The Island Records founder on his encouragement of Bob Marley, Cat Stevens, and U2
I grew up in Jamaica, and when the country became independent in 1962, I went to England to sell the records I had made back home [to the Jamaican community].
I learned to sign artists not so much by listening to their music as through evaluating them as people. Intelligence is very important if you're going to have a long-term career. When you do have a hit, you go from a bum to a hero in a second, and you've got to be savvy enough to guide yourself through the maze.
I didn't get U2's music—the sound was too trebly for me—but I signed them because I loved them as people. I talked to Richard Branson at a party and liked him so much that I helped him start Virgin Rec-ords. I met Cat Stevens when he was trying to do a musical on the Russian Revolution, and even though I wasn't interested in the musical, I loved his passion. I told him to rustle up his hair, look a little crazed, and tell his label that he wanted to do his next record with the London Philharmonic. He was released from his contract and came to work with me.
In 1972, I got a lot of criticism for giving Bob Marley money—without a contract—to record an album. Everyone said I was crazy. Marley was known as a rebel; he had a reputation for being difficult, and when I met him, he was totally broke. I fronted him some 4,000 pounds—a fair bit then—which effectively said, "If you want to screw me, screw me." There was something about him, though, and I think he did trust me. But it helped that I trusted him first.
Too often, record companies treat artists like they're slippery. Marley just wanted to be treated fairly. The Jamaican music business was corrupt, with artists getting five or ten pounds to record and no royalties. Bob Marley and his partners came in like lions and didn't trust anyone. I knew I had to show them I was an ally. Two or three months afterwards, I went to meet with them and we signed a contract.
Bob turned out to be brilliantly talented. He died just as he was starting to take off. I was crushed that he went so soon.