee (Best Urban Contemporary Album for her “Being Human in Public” EP) Jessie Reyez, a 28-year-old of Colombian descent from Toronto, who has collaborated with the likes of Calvin Harris and Eminem. Her performance included a soaring version of Willie Nelson’s “Crazy,” made famous by Patsy Cline, and the 2017 track, “Gatekeeper,” a searing “#MeToo” anthem which excoriates the entertainment industry and had the crowd gasping with astonishment before rising to their feet.
Afterwards, guests lined up to get their picture with the scruffy, still rakishly handsome Blackwell, while young Beese looked on with admiration.