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Island Records founder Chris Blackwell looks back on his life in music

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio and transcript of this interview Terry Gross incorrectly implies that U2 is a British band. They are Irish.]

TERRY GROSS (HOST): This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The album that introduced Bob Marley and the Wailers to the U.S. and the U.K. "Catch A Fire" was produced by my guest, Chris Blackwell, for his record label, Island Records. The second Wailers album Blackwell released, "Burnin'," included this anthem.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GET UP, STAND UP")

BOB MARLEY (MUSICAL ARTIST): (Singing) Get up, stand up. Stand up for your right. Get up, stand up. Stand up for your right. Get up, stand up.

GROSS: Blackwell and Marley continued to work together until Marley's death. Chris Blackwell was an executive producer of the film "The Harder They Come" and released the soundtrack with the now-classic title song by the film's star, Jimmy Cliff. But that's just one side of the music Blackwell was behind. His label recorded U2, Grace Jones, Tom Waits, Roxy Music, Steve Winwood, Cat Stevens, The B-52s and many more. He also founded the film production company Island Alive, which made the films "Koyaanisqatsi," "Mona Lisa," "Kiss Of The Spider Woman" and the Talking Heads concert film, "Stop Making Sense."

Even before he got into the music business, Blackwell had a fascinating life. He grew up in Jamaica, where his mother was close friends with Ian Fleming, who wrote the James Bond books, the great songwriter Noel Coward and the movie star Errol Flynn. Blackwell knew these men and worked as a scout and production assistant on the early Bond film "Dr. No."

Chris Blackwell has written a new memoir called "The Islander: My Life In Music And Beyond." Chris Blackwell, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's a pleasure to have you on our show, and thank you for all the wonderful music that you've released over the decades. You grew up in Jamaica. You scouted island music. How did you first hear Bob Marley and the Wailers?

CHRIS BLACKWELL (FOUNDER, ISLAND RECORDS): It was in the early '60s. He had started and was produced by a well-known Jamaican producer called Lee Perry, who's really a brilliant guy. And that's the person who first started recording him. And then Bob joined up with two other guys, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, and that was the Wailers.

GROSS: So when you first heard Bob Marley. You were unimpressed. And then about 10 years later, you heard Bob Marley and the Wailers, and you signed them. So when you heard them 10 years later, what impressed you?

BLACKWELL: I started to hear them really quite a bit because they started to build up their own following. In Jamaica, they were very popular. But was - I actually met them in London, when they were stranded in London, because they had been doing some work in Scandinavia, but they hadn't been given the funds to go back to Jamaica. And they asked if - could I meet with them and see if there's a deal I could give them in some way which could get them back to Jamaica? And so I said yes, and they came in to meet me in the office. And I was impressed the moment they walked in, that for people who were stranded, they didn't look stranded. They didn't feel stranded. They were powerful. They were strong. And so, you know, I chatted with them for a bit, and that's really where it built off.

GROSS: So you decided you wanted to make them more internationally famous and really get them to an American audience and a British audience. So you tried to bridge the gap between reggae, which most Americans and Brits weren't yet familiar with, and rock, which they were. So on "Concrete Jungle," which they had already recorded, you decided for the first album that you produced with them to add guitar on that track. And it was a session guitarist from Muscle Shoals, from the famous Muscle Shoals Studio in Alabama. So tell us a little bit more about deciding to add the guitar.

BLACKWELL: Well, I really wanted them to have a record which would appeal to people who liked rock music. And guitar is a key thing in rock music. And this guitarist I knew because I'd worked with him in Muscle Shoals. And I brought him in and asked him to play on the record. And he had a little difficulty initially because the rhythm was very different to the normal rhythms that he was playing, which was in rock music, etc. And this had a kind of Jamaican rhythm to it. But he played, and he played absolutely brilliantly. And he just - he opened everything, really. He's really responsible a lot for Bob Marley and the Wailers really taking life on record.

GROSS: Well, let's hear the version that you produced with Wayne Perkins on guitar. And this is Bob Marley and the Wailers, "Concrete Jungle."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CONCRETE JUNGLE")

MARLEY: (Singing) No sun will shine in my day today.

THE WAILERS (MUSICAL GROUP): (Singing) No sun will shine.

