CHRIS BLACKWELL’S memoir The Islander, written with Paul Morley, haunts me. You can’t live in the Caribbean – or know anything about music for that matter – without recognising Blackwell’s profound influence on music from the 50s through the 90s when he had Island Records. Blackwell launched the music careers of Bob Marley, Bono, U2, Grace Jones, Third World, Steel Pulse and many unusual acts that no one was interested in but Blackwell. Amy Winehouse was on the Island label.
Often I have wondered why Jamaican music has made it so much bigger on the world stage than calypso, and now I wonder if Blackwell was the difference.
We have had great arrangers comparable to Jamaica’s Lee “Scratch” Perry and Clement “Coxsone” Dodd, but arguably we didn’t have a Blackwell equally knowledgeable and comfortable in the business and musical sides of recording. We haven’t had someone with the vision and patriotism of Blackwell.
I’m wondering where we would have been if Blackwell was a Trinidadian. Would Black Stalin have reached the musical stratosphere of Bob Marley?
If you think that is far-fetched, consider that no one wanted to touch Bob Marley and the Wailers, deemed too rebellious, too troublesome, and too raw musically speaking. Stalin didn’t have any of that baggage. Stalin’s music promoted unity and black consciousness.
What would Blackwell have done musically speaking to propel calypso to an international market?
In his memoir he talks about his choice to put a guitarist from the US state of Alabama in the recording of Concrete Jungle, Marley’s first crossover hit, so the music could feel more international.
Blackwell always had an ear for edgy music. Imagine what he would have done with Winston “Shadow” Bailey. Shadow’s music had international appeal. He did well on the US label Music for Little People that recorded Marley’s mother Cedella Marley Booker and Taj Mahal. Blackwell always loved a strong bass line and Shadow used the bass to anchor his music.
Imagine a Blackwell/David Rudder collaboration. Remember Rudder's songs on the movie soundtrack for Wild Orchid in 1990? Blackwell was always a master at keeping the momentum going, so what would have happened if Blackwell had stepped into Rudder’s career at that point?
Blackwell always liked pushing boundaries, so what vision would he have had for the Trinidadian humour we enjoy in Daniel “Trinidad Rio” Brown or Donric “Funny” Williamson’s music in the Spoiler tradition? Granted, humour is very culturally specific, but are there any international crossover possibilities? If we can appreciate US and British humour, why can’t they appreciate our humour?
We could talk about what-ifs forever. Clearly, Trinidad has just as much musical diversity and talent as Jamaica and there’s that relationship between mento and calypso. Blackwell worked with musical transitions for mento, and he writes about working for a time with Aldwyn “Lord Kitchener” Roberts in London.
What would have happened if Kitchener had remained in London and worked with Blackwell instead of returning to Trinidad to live?
So what happened? Where is our Chris Blackwell? Is it a mistrust between businessmen and calypsonians that’s kept us from breaking through on a larger scale, or is it just that no one has the passion and patriotism that Blackwell always had? Then there’s the issue of trust.
There is a famous legend, confirmed by Blackwell in his book, about how the Wailers, broke after some concerts in Scandinavia, only had enough money to reach London where they ended up at Blackwell’s door. He gave them the money they asked for to make a record. Blackwell never demanded a contract.
Everyone told him he would never see that money again. But Blackwell said it was important for him to take that chance because he had to build the Wailers' trust. The Wailers came back with an album.
Blackwell’s musical career was about more than making and selling music. He supported a variety of musical voices that created a collision of sounds representing mainstream and experimental music: folk, pop, R&B, rock and that broad catch-phrase of world music. For Blackwell business and music meant taking chances, embracing roots and experimenting with a variety of musical branches.
Blackwell’s memoir makes me wonder how TT can penetrate musical boundaries in the way that Jamaica did. Somehow there needs to be a bigger vision and better collaborations. We have not yet mastered the fine art of packaging our music or finding a Chris Blackwell to show us what that package would look like. Both his life and his memoir are inspirations.