May 23rd 2023 was an amazing evening in Vinterträdgården at Grand Hotel in Stockholm.
Chris Blackwell received the prize from the hands of HM King Carl XVI Gustaf and was honored by Desmond Foster performing Bob Marley & The Wailer’s “Stir it up" at the Ceremony.
In his thank you speech Chris Blackwell said: ”My hope is that we all continue to make music, to use music as a shared human endeavour that evokes joy and delight, and connects communities and generations together in a language of harmony. That I hope, is my legacy. With all those I have worked with, over the last 50 years.”
Yusuf Islam and Chris Blackwell at welcoming lunch on May 22.
2023's Laureates: Michael Pärt representing his father Arvo Pärt, Angélique Kidjo and Chris Blackwell.
The following banquet featured several musical performances in honor of Chris Blackwell. Also in attendance at the 2023 ceremony was Yusuf Islam/Cat Stevens and Roxy Music’s Phil Manzanera, two of the era-defining acts on Island Records, signed to the label by Chris Blackwell in the seventies.
Benjamin Ingrosso did a special version of ”Wild world”, Daniela Rathana did her own take on Grace Jones’ ”Pull up to the bumper”, Anna Ternheim did Roxy Music’s ”Love is the drug”, Deportees represented U2 with ”With or without you” and Joshua Idehen honored both Blackwell and Kidjo with Talking heads’ ”Once in a lifetime” from the album ”Remain in light” that was recorded at Chris’ Compass Studios in 1980.
Thank you for the music, Chris!
More photos and clips from the evening on Flickr and Youtube.
Christopher Blackwell was born in London, UK in 1937. His parents lived in Jamaica and brought him back there 6 months after his birth.
Chris mother, Blanche Lindo, grew up on the island, her family ran numerous businesses in Jamaica, among them Jamaica’s most celebrated rum distillery. They were notable social figures; visiting dignitaries and local politicians were regulars at Lindo dinners, with Noel Coward, Errol Flynn, and Ian Fleming who Chris got to know well during his childhood.
The "James Bond Beach" in the north parts of Jamaica
Ian Fleming, a friend of the family. (Source: Wikimedia Commons/Fair use)
Due to some health issues with asthma, Chris stayed at home alone as a child and got to know his surroundings and the Jamaicans working at his house very well. This way he got immersed early on in Jamaican culture.
Street in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1955.
At 6 years old he was eventually sent back to England, to go to school for a short period, his family on his mother’s side being strict about him getting a true Catholic education.
But school wasn’t his favorite place and he went back to Jamaica again at the age of 7.
For college the UK school system was tried out again this time at Harrow, a posh public school. Here he was introduced to jazz. Once again, it didn’t work out as his principal said ”I believe Christopher will be happier elsewhere” which of course was true. So he came back to the island once again and started to do several smaller jobs, exploring the island, its culture, its food, its music.
Keep On Running: 50 Years Of Island Records
”Jamaica became the loudest island on earth, with ever-larger crowds gathering for showdowns between the systems”
– Chris Blackwell, The Islander, 2022
Jamaica in the 50s was not yet all about music. Most of its inhabitants were poor and couldn’t afford radios or other sources for music, that’s how alternative ways of listening to music in public appeared.
One one hand, jukeboxes made their place in restaurants and bars. Chris Blackwell did early on see the opportunities there, leasing 63 jukeboxes from a friend working for Wurlitzer. He paced all around Jamaica to supply the boxes with new records which became one important source for dissemination of new music, mostly American.
Wurlitzer jukebox, 1950s
The setting up of a (more modern) sound system in Negril, Jamaica (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
On the other hand, the sound systems developed at outdoors block parties all around the island. A sound system often involved a ”selector”, selecting the tunes to play and later on toasters, or dee-jays, who spoke/sang live on the records played.
The sound systems created their own uprising sound system stars such as Duke Reid, Sir Coxsone Dodd, ”King” Edwards the Giant. Some of them would also produce and release records. It started by speakers hanging in the trees and then moved towards constructed mobile walls of amplifiers and gear moving around, setting up parties anywhere. Chris started to hang out at these parties, which in one way were his mainly competitor in getting people to listen to new music. He also sold some of the records he would import to the sound system selectors. The hunt for the latest and most unique record had started.
Clement Seymour "Coxsone" Dodd (1932–2004), record producer and sound system pioneer
It was ruthless, and as I discovered, the helter-skelter cutthroat nature of doing business with the sound systems was the best training for working in the record business.
– Chris Blackwell, The Islander, 2022
Chris Blackwell became more and more curious in the whole business of records, how they were recorded and manufactured. At the time Blackwell had several smaller jobs, among others as a diving instructor at a hotel in Montego Bay. One night, he heard jazz pianist Lance Hayward playing at the hotel and just knew he wanted his music to be recorded and released.
