Island Records Founder Chris Blackwell on His Lifelong Love Affair With Jamaica

After the release of his new memoir, the legendary producer discusses his work in hospitality — and an unexpected 'James Bond' connection.

Chris Blackwell (right) with (from left) Wailers guitarist Junior Marvin, Bob Marley, and Jacob Miller, onetime lead singer of Inner Circle
Chris Blackwell (right) with (from left) Wailers guitarist Junior Marvin, Bob Marley, and Jacob Miller, onetime lead singer of Inner Circle. Photo: Nathalie Delon/Courtesy of Island Trading Archive

Hotelier and Island Records founder Chris Blackwell — renowned for signing Bob Marley, U2, Jimmy Cliff, Roxy Music, Cat Stevens, and many more — recently released a memoir, "The Islander: My Life in Music and Beyond." Here, he looks back on a lifetime of memories from his culturally rich Caribbean home.

Cover of The Islander: My Life in Music and Beyond, by Chris Blackwell
Courtesy of Simon and Schuster

Travel + Leisure: You got your start in the music business while working at a Jamaican resort. Can you tell me about that?

Blackwell: "I was seeing the daughter of the couple who owned Half Moon, in Montego Bay, and she got me a job teaching guests to water-ski. One evening there was a Bermudan jazz pianist called Lance Hayward playing at the hotel. I'd had a couple drinks and said, 'I'd love to record you.' I knew nothing about recording at all. But I booked a studio in Kingston, and we did the first recording ever to be released on Island Records. I knew then it was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life."

Around that time, you also worked on the set of the first James Bond film.

"My mother was good friends with Ian Fleming, and when they were filming 'Dr. No' in Jamaica in 1962, they wanted someone to take the crew around. Fleming suggested they hire me as a location scout. It was fantastic meeting Sean Connery and Ursula Andress."

Ursula Andress as Honey Ryder in Dr. No
Ursula Andress as Honey Ryder in Dr. No. Collection Christophel/Alamy

Do you think that movie had an impact on Jamaican tourism?

"Wealthy English people had been buying houses on the island for some time, and there were already a couple of luxury hotels — like Round Hill Hotel & Villas, which was owned by my cousin and is still a favorite. But tourism more broadly really started after independence, in 1962, and 'Dr. No' definitely played a part in that. The movie was modern and stylish, a part of a flashy new future."

How did you come to acquire Ian Fleming's former home, GoldenEye?

"After Fleming died, my mother looked after the house and became quite attached to it. When the estate came on the market in 1976, she wanted me to buy it. I couldn't afford it — but I'd just paid Bob Marley about $100,000 in royalties, so I told him about this stunning, iconic house, and he said it sounded great. Time went by, one month, two, three…when he finally went to see it, he decided it wasn't his thing. Too posh. He asked me if there was a way out of the deal. Luckily, by then I had the cash."

A beach in Jamaica
The beach at GoldenEye resort. Courtesy of Maripol

And it's now one of Jamaica's most loved hotels. What's next there?

"We're working on Firefly, Noël Coward's former home in Oracabessa, which is very near GoldenEye. Coward left it to Jamaica's National Heritage Trust; my hotel group, Island Outpost, is going to operate and integrate it into GoldenEye. The villa is about 1,200 feet above sea level, and the rest of the resort is about an inch above sea level, so it will be great to go up and get a different perspective."

What one piece of music best sums up Jamaica for you?

"'Natural Mystic' by Bob Marley, which was one of the tracks from 'Exodus' that blew me away the first time Bob handed me a recording, back in 1977."

Where else do you like to travel?

"Anywhere it's not cold."

A version of this story first appeared in the August 2022 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline "My Jamaica."

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