SCOTT SIMON, host:
Island Records turns 50 this year. That's the label that not only brought reggae from Jamaica to the world, but British folk rockers from the '60s and '70s, and a lot of influential pop artists. A new book, "The Story of Island Records," is filled with essays and memorable album artwork. Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records, wrote the preface. He's been in the States for a book-signing and joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.
Mr. CHRIS BLACKWELL (Founder, Island Records): Thank you.
SIMON: And, you know, before we launch into the interview, I want to go to your website, 50th anniversary website, called island50.com. And there's an audio player that gives people an idea of the astonishing range of artists.
(Soundbite of song, "You Can Get It If You Really Want")
Mr. JIMMY CLIFF (Musician): (Singing) You can get it, though hard as it seems now. You can get it if you really want...
SIMON: Jimmy Cliff.
Mr. BLACKWELL: "You Can Get It If You Really Want."
(Soundbite of song, "Wordy Rappinghood")
TOM TOM CLUB (Music Group): (Singing) (Unintelligible)
SIMON: You know this one?
Mr. BLACKWELL: I'm trying to remember it. Oh yes, of course, yes. "Wordy Rappinghood," isn't it?
SIMON: Yup. Tom Tom Club.
Mr. BLACKWELL: That's it.
Mr. BLACKWELL: Tom Tom Club, Chris and Tina Frantz, who were members of Talking Heads, and they bought an apartment in the Bahamas, where I lived and had a recording studio, and they started this band and recorded that record in the city of Nassau.
(Soundbite of song, "All Right Now")
FREE (Music Group): (Singing) Baby, it's all right now.
Mr. BLACKWELL: Right.
SIMON: This sure became a big hit for you, didn't it?
Mr. BLACKWELL: Huge hit, huge hit.
SIMON: By Free, we should explain.
(Soundbite of song, "Three Little Birds")
BOB MARLEY AND THE WAILERS: (Singing) This is my message to you. Baby, don't worry about a thing...
SIMON: Well, if there's one artist from Island Records who needs no introduction, but I want you to give him one anyway.
Mr. BLACKWELL: Bob Marley.
Mr. BLACKWELL: I met him in 1973 and we started to work very closely together.
SIMON: This extraordinary list. First artist you signed was?
Mr. BLACKWELL: The first artist I signed was a group called Lance Hayward. They were a jazz quartet who were playing at the hotel where I was teaching waterskiing.
SIMON: The Half Moon.
Mr. BLACKWELL: The Half Moon, that's right. You know, I loved music and I loved jazz and this was a kind of jazz combo.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. BLACKWELL: We recorded the record and I was elated. I just loved the feeling of being part of music.
SIMON: Let's hear a bit of the first really great hit. This is from Millie.
(Soundbite of song, "My Boy Lollipop")
MILLIE: (Singing) My boy lollipop, you make my heart go giddy up. You are as sweet as candy. You're my sugar dandy. My boy lollipop.
Mr. BLACKWELL: Millie was a Jamaican girl. She was only 15 when we recorded this. And people really liked the Jamaican records. They sounded very different. They sounded very odd and people really liked it, but they loved Millie.
SIMON: What made you decide to have Island branch out from reggae?
Mr. BLACKWELL: It happened basically after Millie. Because suddenly, you know, from obscurity I was now, you know, a producer and manager of a hit artist. And when that happens, you know, people call you and somebody called me and said, you know, we should go to Birmingham and see some bands, 'cause there are a lot of bands in Birmingham.
So I went up there and they took me to a club. And this club was like on about the third floor. And walking up the stairs, I heard this voice, which sounded just unbelievable, you know, and this pounding kind of blues music. I went in and, again, he was 15 at the time - Steve Winwood. And I talked with them and signed them right away.
Mr. STEVE WINWOOD (Musician): (Singing) (Unintelligible)
Mr. BLACKWELL: Nobody had ever seen or heard anybody quite like him in England, because he was a multi-instrumentalist. He was a brilliant guitar player, a keyboard player, especially Hammond organ, and an amazing voice. And so when I signed him, other rock acts then started to come to Island.
SIMON: You heard about an Irish band playing at a pub in London.
Mr. BLACKWELL: Yes. I walked in. I didn't love the music that much, quite honestly, because it was a little rinky-dink to me because I love bass and drum. But I loved them. There was a passion. There was something about them I really, really admired.
SIMON: We should explain, we're talking about U2.
Mr. BLACKWELL: U2, that's right.
(Soundbite of song, "I Will Follow")
U2 (Music Group): (Singing) If you walk away, walk away, while I walk away, walk away, I will follow. Walk away, walk away, I will walk away, walk away, I will follow. I will follow.