MARLEY: (Singing) The high yellow moon won't come out to play.

THE WAILERS: (Singing) Won't come out to play.

MARLEY: (Singing) I said, darkness has covered my light.

THE WAILERS: (Singing) Darkness has covered my light.

MARLEY: (Singing) And has changed my day into night.

THE WAILERS: (Singing) And has changed my day into night.

MARLEY: (Singing) Yeah. Where is this love to be found? Won't someone tell me? 'Cause life...

THE WAILERS: (Singing) Sweet life.

MARLEY: (Singing) ...Must be somewhere to be found...

THE WAILERS: (Singing) Out there somewhere for me.

MARLEY: (Singing) ...Instead of concrete jungle.

GROSS: That was the Wailers, "Concrete Jungle," which was released on the Island record label, the record label created by my guest, Chris Blackwell. And Blackwell has a new memoir called "The Islander."

So, Chris Blackwell, what did Bob Marley think of the guitar opening that we just heard?

BLACKWELL: I think he was a little unsure about it at first, but he ended up loving it. And when I say he ended up loving it - a few hours later. He loved it after it was played - we played it back a few times. And he just got a feel of it and everything. And he saw how it fit, and it didn't sort of bury the reggae feel at all or the Jamaican feel at all, that it added something fresh, which he hadn't worked with before, hadn't sung with before.

GROSS: You were close with Bob Marley until he died of cancer in the early '80s. And he had written a song toward the end called "Redemption Song" that he played for you. And you convinced him to just do it solo, just voice and his guitar. Why did you want him to record it that way?

BLACKWELL: Because I thought it was a very moving song, a very important song, something which really would touch the soul. And I wanted it to be just very clear - just his voice and guitar. I didn't want to have a bass, drums, you know, any other musical instruments. I felt it should just be something which you just heard. It was very clear, and it would move you.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear this version of "Redemption Song," where it's just Bob Marley and his guitar.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REDEMPTION SONG")

MARLEY: (Singing) Old pirates, yes, they rob I, sold I to the merchant ships minutes after they took I from the bottomless pits. But my hand was made strong by the hand of the Almighty. We forward in this generation triumphantly. Won't you help to sing these songs of freedom? 'Cause all I ever have - redemption songs, redemption songs. Emancipate yourselves...

GROSS: That was Bob Marley, vocals and guitar, singing his song, "Redemption Song" from his final album, "Uprising." And that's the last track on that album...

BLACKWELL: That's the last track he recorded.

GROSS: ...And the last track he recorded.

BLACKWELL: Yes.

GROSS: It seems like a fitting last track, doesn't it?

BLACKWELL: It really does. It really does.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records and the Island Alive film production company. He has a new memoir, which is called "The Islander: My Life In Music And Beyond." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records, which produced Bob Marley and the Wailers, U2, Grace Jones, Traffic, Roxy Music, Eno. He was an executive producer on the film "The Harder They Come" and also of the soundtrack, which produced the now-classic title song, "The Harder They Come," sung by the film's star, Jimmy Cliff. He released albums by Tom Waits, Tom Tom Club, Cat Stevens and more - an incredible career. So you grew up in Jamaica. Your mother's family had been the banana kings of Costa Rica when she was born in 1912. The family relocated to Jamaica after she was born and developed sugarcane fields and then bought rum manufacturing companies. Your father was born in England. His father was Irish and was a descendant of the founders of the Crosse and Blackwell Food Company. So it sounds like, yeah, you came from, you know, a very privileged background in Jamaica. Your mother was friends with Ian Fleming, who wrote the James Bond novels. And a couple of the characters in his stories were inspired by your mother - which characters?

BLACKWELL: One was called Pussy Galore, and the other one was called - gosh, I can't remember. I can't remember the other one, but that was the main one.

GROSS: But it was the character Ursula Andress played.

BLACKWELL: That's right, Ursula. Yes, that's right.

GROSS: So you got your start in music scouting records for jukeboxes, and at one time you were responsible for 63 jukeboxes in Jamaica. And for people who are too young to remember jukeboxes, you'd put in a coin or two and choose the record you wanted to hear, and the record would play. What was the importance of jukeboxes in Jamaica at the time you were filling the jukeboxes?