He offered to Hayward to record and release his music. He found a studio in Kingston he could more or less manage technically, and recorded and released the first-ever Island record in 1959: Lance Hayward at the Half moon hotel.
The name of the label was taken from a Harry Belafonte movie: Island in the sun. He rapidly opened an office in Kingston and got at string of local hits.
Cover art of the first ever Island release.
Poster for the "Island in the sun" movie, 1959
In 1962, Chris moved Island Records to London, following the migration of its biggest and most enthusiastic audience, the Caribbean people who, themselves, were immigrating to England.
In 1964, Chris produced Millie Small from Jamaica singing "My Boy Lollipop." The single sold 7 million copies worldwide and 15-year-old Millie became the first Jamaican ever to have an international hit.
During promotional tours in England with Millie Blackwell met and signed Steve Winwood, who had just formed the Spencer Davis Group. Their first hit was actually a version from another of Blackwell’s artists, Keep on running with Jackie Edwards. Keep on run-in made a huge success in both the UK and the US. Chris and Steve would continue to work together for decades.
Millie Small arriving to the Netherlands in 1965.
The late 60s would be a period of successful releases with both Jamaican, British, and American acts, creating an international label constantly joining continents, and making Jamaican music known all over the world, ska, reggae, rocksteady...Such eclectic artists such as Desmond Dekker, Jimmy Cliff, Fairport Convention, Bob & Earl, Jethro Tull, King Crimson, Mott the Hoople and Nick Drake would all find a common home on the label.
Through Island Records, Chris would also introduce the world to the sounds of Toots and the Maytals, Burning Spear, Third World and Black Uhuru. It was thanks to Chris' love of the African sound that later on, musicians like King Sunny Ade, fellow Polar Music Prize Laureate of 2023 Angélique Kidjo and Baaba Maal now have fans the world over.
60 Years of Island Records
Toots & the Maytals, ca 1976. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Blackwell also expanded his visions across other mediums, including film with the production of The Harder They Come, starring singer Jimmy Cliff in 1972.
It tells the story of a Jamaican gangster, with a soundtrack featuring Jimmy Cliff, Desmond Dekker, the Maytals…The film was a huge success in Jamaica as it depicted Jamaicans and life in Kingston in a realistic way, and it would have an impact on the rest of the world being an all Jamaican production, and the soundtrack would help introduce reagge on a large scale in the United States.
Other films would follow: Kiss of the Spiderwoman, and The Trip to Bountiful among others.
Soundtrack to "The harder they come"
As soon as he sang the opening line ”It’s not time to make a change...”, everything changed.
– Chris Blackwell, The Islander, 2022
He met Cat Stevens after he released his second album in 1969, mainly because his manager kept calling and calling. Blackwell had not been a fan of Stevens’ first releases, so he had no expectations at all. When he played ”Father and son” Blackwell was hooked and helped him out of his deal with the Decca label to start releasing him on Island records.
The first Island album ” Mona Bone Jakon” was released in 1970 and they would work together until he officially changed his name to Yusuf and would fully embrace islam by the end of the 70s, leaving the artist name Cat Stevens behind.
Cat Stevens on Dutch TV in 1966 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Chris’ influence on popular music owes to his Jamaican roots. It’s what gave him the ears, so to speak, to hear artists with world-changing potential, like the great Bob Marley, who Chris signed to Island in 1973. In 1972 Blackwell met Bob Marley and the Wailers for the first time. Marley, Peter Tosh and Bonnie Wailer were (actually) in Sweden for a project and stopped in London on their way back to Jamaica. As Jimmy Cliff had just left Islands shortly before their first meeting, Blackwell says he almost saw it as a sign that the Wailers walked in through his door at the same time.
Combining his vision of bringing Jamaican music to the world combined with his competent marketing ideas, he saw the Wailers as a rock band, that should firstly target college students in the US if they wanted to be played on US radio. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Bob Marley live in 1980
Peter Tosh in 1978 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Bunny Wailer in 2014 (Source: Wikimedia Commons/Public domain)
The first album collaboration with Island would be Catch a fire, recorded in Jamaica and finalized in London. Several iconic albums would follow, both with the Wailers and Bob Marley solo, up until the sad passing of Marley in 1981.
Tosh and Wailer left the Wailers in 1974.
Bob Marley & The Wailers would become, and still are, global icons and a symbol for reggae music and Jamaica.
The back of the first edition of the Catch a fire-album, designed as a zippo lighter. (Source: Wikimedia Commons / Fair Use)
Chris Blackwell took on a new adventure by the end of the 70s, building Compass point studios in Nassau, Bahamas. He wished to create a space where musicians could come and focus only on their music, he’d learned that the best creative processes were done in remote spaces far from day-to-day life and business.
