Island Records is one of the most influential pop music record labels of all time.
Mixing cultures and influences from reggae to pop, hip hop, and even punk, Island has shaken up ideas and introduced new genres to mainstream music, bringing cultures into the musical spotlight halfway across the world. Still alive and thriving today, Island has produced some of the music industry’s biggest names and groups including Jimmy Buffet, The B-52s, U2, and Bob Marley. But like all companies, Island too started out as a hobby before it was even a small business; and the story is incredible.
Chris Salewicz, Editor of Keep of Running: The Story of Island Records wrote a beautiful narration about how Island records came to be.
“Jamaicans in the mid-1950’s were familiar with who they should stay away from. Specifically that strange tribe of outcasts known as Rastafarians: even the downtown ghetto-dwellers knew that these eccentric-appearing individuals – known at the time on the island as ‘beardmen’ – carried pieces of dead bodies in the bags they all bore.”
At age 19, Chris Blackwell went with a couple of friends on a motorboat ride from the former pirate haven of Port Royal along the south coast of the island. When the boat became stranded in a swamp along a completely remote part of the island, Chris set out for the shore. After about four hours of struggling, he came upon a beach. Exhausted, he collapsed, dying of thirst. He heard a voice, and looked up to see a Rastafarian standing above him, his dreadlocks tumbling about him like Iliana vines. The dread led Chris to a nearby encampment where he collapsed asleep. Upon waking, he heard voices reading from the bible and reasoning. They continued to read as he was fed ital food. This experience would forever impact him and change the course of his young life.
A few years later, he decided to record a young, blind jazz pianist who was playing at Half Moon Hotel in Montego Bay, where he was teaching water skiing. This first recording was the inauspicious start to an independent record label destined to have a vast influence on globally popular music. This company would be known as Island Records. Soon after, Blackwell had his first hit with local artist Laurel Aitken, making the Cuban born artist the biggest star in Jamaica in 1960. In 1961, the first James Bond movie, titled Dr. No, was filmed on location in Jamaica. The movie’s producer asked Blackwell to be his production assistant. When the film wrapped up, Chris was offered a more permanent position, immediately leaving him torn between the two paths diverging before him and sought guidance from a local seer, a Lebanese woman. She said his future was clear to her; he should stay in the record business. 1962 proved her words accurate, when Chris relocated his operation to the U.K. There, he gained the rights to a handful of recordings from Jamaican artists that he then sold to Jamaican immigrants. This was the start of Island Records in Great...