BLACKWELL: Well, if you were making a record, your best opportunity to get it played by people would be in jukeboxes because the radio station would play usually English recordings. Winifred Atwell, who was a hugely popular piano player in England, or American music would be mainly played on the radio, and Jamaican music wasn't played that much.

GROSS: You also scouted records for sound systems, and these were the sound systems, you know, that basically DJs would use at parties. Why were sound systems so important in Jamaica and spreading new music?

BLACKWELL: Well, they made these speakers, massive speakers, I mean, really would be, like, 15-foot high, you know, with huge, huge speakers in them. And you could hear them four or five miles away, literally, when they were blasting in the country. And it was great. I mean, it was really exciting. And then the closer you got there, the more people there were there. And that's really where all the action was. And the people who did those sound systems, you know, they carried liquor there and played the music there. And the people would pay an entry fee there. And what I did was look for recordings which I thought they would really like and bring them to Jamaica and sold it to them.

GROSS: Oh, and you describe it - that it was, like, very competitive because each person who had a sound system wanted to have great music that no one else had. So you'd scout records, including in the U.S., and then scrape off the label so that no one could figure out what it was so that they couldn't find it.

BLACKWELL: That's right.

GROSS: Yeah, it sounds like it was quite a time. It sounds, like, very unique to Jamaica.

BLACKWELL: Well, it was really great. Thinking back on that period in time, it was great fun, and it was really exciting when those sound systems would be blasting. You couldn't believe how loud they'd be. And you'd find people sometimes sleeping on the speakers, and you'd think, how can they be sleeping on those speakers? You can hear the music three miles away, but they would be sleeping on the speakers because they'd been up for one or two days, probably, playing the recordings. It was hilarious.

GROSS: You decided to start your own record company. You'd been hunting for records and for jukeboxes and for sound systems, and it was an exciting way to learn - to earn a living. And you were also very excited by the music you were finding and loved scouting music. So you decided to start your own record company, which was Island Records. Did you have a creed when you started the company of, like, how you wanted to define yourself and Island?

BLACKWELL: I just wanted to find and look for and meet talent, you know? And when there was somebody who I thought I could do something with, some way I could help them or guide them, then I would look to sign them and then, you know, go in the studio with them and work on the recording with them and release it. And, you know, I'd go around the stores to get it sold. I'd put them in the jukeboxes, etc. And that's really what I was doing. And I was doing that all the time because after the first few recordings, all of which were successful - mainly because they hadn't been that kind of music around before.

GROSS: You know, in your book, you write that one of the reasons why you left Jamaica and went to England is that when Jamaica was getting its independence, you felt like you were on the wrong side of history in Jamaica. And, you know, your parents - or your mother's family had a banana plantation in Jamaica. So I'm wondering what it was like for you to work with artists. How did you bridge that gap? Did they see you as, you know, representing the colonizers?

BLACKWELL: I don't think so, really, because, you know, I didn't sort of live that kind of way. I was very close with Jamaicans, you know? I really was. I cared a lot for them. I loved them a lot and still do. They're wonderful people. And I went to England, really, because I felt that the music that I was doing could really start to work in England, and I could open it up to a much wider audience than just Jamaica.

GROSS: The first big hit that you had after starting Island was a song called "My Boy Lollipop" by Millie Small. Now, she was - what? - 15 when you recorded her?

BLACKWELL: Sixteen, maybe 17.

GROSS: So you wanted to bring her over to England to record her, but you needed her mother's permission. And she had a very unusual sound, a really kind of high-pitched voice. What attracted you to her? And how did you match up the song "My Boy Lollipop" to her? The song was written by Robert Spencer of the doo-wop group The Cadillacs.

BLACKWELL: Well, I first heard her singing a song called "We'll Meet," and that was produced by, really, the top Jamaican producer in those days called Coxsone Dodd. And whenever I played it for anybody in England, they would insist that I give them - I let them take the record. They wouldn't leave my house unless I would let them take the record. And I thought to myself, well, that (ph) - and I thought, if everybody loves this that much, I should really go and check out and see if I could maybe bring her over to England and find a hit for in England.

