We all know those Dos Equis beer commercials that riff off a fictionalized, supercool dude who leads a ridiculously over-the-top life. The tag line of course (read by “Frontline” narrator Will Lyman) being: “He is the most interesting man in the world.”
Well that guy could pretty much be modeled on Chris Blackwell.
Blackwell’s life has so many amazing facets it’s hard to know where to begin. Most famously he’s the record producer who introduced the world to Bob Marley. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which inducted Blackwell in 2001, described Blackwell as “the single person most responsible for turning the world on to reggae music.” As the founder of Island Records, he also fostered the careers of a huge number of superstar artists like Steve Winwood and U2. And Blackwell has also been in the film business, luxury resorts and lately the high-end rum biz too.
Oh and did I mention the real life James Bond connection?
How has he been able to have such an amazing life? Blackwell says he goes his own way. “I’ve always been self-employed,” he tells me in a recent interview. “I’ve been pretty much unemployable. So I’ve always followed my own kind of direction.”
Blackwell oozes a major amount of coolness. Still striking at age 79, Blackwell is friendly, soft-spoken, calmly astute, and, well, different. “I think that growing up white in Jamaica has been at the core of Chris’ success,” says long time pal Tom Freston, the former head of MTV, (who himself would rate pretty high on the most interesting man in the world list.) “[That’s] given [Blackwell] the instincts and perspective of both the outsider and the insider, a valuable trait for seeing things that others don’t. And an ability to go and succeed anywhere.”
Christopher Percy Gordon Blackwell was born into an elite family in Jamaica. Blackwell’s father was from the clan that founded Crosse & Blackwell, which makes chutneys and fancy relishes and such. Chris grew up on an estate in Jamaica, but was sent off to the posh English boarding school, Harrow (Winston Churchill went there), where Blackwell bridled over the discipline and the fancy uniforms replete with straw boaters.
Back in Jamaica, Blackwell’s then-divorced mother Blanche (who today is 104 and living in London), had become friendly with Ian Fleming, the former British secret service agent turned writer who had begun to churn out a series of pulpy novels based on the exploits of a spy named Bond. James Bond. Fleming built a house he named Goldeneye near the Blackwells and in 1962, young Chris worked on the film “Dr. No,” which was partly shot in Jamaica near Goldeneye. Some say that Fleming based the character Octopussy—a 1983 Bond film, the title character you may remember played by Maud Adams—on Blackwell’s mother. I asked Blackwell if that was indeed the case and he gave me a Blackwellian shrug of the first order.
Blackwell considered going into film, but instead founded Island Records. He was partly inspired to delve in what would later be called reggae music after nearly dying in a sailing accident and being rescued by some Rastafarians, who back then were considered almost Untouchables.
(See what I mean about the amazing life?)
Blackwell built his music business for over four decades becoming one the most respected and loved figures in a business where that combination is rare.
He ended up owning Goldeneye, which he turned into the core of a luxury resort, and around which he created and runs a company called Island Outpost, which owns a number of resorts in Jamaica. He was also an early pioneer into revitalizing Miami’s South Beach and owned 10 hotels there at one point including the Marlin.
In 2009, Blackwell introduced his own line of rum, Blackwell Black Gold, tapping into his family’s legacy of rum production when they owned the both the J. Wray & Nephew—Wray & Nephew White Overproof Rum (126 proof) is personal favorite of mine—and Appleton Distilleries.
So how do you describe or even categorize a guy like Blackwell? I asked Freston to try: “Chris is basically an artist, a cool one, left of the mainstream, and usually ahead of his time by just the right amount,” says Freston. “His genius was to find Bob Marley and promote him as a rock star and not just some reggae artist. Or finding South Beach or U2 or Cat Stevens or Traffic early on. Nowadays he markets an enticingly authentic Jamaican experience, in sharp contrast to the all-inclusive mass tourism impulse that predominates these days. It works. Rarely is someone so successful just by being his own man. And, in his case, a Jamaican man.”
And a most interesting man at that.
Andy Serwer is editor-in-chief of Yahoo Finance.