SIMON: So, you didn't like the music necessarily, but you liked them.
Mr. BLACKWELL: Yeah, I believed in them.
SIMON: I bet you like what they've done for you.
Mr. BLACKWELL: Oh, I sure do, of course.
SIMON: What do you hear that maybe other people miss? What makes a hit?
Mr. BLACKWELL: Well, frankly, we haven't - didn't have that many hits. We've had a lot of great artists, but if you look at Motown and you look at Island, Motown probably had 50 times as many single hits as we did. So I was never really a record guy in that kind of a sense. I think my area is more artist development. And to me the records are the milestones in the artists' career.
You don't have to have a hit and have somebody destroy it, you know, because of the hit. I think if you can go slowly, just let it grow gently and - I mean, I'd say to people, you know, if you love what you're doing, what's the hurry?
SIMON: Yeah. Cat Stevens.
Mr. BLACKWELL: Cat Stevens was another story. Cat Stevens a friend of mine wanted me to meet because he knew Cat Stevens and Cat Stevens had had a few hits. He'd had about three hits on Decca Records. He came into my house with his guitar, unpacked it, so you know, sat down, played a song. It was good - I can't remember what it was called but it was nice. And then he played me another one and that was nice too. And then he played me a third one and then I was blown away by that song, and that was called "Father and Son."
(Soundbite of song, "Father and Son")
Mr. CAT STEVENS (Musician): (Singing) It's not time to make a change, just relax, take it easy. You're still young, that's your fault, there's so much you have to know. Find a girl, settle down, if you want you can marry, look at me, I am old but I'm happy. I walked once like you are now...
Mr. BLACKWELL: I asked him what kind of deal he had with Decca and he told me. And I said, well, I'm sure I can match that. In fact, I can improve on that. He said, well, that's fine but then how do I get off Decca? So I came up with this scheme. I told him, I said, well, listen - and this is the first time I met him so this all happened, you know, almost in the length of time I'm telling you. So, I said, well, you know, what you should do is you should go and see youre A&R man at Decca but sort of rustle up your hair a little bit, go in and look very kind of passionate and everything, and go in and tell him that you're really excited about your new record. You're desperate to do it, but you want to do it with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BLACKWELL: And I said I think they might give you a release.
SIMON: But muss up the hair so you look daft, right, yeah. OK, yeah.
Mr. BLACKWELL: So he did that and he got free and then we made the record, which was just him and a guitar, basically.
SIMON: This might be the most impertinent question I've ever asked anyone: Was your mother Pussy Galore?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BLACKWELL: That's a good question. I must say, I love that one. I believe it is written that she was.
SIMON: We have to explain: Pussy Galore was an honored character in Ian Fleming's novels, James Bond, and Honor Blackman portrayed Pussy Galore in the movie. And so - but it's not there's a lot of historical foundation for the fact that your mother was the inspiration.
Mr. BLACKWELL: Yes, that's true. My mother was very much in love with Ian Fleming. She was very adventurous and so was he. And they...
SIMON: I mean they - we can say they were a couple, can't we?
Mr. BLACKWELL: Yes.
SIMON: Was she as good at karate as Pussy Galore was?
Mr. BLACKWELL: No.
SIMON: Oh, all right.
(Soundbite of movie, "Goldfinger")
Mr. SEAN CONNERY (Actor): (as James Bond) Isn't it customary to grant the condemned man his last request?
Ms. HONOR BLACKMAN (Actress): (as Pussy Galore) You've asked for this.
SIMON: You sold Island to A&M in...
Mr. BLACKWELL: I sold Island to - it was Polygram and then it's now part of Universal.
SIMON: You still keep your hand in the music world though?
Mr. BLACKWELL: I do, because I still look after Bob Marley publishing and also sort of actors, unofficial advisor for them.
SIMON: You know, since it is the 50th birthday of Island Records and we're sitting here with you, Mr. Blackwell, you're the one that we want to ask: What music would you like to go out on?
Mr. BLACKWELL: Well, I'd like to go out on one of my favorite songs. It's a Bob Marley song. It's called "So Much Trouble in the World." I love that song.
SIMON: Well, I think we can promise. Here it is. Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records. Mr. Blackwell, thanks so much.
Mr. BLACKWELL: Thank you.
(Soundbite of song, "So Much Trouble in the World")
BOB MARLEY: (Singing) So much trouble in the world, so much trouble in the world. Bless my eyes this morning, the sun is on the rise once again...
SIMON: More of our conversation with Chris Blackwell is at our website, NPRMusic.org.