So that's what I did. I went to Jamaica, and I brought her back to England. And I also brought a guitarist, a Jamaican jazz guitarist, a brilliant musician. I brought him over, too. And Ernest Ranglin was the guitarist. And we went in the studio. And when we produced that record, it was only one minute and 58 seconds. And when I heard it, I knew it was going to be a hit. I just knew it. I don't know how to tell you why I knew it, but I just knew it because it just felt perfect.

GROSS: Well, I will tell you before we hear this record that I used to do, I think, a not half-bad Millie Small impression.

(LAUGHTER)

BLACKWELL: Really?

GROSS: Yes. I would do that for my friends. And they - I think it's fair to say they thought it was, like, not bad.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So...

BLACKWELL: That's good.

GROSS: So let's hear "My Boy Lollipop." This is Millie Small.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY BOY LOLLIPOP")

MILLIE SMALL (MUSICAL ARTIST): (Singing) My boy Lollipop, you make my heart go giddyup. You are as sweet as candy. You're my sugar dandy. Oh, my boy Lollipop, never ever leave me because it would grieve me. My heart, she told me so. I love you. I love you. I love you so. But I don't want you to know. I need you. I need you. I need you so. And I'll never let you go. My boy Lollipop, you make my heart go giddyup. You set the world on fire. You are my one desire. Oh, you're my Lollipop.

GROSS: That was Millie Small's recording "My Boy Lollipop," the first really big hit that Chris Blackwell had on his record label, Island Records. Well, let's take another break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records. He has a new memoir, which is called "The Islander." We'll be right back. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GENIUS OF LOVE")

TOM TOM CLUB (MUSICAL GROUP): What you going to do when you get out of jail? I'm going to have some fun. What do you consider fun? Fun, natural fun.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records, which recorded such diverse performers as Bob Marley and the Wailers, Jimmy Cliff, U2, Grace Jones, Tom Waits, Roxy Music, Steve Winwood, Cat Stevens, the B-52s and many more. He grew up in Jamaica, which is where he started his career in the music business. That's how he got a head start on reggae music and helped popularize it in the U.S. and U.K. He's written a new memoir called "The Islander." When we left off, we were talking about the first big hit for Island Records, the 1964 recording "My Boy Lollipop" by Jamaican singer Millie Small.

Well, success certainly changed Millie Small's life. How did it change your life?

BLACKWELL: Well, it really changed my life because I went from - normally, I'd been driving around London, going to all the record stores and selling to the - in the Jamaican areas. And I loved doing it. I was really enjoying it. And when this record came out, suddenly, I was in studios, you know, with, you know, the Beatles, the Stones, the Who, the - you know? So I went from nowhere to being right up at that kind of top level in terms of connections. It wasn't that I didn't become personally top. It was just that I was around them. And it changed - you know, changed my life. And suddenly, you know, you're somebody that people will call you and say, oh, they'd like you to do a record, which is, in fact, what happened. And that's how the Spencer Davis Group happened because somebody rang me and told me, in Birmingham, there's a group you should come and see. And I went to see them. And they were incredible and became a huge band. And I went to Birmingham one weekend. And I heard a band playing. And they sounded really, really good. And I was walking up some steps because the band were playing on the third floor. And that was quite unusual. Then on my way up the steps, I was hearing this voice, which was incredible, who's sounding like Ray Charles on helium, you know, which helium changes the pitch of your voice. And when I finally got there, it was this very young lad, I would think 16 or 17. And it was Steve Winwood. And that started the band, Spencer Davis Group.

GROSS: What's the Spencer Davis Group song that you feel like you had the most influence on?

BLACKWELL: Well, the first one was called "Keep On Running." And that was actually written by one of the Jamaican artists that I recorded right at the beginning. That was the first one, "Keep On Running." And then they went on to make some really great recordings, wonderful recordings. Steve Winwood was a masterpiece as a singer, songwriter and musician, you know? He could play guitar, keyboard, piano. He was just a master. And I'm sure he still his.

GROSS: Well, the Spencer Davis Group's big hits were "I'm A Man" and "Gimme Some Lovin'." But you mentioned "Keep On Running." And it's interesting that you mentioned that because that song was written by a Jamaican musician. And so it, again, just leaps back to your Jamaican roots and your interest in reggae music and how that kind of continued to influence your career and your music choices.

