At last Blackwell had found the perfect vessel for his plot to infiltrate the white rock mainstream. When Marley said the group would need £4,000 to record an album – more than the Wailers had ever spent in the studio – Blackwell wrote them a check on the spot.
"Bob had been recording since 1963, so he was a kind of underground leader," Blackwell recalls. "And he had such a strong natural presence. He projected without trying to project." And yet the problem of live performance remained. Traditionally, Jamaican musicians were studio artists. Live gigs were prohibitively expensive for the average Jamaican – you needed instruments, for one thing – and sound-system DJs ruled the local clubs. "What I was suggesting to Bob didn't exist at the time, which was actually a touring, self-contained reggae group," Blackwell says.
Blackwell also found himself infuriated by the naysaying at his own record label. Bob Marley and the Wailers' Island debut, Catch a Fire, was co-produced by Blackwell, who persuaded Marley to allow Muscle Shoals guitarist Wayne Perkins to play on some tracks. After the album's release, Blackwell was dismayed when he checked in with one of his executives and discovered it had sold only 6,000 copies. That's good for a reggae record, the exec insisted. "And I remember being so disappointed and pissed off that he was just thinking of it as a reggae record," Blackwell recalls.
Of course, Blackwell's plan eventually worked, in more epic fashion than he could have ever imagined. Marley, today, remains nearly unmatched as an international musical icon. Blackwell's friend Jimmy Buffett tells a story about how, on a trip to a world music festival in Mali, the two men stopped in a tiny record shop – literally near Timbuktu! – and found a little girl selling bootleg Marley CDs. "Chris went over to her and said, 'Now, you shouldn't be doing this . . .' " Buffett recalls with obvious delight. Later, in Bamako, they caught a reunion of the legendary Malian group the Rail Band at a train station, which Buffett calls one of the greatest musical nights of his life. "With Chris, it was like royalty had come to town, like Jesus had come over the hill," he says. "They all knew he'd brought the world Bob Marley."
The rest of the Wailers would come to resent Blackwell and his focus on Marley's star power. Peter Tosh dubbed him "Chris Whiteworst" and, according to some accounts, threatened him with a machete. "He never threatened me," Blackwell insists. Bunny Wailer, on the other hand, insisted his contract be worded so that he would become a free agent if Blackwell died. When Blackwell agreed, Wailer grinned and said, "Good, now I know I can get out of the contract whenever I need to."
"Some people would say, 'He made all that money off Bob Marley,' and view it as exploitation," Blackwell says. "But there's nothing simple here. I never paid a Jamaican less than I paid the English rock acts, in terms of their royalties. To me, I couldn't do shit without my artists because I couldn't sing songs, I didn't write music. So it all basically depended on them."
Linton Kwesi Johnson, a former Black Panther and radical dub reggae poet, slammed Blackwell in a 1975 essay as a "descendant of slave masters . . . continuing the tradition of his white ancestors." But a few years later, after Johnson had a hit on Virgin Records, Blackwell was eager to sign him. When they met, Johnson recalls, "Chris was the epitome of charm." He wound up shifting to Island, and today says, "Chris Blackwell's intervention was absolutely decisive in not only putting reggae on the map but making Jamaica a brand name. He understood the music better than most people in the business, and he knew how to market it. Some of the criticisms about him may be justified, some may be unjustified, but I think he's done Jamaica a great service, and he should be respected for that."
When Marley became seriously ill with cancer, Blackwell visited him a few times in Germany, where he was receiving treatment. "At that point, you knew he wasn't recovering," Blackwell says soberly. Marley's importance to Blackwell had extended far beyond their music business partnership. "It had nothing to do with charts or sales figures," he once said. "It was something so much bigger. He was a Jamaican artist, and I am from Jamaica." While Marley's death in 1981 did not come as a shock, Blackwell was unprepared for the outpouring of love at his state funeral – particularly as the procession made its way from Kingston to the hilltop burial site. "The streets were lined all the way along," Blackwell says. "It was an incredible thing to see." In the wake of his friend's passing, Blackwell admits, "it was hard to get excited about the record business, because for me, it was such a high to have worked with him, to have seen him become so big internationally."
What did it take, I ask, for you to recover your passion about the music business? Blackwell says, "I never got back to that level again."