After spending time with Chris Blackwell in Jamaica I came away with two thoughts.
First, the most remarkable people are the most difficult to define — and Chris fits that to a tee.
And second, inspiration in business and investing can come from the most unusual sources.
Blackwell may be somewhat familiar to many readers. Familiar as in: "He's that music guy, right?"
But to my first point above, he’s so much more than that. Blackwell is the founder of Island Records, and through producing Bob Marley became, “the man most responsible for bringing reggae music to the rest of the world.”
He’s also the confidant of countless bold-faced names in the entertainment field, an entrepreneur, real estate developer (South Beach), and hotelier. And, as it turns out, Blackwell also partly helped inspire the investing framework for Dan Loeb, one of the most successful hedge fund managers on the planet.
Blackwell’s home/resort, Goldeneye, used to belong to Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond books, whom Blackwell knew as a child. When I interviewed Blackwell in 2016 I called him "the real most interesting man in the world."
Today, I’ve tracked him down at Goldeneye to speak about a memoir he’s published, “The Islander,” which I highly recommend if you find any of the above vaguely interesting. Blackwell has his detractors by the way — you don’t get to the top without them — and he isn’t shy about giving them their due in his book.
You can watch the interview here, where Blackwell talks about Marley, U2, Cat Stevens, Steve Winwood, and dozens of other artists he produced and mentored.
But the soft-spoken Blackwell is also a businessman who rubbed shoulders with an amazing group of leaders, including Steve Jobs, Paul Allen, even Xi Jinping — much of which he discussed with me after the tape stopped rolling. So I decided to round up some of those stories below.
Blackwell tells me that Jobs came to Goldeneye for his 29th birthday, on February 24, 1984,. “He flew over from some tech conference in New Orleans,” Blackwell recalls. (Softcon was held in NOLA on February 21-23 of that year.)
“Steve kept running around looking for a VHS machine to play an Apple TV commercial that he was excited about.” That was likely the iconic “1984” commercial, directed by Ridley Scott, heralding the introduction of the Macintosh. Jobs would be keen to show it to Blackwell and others because the spot only ran once on national TV — during the Super Bowl the previous month on January 22nd. And of course there was no YouTube back then to watch it after that.
The late co-founder of Microsoft visited Goldeneye by boat. “Twice,” Blackwell notes.
And as you might remember this wasn’t just any boat. The Octopus, a 414-foot, $200 million mega-yacht is one of the biggest and most famous vessels on the planet. Its name ‘Octopus’ is close to “Octopussy and The Living Daylights,” the 14th and final James Bond book (written by Fleming at Goldeneye), but that’s just a coincidence.
Paul Allen and Blackwell did share a love of rock music though. Allen, who founded the Museum of Popular Culture (MOPOP) an “institution centered on music exploration” in Seattle, had a studio built on Octopus, where Blackwell’s superstars, U2 — as well as Mick Jagger, Usher and Joss Stone — have recorded or played.
Blackwell tells the story of when he hosted Xi Jinping, then the vice president of China, in 2009 at Strawberry Hill, his “beautiful mountain estate nestled 3,000 feet atop of Jamaica’s glorious Blue Mountains.” Xi was touring the country and also “participated in the groundbreaking ceremony for the Montego Bay Convention Centre, a project which was funded by the Chinese government in the sum of $1.87 billion…” according to the Jamaica Information Service.
Up in the mountains, “Xi Jinping asked me how old a church we saw, and I said ‘Oh that's very old,’” said Blackwell. “Then I realized who I was talking to.”
This story is a bit more convoluted, but bear with me: it’s worth the punchline.
In 1990, Blackwell invested in a California chain, Fatburger, through the help of Patrick Savin, a banker originally from Jamaica, who used to work for Drexel Burnham in LA. Savin would later start his own firm based out of Sweden and in the 1990s went to Russia looking for investments, particularly St. Petersburg, where a young, up and coming city official— whom Savin assumed was KGB — met Savin at the airport and drove him around. (Wikipedia notes that in 1991 Putin “became head of the Committee for External Relations of the Mayor's Office [of Saint Petersburg], with responsibility for promoting international relations and foreign investments…”)
At the end of one day, the two men went to, yep, a reggae club. “The band was very good, singing 'No Woman, Bo Cry,' but my host Vladimir assured me they were just parroting English,” recalls Savin. “Anyway I told him that I knew the man who put reggae on the map, Chris Blackwell, and that I could call him on my [early days] cell phone.”
So Savin calls Blackwell and puts his host, one Vladimir Putin, on the phone. “Putin told me how much he liked reggae music and how cool he thought it was,” recalls Blackwell. “That’s right, that’s what Putin said,” confirms Savin, who was then sitting right next to the now-President of Russia, some thirty years ago.
Loeb, the founder and CEO of the $16 billion hedge fund, Third Point, worked for Blackwell back in the 1980s. Here’s what Loeb told me about that.
“I met him when he came over to Warburg Pincus looking for money for his company. This was 1987, and I was a young analyst, like 26. I worked on the due diligence. I thought that we should make the investment in the company but Warburg got cold feet because of some shortfalls on the movie side of the business.
“I followed Chris out to the elevator and basically said, ‘Hey, I really enjoyed getting to know you. Here's my number, if I can ever be helpful to you. Let me know.’ So we stayed in touch. He ended up offering me a job at Island and I decided to leave Warburg.
“I was director of corporate development, which was kind of a catch all. I worked with him to get financing at First Boston with a guy named Andy Terentjev. At the time we were negotiating the purchase of the Bob Marley estate. I also traveled around with Chris and met everyone from Michael Ovitz to Alan Grubman to Richard Branson. Gosh, on the artist side, I had Thanksgiving dinner with Keith Richards and hung out with Marianne Faithful.
“[But] I was a Wall Street guy at heart, and I wanted to get back into investing. At the end of the year, I got a job at a risk arbitrage firm and then went back to Wall Street. We left on great terms, Chris was actually the first investor in my offshore fund.
“What I took away from working with Chris is just how eclectic and interdisciplinary and how creative his mind is. He was someone who could travel anywhere, and was as comfortable barefoot in Jamaica, as he was in his house in London or in the country, or in LA. He was just completely open, always curious, always learning and had an incredible eye and ear for talent. He was able to kind of contextualize things from really disparate sources and just figure out what was cool. He had this incredible taste filter that I'd never seen before. There were like higher level principles at work here, just in terms of his ability to connect with talent and, and appreciating art and content.
“This may sound kind of prosaic as a comparison, but there's not many people who do high yield, distressed debt, structured debt, venture capital, and growth stock investing all in one roof. And I think it's having that broader overview, to trust in one's instincts and judgment — that I got in part from Chris — which has enabled me to do that.”
This article was featured in a Saturday edition of the Morning Brief on September 3, 2022. Get the Morning Brief sent directly to your inbox every Monday to Friday by 6:30 a.m. ET. Subscribe
Follow Andy Serwer, editor-in-chief of Yahoo Finance, on Twitter: @serwer