BLACKWELL: Absolutely did. And that was what was so great. That was such a joy for me, the fact that that was happening, you know? The fact that I was able to get that to happen was great, and whether it was Jimmy Cliff or Wilfred Edwards, who was the person who wrote that first song, "Keep On Running."

GROSS: It wasn't Jackie Edwards?

BLACKWELL: Well, Wilfred is his real name. And I thought Wilfred was a little difficult, so I changed it to Jackie - or I got him to change it to Jackie.

GROSS: Oh, you changed his name (laughter)?

BLACKWELL: Yeah.

GROSS: Oh, that's funny. OK. So let's hear the Spencer Davis Group, "Keep On Running."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KEEP ON RUNNING")

THE SPENCER DAVIS GROUP (MUSICAL GROUP): (Singing) Keep on running. Keep on hiding. One fine day, I'm gonna be the one to make you understand. Oh, yeah. I'm gonna be your man. Keep on running, running from my arms. One fine day, I'm gonna be the one to make you understand. Oh, yeah. I'm gonna be your man. Hey, hey, hey. Everyone is talking about me. It makes me feel so bad. Hey, hey, hey. Everyone is laughing at me. It makes me feel so sad. So keep on running...

GROSS: That's the Spencer Davis Group, "Keep On Running," which was released on the label Island Records, which was founded by my guest, Chris Blackwell, who has a new memoir called "The Islander." You were an executive producer on the film "The Harder They Come," which is set in the Jamaican music industry and starred Jimmy Cliff, the singer and songwriter who recorded the title song, "The Harder They Come." And the film came out in 1972. This was, like, a really important reggae song. So I want to play it. But do you want to say a few words about "The Harder They Come," the film and the song, or about Jimmy Cliff before we hear the song?

BLACKWELL: Sure. Jimmy Cliff is one of the best artists ever out of Jamaica. He was super talented from very young. He had a strange sort of beginning in life because he was not in touch with his mother at all or - nor his father. He was really, like, a loner. I saw him doing a show one time. And I spoke to him and persuaded him to come over to England and come work with me in England. And he came over to England. And right at the beginning, he actually was in the studio when I was recording the Spencer Davis Group's "Keep On Running." And if you listen to it, you'll hear the kind of clapping and things. And that was Jimmy Cliff in the studio. And then from there, he advanced. And he started to form his own band and everything. And he was doing really well. But we just couldn't get it, because he was doing well, like, he would do shows and things. People would like the shows. But we never really had a hit, which could get him on the radio and get him famous, as it were. And when the opportunity came for him to play a part in a movie, I said, you should definitely do that. And he did that. And he also wrote a lot of the songs for the movie, and he was the star of the movie. And that movie really had a tremendous effect on bringing the Jamaican world, music and culture and everything, to the forefront.

GROSS: Well, let's hear "The Harder They Come." And this is Jimmy Cliff, recorded in - was it 1972?

BLACKWELL: About then.

GROSS: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE HARDER THEY COME")

JIMMY CLIFF (MUSICAL ARTIST): (Singing) Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. All right. Well, they tell me of a pie up in the sky waiting for me when I die. But between the day you're born and when you die, they never seem to hear even your cry. So as sure as the sun will shine, I'm gonna get my share now, what's mine. And then the harder they come, the harder they fall, one and all. Ooh, the harder they come, the harder they fall, one and all.

GROSS: That was Jimmy Cliff, "The Harder They Come," and the album was released on Island Records, the record label created and owned by my guest, Chris Blackwell. Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Chris Blackwell. He was the founder of Island Records and the movie production company Island Alive. Now he has a new memoir called "The Islander." And the Island refers to Jamaica, where he is from. We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMY WINEHOUSE SONG, "YOU KNOW I'M NO GOOD")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records, which released records by people like Bob Marley and the Wailers, Jimmy Cliff, U2, Roxy Music, Tom Waits, Grace Jones, Steve Winwood, Cat Stevens, the B-52s, Tom Tom Club and many more.

So we've been talking mostly about the Jamaican music that you produced. But after moving to England, you produced a lot of British performers, and one of the groups you produced was U2. And you were unimpressed with them the first time you heard them on record - on a tape, and then you heard them in person and signed them. What made you so enthusiastic after being not so much?

