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Nine Eight Books to publish autobiography of Island Records legend Chris Blackwell

Nine Eight Books will publish The Islander, the autobiography of Island Records legend Chris Blackwell.

Publishing Director Pete Selby acquired UK and Commonwealth rights from Andrew Wylie of the Wylie Agency.

Bob Marley. U2. Cat Stevens. Grace Jones. Roxy Music. Traffic. Nick Drake. Tom Waits. Free. The B-52’s. John Martyn. Sparks. Jimmy Cliff. The Slits. Mott The Hoople. Richard and Linda Thompson. Marianne Faithfull. All legendary artists representing wildly divergent musical styles yet all sharing the same maverick, outsider spirit. It was a spirit sensed upon and nurtured by the British record company these artists would make their home – Island Records. Unquestionably one of the greatest labels of all time, with a roster unparalleled in terms of richness and diversity and celebrating the 60th anniversary of its UK base in 2022, Island unfailingly signposted the musical zeitgeist. At its helm, navigating for thirty years with the vision and instincts of an outsider himself, was Chris Blackwell. This is his story.

Blackwell’s privileged early years in pre-independence Jamaica saw him lulled by the sights and sounds of the island, not least its early bone-shaking soundsystems. Unofficially expelled from Harrow School in England, he took early career steps as a ‘selector’ for the Wurlitzer jukeboxes in bars across Jamaica and revealed a talent for giving people the music they wanted – or, perhaps more accurately, introducing them to music they didn’t yet know they wanted.

By the mid-’60s, he’d overseen an import/export business, A&R’d his first hit single, established Island Records in Jamaica and London, and – demonstrating a lifelong knack for creating alchemic gold – paired a fifteen-year-old, helium-voiced talent-show winner named Millie Small with an obscure doo-wop single and sold 6 million copies of ‘My Boy Lollipop’. Then, in 1966, the young band he renamed the Spencer Davis Group, fronted by a teenage Steve Winwood, knocked the Beatles off number one with their Blackwell-produced, bass-heavy rendition of ‘Keep On Running’.

Later, as the Spencer Davis Group evolved into Traffic, Island itself blossomed into one of the world’s premier independent labels, servicing a burgeoning albums market. In the ’70s alone: a spiritually reborn Cat Stevens secured a record contract with Island following an audience-of-one performance for Blackwell (the song: ‘Father and Son’); a bewildered Free were persuaded to realise the potential of a throwaway blues jam (the hit: ‘All Right Now’); and a painfully withdrawn Nick Drake handed over the tapes of his third and final album to his record company boss (the masterpiece: Pink Moon).

Inexorably intertwined with the fates of Blackwell and Island is also the story of Bob Marley and the Wailers. Born of a conviction that ‘it seemed condescending to continue to market reggae as niche music or some kind of exotica’, Island played a huge role in building the Marley legend as we understand it today. What emerges in the book is a portrait of friendship and a deep bond of mutual trust between the two men. The first-hand retelling of the recording of the first Wailers album for Island, (‘Catch A Fire’) are among the book’s most engaging episodes; those dedicated to the final stages of Marley’s life among its most tender.

In 1980, having hotfooted it across London to a gig at a tiny pub, Blackwell became so taken with a band who were then calling themselves ‘The U2’s’ that he signed them on the spot, setting Island on a new path for the new decade. Meanwhile, over at Island’s studios in the Bahamas, a striking fashion model, disco starlet and ‘living work of art’ called Grace Jones had gathered with the cream of reggae, rock and electronic musicians – all handpicked by Blackwell – to embark upon one of the most extraordinary albums trilogies of all-time: Warm Leatherette, Nightclubbing and Living My Life.

A&R man, record producer, label boss, filmmaker, resort owner – The Islander makes for a giddy ride through some of the late-twentieth century’s most cutting-edge, enduring music. The story – as told to esteemed music journalist, Paul Morley – is one of artists, musicians, and visionary record producers, charting the who, when, where why and how of their music. It’s also the story of a family: the Island family. Along the way, the roll call of walk-ons in the life of ‘Chris Blackwell reads like a list of the era’s most sparkling alumni – from Errol Flynn, Miles Davis, Brian Jones and Ian Fleming to James Brown, Noel Coward, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and Barbara ‘Biba’ Hulanicki. Not bad for a self-confessed ‘Anglo-Irish-Jamaican boarding-school flameout’.

With the publication of The Islander coinciding with his eighty-fifth birthday, Chris Blackwell says: “It’s over sixty years since I started Island Records. It seems a good time to write about the people and musicians I’ve worked with and the places I’ve loved. It’s been quite a trip”.

Nine Eight Books’ Pete Selby adds: “Chris Blackwell is a true pioneer. As important a figure as the acts he nurtured. With Island Records he established the template that other record labels could only aspire to whilst personally signing, guiding and producing some of the greatest and most creative artists of all time. The Islander captures that maverick spirit of adventure, passion and possibility that is the mark of Chris Blackwell. It’s an honour to be publishing his incredible memoir at Nine Eight Books”.

The Islander will be published in June 2022.