In 1963, 18-year-old Bob Marley made his international debut with "Judge Not," a jolt of inspirational ska issued in Britain by Anglo-Jamaican entrepreneur Chris Blackwell on his label, Island Records. Unfortunately, the single was credited to "Bob Morley," thanks to a misspelling on the tape Blackwell got from Marley's Jamaican producer Leslie Kong.
"It was funny, because there was a foppish English actor, Robert Morley," recalls Blackwell, 67, with a smile. "I put the tape on and knew it wasn't that Robert Morley. But it was a good record — and an important one, when you look back at what Bob was saying."
"Judge Not" was also the start of a remarkable friendship. Blackwell not only kept releasing early ska and reggae singles by Marley and the Wailers, he co-produced virtually all of Marley's classic Seventies albums and vigorously promoted his sound and image to a worldwide audience. By the time Marley died in 1981, he was, in Blackwell's words, "the Bob Dylan of Jamaica."
Blackwell sold Island in 1997 and now runs the music and film company Palm Pictures. But in a recent interview, Blackwell looked back with fond amazement on what he and Marley achieved together. "Whatever songs he recorded, I put them out," Blackwell says with a laugh, describing his end of the partnership. "I only said one thing to him in the beginning. He wasn't getting paid for a lot of his Jamaican recordings. I said, 'There's no point in suing anybody. On each album, let's just record three of your old songs.'
"The audience I was going for didn't know those songs," Blackwell explains. "And that way, I knew each album would start with three hits."
In the Sixties, you issued singles by Marley and the Wailers in Britain but did not sign them as an album act until 1972. Why did you take the plunge?
Someone rang me and said, "Do you want to meet Bob Marley and the Wailers? They're stranded in London." They were managed at the time by a guy named Danny Sims. He had taken them to Scandinavia to do music for a film, and the film collapsed. I had never met Bob or Peter [Tosh] or Bunny [Livingston]. As they walked into my office, I thought, "Fuck, this is the real thing." When you meet someone who is a name, you expect charisma. But these people were down and out, in a foreign country, and they had a magnetism, a presence. There was something strong about them.
I believe in people. I didn't ask for demos. I hadn't seen them play live. I asked Bob at the time, "Are you good onstage?" He said, "Yeah, we're great" [laughs].
I'd been told by people who knew them, "These guys are impossible to deal with. Don't get involved." Sure, there had been problems, because they didn't want to deal with the music business as it was in Jamaica at the time, which was depicted in The Harder They Come: If you made a record, you got $20. If the record sold a million copies, you still got $20.
I decided that the best way to work with them was to show my trust. I asked them how much they thought it would cost to make an album and gave them a check for 4,000 pounds. And they went back to Jamaica. People said, "You'll never see that money again."
Instead, you got Catch a Fire.
A few months later, I went to Jamaica. This was before the kind of communications we have now, e-mails and cell phones. I couldn't get in touch with them. They had this address on King Street [in Kingston], this little shop. I went there and introduced myself to the woman minding the shop, which was [Bob's wife] Rita. The next day, the band took me to the studio and played me Catch a Fire.
What was your first impression?
I thought it was fantastic, because it was so progressive. "Concrete Jungle" was a very complicated song. But I felt the way to break the Wailers was as a black rock act; I wanted some rock elements in there. Bunny and Peter didn't want to leave Jamaica, so Bob came to England when we did the overdubs.
Was Marley more interested than Peter and Bunny in crossing over to a wider audience?
He was interested, but he didn't understand it until I took him to a concert one night, in America, with Traffic, Free and John Martyn. It was an Island tour. The place was sold out — and none of the acts had a hit single. That's when he got it. Before, his holy grail was the R&B charts. The Wailers were modeled on Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions. But I told them, "Your market is the white college kids." I felt sure the band could reach them.
How important was it to him to be appreciated by black Americans?
It was very important, and he was disappointed that it never happened during his life. But there was no market in black music then for a rebel. Black music in America has a different sensibility now — it's all rebel.
Could you see changes in Marley's personality as success kicked in?
He was hungry for more. When I say "more," I mean more experiences, traveling more, reaching other parts of the world. He was an evangelist, in a way. But essentially, he did not change. He became more confident, but he always had a humility. And he led by example. In rock & roll, the star comes out an hour late, then cracks a joke after everybody's been waiting. Bob was always there first. On the 1980 tour, I was astounded on three or four occasions to see him sitting in the tour bus alone, waiting for everybody else. He was the first one ready to go.
He never had any airs — quite the opposite. I learned quite a few things from him. When he would drive down to Trench Town in his BMW — which he always felt he was entitled to, because it stood for "Bob Marley and the Wailers" — he would never lock his car. Because when you lock your car, you're separating yourself from everybody. I never lock my car now.
When did you first hear that Marley had cancer?
When he told me, in September 1980, after he collapsed. He was shaken. He looked anxious. Later, he gave me the tracks for the last album, Uprising. But I felt they were all too midtempo, that the album needed something vibrant. I rang Bob and said, "We need something more."
A week later, I came to Jamaica, and he had written and recorded "Could You Be Loved" and "Coming in From the Cold." He wasn't drying up. He was not running out of steam. He was gaining.