BLACKWELL: Well because of their passion and because of their drive. I never produced U2, actually, never produced any records with U2. U2...

GROSS: You released them, but you didn't produce them.

BLACKWELL: Yes, released them, right. But U2 ran their own show all the time. They were lucky in that they had a man who was a really good manager. And he recognized the talent in the band, and he did a great job for the band. And the band, you know, lived up to it and expanded it and became who they became, the biggest bands in the world.

GROSS: So "Joshua Tree" was a huge success. U2 was a huge success. But the success kind of led to some financial problem indirectly for Island Records because you had taken some money and invested it in your film company, and then you ended up owing U2 an enormous amount of money in royalties 'cause their music was doing so well. So it's like an example in the music industry or in the entertainment industry how success can sometimes cause problems (laughter) for the label. So how did you end up working that out? 'Cause you didn't have the money to pay the royalties.

BLACKWELL: Well, the best way to sort it out was to offer them an interest in the label itself. That was the best solution. I mean, there were no arguments about the whole process. What had happened is this film I did didn't really work, so I didn't really have the funds. I didn't deliberately not pay them when it was due; I just didn't have the funds. And when that happened, we were able to sit down and work out something because the relationship between myself and the band and the management of the band was always good, and it's good to this day. And that was a way of solving a problem I had, was to give them some of the company. And I was very happy to do that, and I think they were happy to do that. And we went on from there.

GROSS: So let's hear something from U2's 1987 album "Joshua Tree," which was a huge hit for them. Do you have a favorite song from that album?

BLACKWELL: Yeah, "Still Can't Find What I'm Looking For" (ph).

GROSS: And what do you love about it?

BLACKWELL: I love it because it's a good song. It's beautifully sung, beautifully played, everything, you know? And it's meaningful, you know? It's a great song.

GROSS: OK, so let's hear it. And this is U2 from their album "Joshua Tree."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I STILL HAVEN'T FOUND WHAT I'M LOOKING FOR")

U2 (MUSICAL GROUP): (Singing) I have climbed highest mountains. I have run through the fields only to be with you, only to be with you. I have run. I have crawled. I have scaled these city walls, these city walls, only to be with you. But I still haven't found what I'm looking for. But I still haven't found what I'm looking for.

GROSS: That was U2, "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," from their 1987 album, "The Joshua Tree," and that was released on Island Records, the label, which was created by my guest, Chris Blackwell. And Chris Blackwell has a new memoir now called "The Islander."

One of the things I think you really did was help nurture talent by giving them what they needed. And you weren't very, like, hands-on as a producer. Your idea of your role was to make it happen and also to be one of the first listeners and to give some feedback. And sometimes the feedback was accepted, and sometimes, like, the band really knew or the performer really knew what they wanted. And you, you know, often just said that's - you know, go ahead, do your thing. One of the people who you signed was Tom Waits, and he'd been around before you signed him. But I think it's fair to say his music started to change after you signed him. Can you talk about what attracted you to his music and what you did that enabled him to expand musically?

BLACKWELL: Well, firstly, he's just somewhat of a genius character. He's an unusual person. You know, he's - that's the only way I can describe it. He's really a unique character. And I met him, and I just loved the guy, you know? He was just totally different. But it wasn't a music that I could help him with in any way at all. He was a songwriter. He was a singer. He was a performer. He had all those things. Well, he did his own thing as he wanted to do it, and that was it. And the best role I could do was to help as much as I could to get the record out and to get it marketed, etc. But I totally believed in him. He was a - he's a unique character. Absolutely.

GROSS: Chris Blackwell, thank you so much for talking with us.

BLACKWELL: Thank you very much. I enjoyed it very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RAIN DOGS")

TOM WAITS (MUSICAL ARTIST): Inside a broken clock, splashing the wine with all the rain dogs. Taxi - we'd rather walk. Huddle a doorway with the rain dogs for I am a rain dog too. Oh, how we danced and we swallowed the night for it was all right for dreaming. Oh, how we danced away all of the lights. We've always been out of our minds.

GROSS: Chris Blackwell is the founder of Island Records. His new memoir is called "The Islander." After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review a new book about the pioneering surgeon who led the team that reconstructed the faces of some of the men who suffered facial trauma during World War I. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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