He created Compass Point as a ”studio resort” with a high-tech studio for composing and recording, and hospitality facilities for the musician to stay and enjoy the surroundings during the breaks. It would also be the beginning of his interest in the hospitality business.
Talking Heads, The Stones and Dire Straits are all bands who recorded in Compass Studios from 1977 and on and Blackwell built an in house ”dream ensemble” as he says himself, permitting artists to get access to mixtures of disco, jazz, blues, reggae and electronics when recording at Compass Point – The Compass Point All Stars
Island Studios opened in Nassau, Bahamas, in 1977 and closed in 2010.
The Talking Heads, Remain in light, 1980
Robert Palmer, Riptide, 1985
The Rolling Stones, Emotional rescue, 1980
Björk's Post was partially recorded at Compass Point
Chris Blackwell met Grace Jones in 1976, in the middle of New York’s Studio 54 disco era. Jones , also from Jamaica, was a model, a performer and an artist with a strong visual expression already, all at once. She had released disco albums, and Blackwell added some more Jamaican ”roots” to the music, the ”heavy militant Jamaican bass and drum” he says in ”The Islander.”
Sly & Robbie, whom he had signed as a producer duo and not as artists, were invited to the project to give it more of a Jamaican sound, without losing the mysticism and cool darkness that could be found in Grace Jones' artistry.
Together with producer Wally Banadou with both Parisian and West African roots and the All Stars band put together by Sly & Robbie, two classic albums were recorded at Compass Point - Warm Leatherette and Nightclubbing.
In parallell the Compass Point All Stars band was created, playing on many recordings that would be made in the studios.
Grace Jones in 1984 (Source: Photo by Gary Friedman, Digital Library UCLA / Wikimedia Commons)
Maybe now and then we play backgammon. She is the fiercest of opponents. And the funniest. We’re friends now, more than friends. Family.
– Chris Blackwell on his friendship with Grace Jones, The Islander, 2022
Blackwell signed a young and unknown Irish band playing in a pub in Southern London on the same night Bob Marley just had sung "Redemption song” for the first time live, in the same city. Blackwell and the band seemed to silently agree on the fact that U2 already knew where they were heading and Island was a perfect partner letting them go there by their own means. Blackwell still to this day talks about them not really needing any creative help, but a platform where they could develop their ideas. He wasn’t even so keen on the idea of letting Brian Eno produce them he explains in The Islander, which eventually turned out to be an amazing collaboration on ”The unforgettable fire” and several following albums.
Island released all U2’s albums in the 1980s and the 1990s, which huge successes such as The Unforgettable fire, The Joshua Tree, Rattle and Hum, Achtung Baby, Zooropa…that made U2 become one of the 20th century’s greatest rock bands worldwide.
The Joshua Tree, released in March 1987, U2's first number one-album.
Bono on the Zoo TV tour, live in Cleveland 1992. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Due to financial and emotional reasons, Chris Blackwell ended up selling Island Records to PolyGram in 1989. As he says in his biography: ”if we got too big we lost what we were, if we stayed small, we weren’t making progress.” Blackwell was involved for a couple of years to run the label and became more and more interested in his idea of opening hotels in Jamaica. After the Compass Point studio years, he wished to recreate places where people could meet and mix.
Finally he started in South Beach, Miami, buying old buildings and giving them their glamour back, some with great restaurants, bars, and a record studio, all inspired by Compass Point. He continued in the Bahamas and hotels like Pink Sands and Compass Point (of course) and then in Jamaica’s Strawberry Hill, Blue Mountain and Ian Fleming’s old house GoldenEye that he bought in 1976.
Chris Blackwell interview about the Goldeneye property and working in the music business. (Source: Youtube/Yahoo finance)
The Marlin hotel, Ocean drive, Miami
Leslie hotel, Ocean drive, Miami
Today, it’s where Chris gets his best ideas, like the idea for the GoldenEye Foundation, committed to improving the lives of the local community through a variety of initiatives, specifically in the areas of health, environment, education, sports, and entrepreneurship. He has also launched his rum brand, Blackwell rum, just like his mother’s family before him.
In 2001, Chris Blackwell was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Bono, in 2004 Blackwell was awarded the Order of Jamaica medal from Governor-General Sir Howard Cooke and in 2006 he received the International Humanitarian Award from the American Friends of Jamaica.
Bono inducts Blackwell at the 2001 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony.
Header photo by Greg Williams
Pictures from the Ceremony and Banquet by Annika Berglund, © Polar Music Prize
Article written in March and May 2023. Sources: The Islander (Nine Eight books 2022), Wikipedia, Allmusic.com, official biography.