The Barefoot Mogul: Chris Blackwell
Credit: Photograph by Joao Canziani

The dynamics of class and race are impossible to ignore when telling the story of both Jamaica and Chris Blackwell. The employees at resorts like Goldeneye are almost all black Jamaicans, while the guests are overwhelmingly white and privileged. Blackwell, meanwhile, would take the music of Kingston's black ghettos worldwide, but his mother's family were "members of Jamaica's old plantocracy," in the words of Ian Fleming biographer Andrew Lycett. Blackwell likes to tell the story of his first encounter with Rastafarians at age 21, when his boat ran out of gas on a remote beach; Rastas were considered dangerous at the time, and their kindness to a shipwrecked white man made a lasting impression.

Sephardic Jews who'd come to Jamaica in the 17th century, the Lindos, Blackwell's mother's family, owned sugarcane and banana plantations, bonded warehouses, and later the top-selling rum in the country, eventually becoming one of the so-called "Twenty One" elite white families of Jamaica's long colonial era. (The rough section of Kingston now known as Tivoli Gardens was once called Lindo Town.) Blackwell's father, Joseph, was a military officer of Anglo-Irish descent whose family started Crosse & Blackwell, a successful English food company specializing in jarred chutneys and relishes. Joseph Blackwell owned the best thoroughbred horse in Jamaica, Brown Bomber, as famous as Seabiscuit on the island, and also loved opera and classical music, which was all his son grew up listening to.

Young Christopher was a seriously asthmatic child, spending much of his time indoors, at times in an oxygen tent; household servants like the horse groomer and gardener became some of his closest friends.

He turned against his Catholic school after he asked a teacher if his dog could accompany him to heaven and was informed that dogs did not possess immortal souls. When the Blackwells' marriage broke up in 1945, Blanche and her son returned to England, where Chris attended Harrow, a prestigious private boarding school for boys. (Alumni include Winston Churchill and Lord Byron.) Blackwell sold liquor and cigarettes to other students out of his dormitory room. Eventually he returned to Jamaica to work at a hotel owned by his cousins, managing a water-skiing concession and getting obsessively into jazz. When a blind pianist from Bermuda named Lance Hayward gigged at the hotel, Blackwell, captivated, took him to Kingston and made a recording that became the first album Blackwell ever released. It was 1959.

Blanche Blackwell gave Chris £18,000 on his 18th birthday. With this seed money, he began traveling. In New York in 1960, he met Miles Davis through mutual friends and ended up spending three months with him, going to shows and soaking up the music of a band that also included John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley. "Miles took a liking to me, which was strange, because he wasn't very fond of white men," Blackwell notes drily. Once, Blackwell, who had grown up listening to people like Louis Armstrong, asked Davis why he played so many bad notes. "He replied, 'I play what's in my head, rather than what I know I can play,' " Blackwell recalls. He says that's one of the greatest descriptions of jazz he's ever heard.

Meanwhile, back in Jamaica, sound systems – mobile parties thrown by disc jockeys with massive speakers, often on the backs of trucks – ruled the music scene. Blackwell, who was able to travel to the States to pick up hot rhythm and blues records, began bringing them back to the island, scratching off the labels and selling them to the sound-system DJs at inflated prices. "Now you can get anything, anywhere, instantly, but back then, it was worth it for them to have exclusives," Blackwell says. He also delivered records to the 63 jukeboxes he managed in bars throughout the country: "I would travel around with my maintenance engineer and take the records, usually five or so. A fishing town called Rocky Point, on the south coast of Jamaica – I think I was the first person of my complexion they had ever seen. And I'd put on the records and see if they liked them. It was instant American Idol. It didn't take 20 seconds. It took five seconds. 'Take it out! Take it out! We like the other one! Take it out!' "

Around this time, Blackwell dabbled in the movie business, thanks to his mother's old friend Fleming, who got him a job as a location scout on the first Bond film, Dr. No, which was being shot in Jamaica. Blackwell remembers watching the daily rushes of a bikini-clad Ursula Andress coming out of the ocean as the moment when everyone realized they had a potential blockbuster on their hands. (Before that, a veteran member of the crew had been pulling Blackwell aside and apologizing that his first film was such B-movie crap.) Sean Connery remains his favorite Bond, though he loved the recent Casino Royale. His biggest moment of Bond-related dismay came when Pierce Brosnan signed on to play 007, just because "Brosnan was so lame, and of course the first Bond film he did was GoldenEye, so I was worried it would fuck up my brand."

Blackwell was also traveling back and forth to London, where he sold ska records he'd brought up from Jamaica to immigrants in the Caribbean ghettos. Around 1963, he decided to attempt a crossover single with Millie Small, the female half of a Jamaican duo called Roy & Millie, whose single "We'll Meet" seemed to appeal to a broader audience. Millie was only 15, with a distinctive, high-pitched singing voice. Blackwell brought her to London to record with the great Jamaican guitarist Ernest Ranglin, eventually settling on a cover of a sweet – and, depending on the cast of your mind, extremely suggestive – rhythm and blues song called "My Boy Lollipop."