Island Rocker: Chris Blackwell

The man who introduced a relatively unknown reggae artist, Bob Marley, to an international audience, Chris Blackwell, is still going strong on the island today.

Blackwell spent his childhood in Jamaica as the son of an Irish father and a Sephardic Jewish mother. He was introduced to Rastafarianism in the 1950s when his small boat sank off the coast. He was rescued by a group of Rasta fishermen, and through their kindness came to appreciate their culture.

His Island Records in 1959 became one of the first studios to record Jamaican popular music, which was called "ska" at the time. Reggae in time evolved from ska. Back in England Blackwell sold local records out of the back of his car to homesick black Jamaicans living in the U.K.

His first big hit, "My Boy Lollipop," sold 6 million records in 1964, and Blackwell was on his way. His film, The Harder They Come, starring Jimmy Cliff, is credited as the spark that brought reggae music to the world. But his big coup was the discovery of Bob Marley. In time he branched out far beyond Jamaica, promoting artists as diverse as Cat Stevens, Grace Jones, U2, and Melissa Etheridge.

Blackwell claims that the hottest music in the Caribbean is not coming from Jamaica today but from Puerto Rico in the form of reggaet├│n. However, he still greatly appreciates island music, and has high hopes for Damian, Bob Marley's youngest son. "He's very different from dear ol' dad, very outgoing." Blackwell had high praise for Damian's latest release, "Welcome to Jamrock."

Blackwell operates Island Outpost, an upmarket group that runs hotels in Jamaica (including Strawberry Hill) and the Bahamas. Currently, he is devoting time to Goldeneye, a property he purchased from the Ian Fleming estate. The author wrote his James Bond books here on the North Coast, taking the name Bond from the writer of a bird book on Jamaica. Blackwell is developing the property into a community of villas and beach cottages, each with its own private access to the sea.

As advice to visiting tourists, Blackwell said that the best music in Jamaica is not heard in the clubs, certainly not in the hotels, but in the street and at open-air dances. "Keep your ears open and follow the sounds to where the street party is," Blackwell said. "Get out of your hotel and hang with the locals. They're not only talented musicians, they are bright, completely original, and the most amusing group in the Caribbean. In a word, they're fantastic!"

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