Welcome Bovine Ska and Rocksteady Listeners,
On the March 1st, 2016 Bovine Ska and Rocksteady we shared the sad news of the passing of Winston, “Merritone” Blake. Winston passed away on Saturday morning at the University Hospital of the West Indies at the age of 75. We send much respect and many many condolences to our dearest friend Barbara and the entire Blake family. The Merritone legacy is an enormous one, and we would like to dedicate this entire show to Winston Blake’s impact through his work bringing Jamaican music to the world.
Born in Morrant Bay, in the St. Thomas parish, Winston Blake grew up with music constantly in his life. In the Blake family home, there was always a gramophone and music to listen to, and this was one of the early catalysts that would lead to the Merritone sound system, one of the longest to exist in Jamaica.
The Merritone sound has always been a family business. The Mighty Merritone sound system opened up in St. Thomas, the first in the parish, in 1950 by Winston’s father, Val. The soundsystem idea emerged as the Blake brothers, Trevor, Winston, Tyrone, and Monte, would frequently visit a chinese restaurant at the bus stop on their way home from Kingston, where the owner, a Mr. Chin, played records on his Skyrocket sound system; the sounds and setup here inspired the brothers to propose the idea to their father, who was a civil servant, in order to improve the family’s finances. After some consideration, their father returned from a trip abroad with a Philips 21 amplifier, two speakers, and Garrard turntables to get the system setup as Winston and his brothers made connections on how to source records. Six years after the beginning of the soundsystem, Val passed away, and Winston and Trevor took over it full time, eventually moving the Merritone sound to Kingston in 1962.
In Kingston, the Merritone soundsystem rose in ranks, becoming a favorite at the Copacabana, The Wheel, Sombrero Club, and the Glass Bucket. During this time, Winston Blake caught the eyes of Federal Records, and the sons of Ken Khouri, Paul and Richard, opened up a subsidiary named Merritone to produce original records that had a label name that people would associate with the vibrant and popular sounds of the Merritone soundsystem. Winston did not produce records for this label, but the decision of the Khouris to name the label after the Blake family’s sound is an enormous testament to the impact of Winston and Merritone music.
We began this memorial show, with the substantial ska and rocksteady that was produced for the Merritone record label.
One of my favorite stories about the rise of an artist in Jamaica is that on Don Henry Buckley, who got his start at Merritone. During the daytime, Buckley was a police officer and was the conductor for the Jamaica Constabulary band. At night, Buckley would write, sing, and record for the Merritone label. Buckley wrote the Gaylettes’ “Silent River Runs Deep” and “Emergency Call.” In the spirit of collaboration, like many label’s artists, the musicians on the Merritone label would also sing on other artists’ tracks. Consequently, you’ll hear Judy Mowatt’s Gaylettes provide backup vocals on Buckley’s recordings.
By the late 60s, Winston began recording for Rupie Edwards’ and Harry J’s labels. As a recording artist, he was recording DJ tracks, and occasionally, he was known here as The Blake Boy. During the soundsystem days, the Merritone team initially got the records from American R&B in three ways:
- From sellers who would hang outside of whorehouses to sell records
- From people who traveled to America to do farm work and would bring records back
- When radio stations in Tennessee were later re-broadcasted in Jamaica, the late night shows played ads for record shops in the state that offered fixed price bulk record deals where they would send a set of records for a price
By the 1970s, the market and popularity for American records had definitely dried up, and like many other operators, Winston began to produce his own records, which was an absolutely sensible direction because by this point, the Merritone soundsystem had been in existence for two decades, and Winston had been holding talent shows to discover new talent. One of the talents Winston discovered with the VIP Talent Series was Cynthia Schloss. The tracks you heard were from the Ready & Waiting record, which Blake arranged and produced, and he definitely spared no expense in the backing band for this album. The band included: Cedric Brooks and Tommy McCook on horns; Val Douglas on bass; and the great Marcia Griffiths providing backing vocals.
Winston was not only responsible for the Merritone sound system and label, which brought music to people since the 1950s to today, he was also responsible for fostering community up until today. He was the creator of the Merritone and Family Fun Day which was held in Connecticut for the last 15 years before moving to Long Island last year. He also created the Merritone Family Reunion & Homecoming Event, which celebrates its 26th anniversary this year, to bring together all who hold the Merritone sound near and dear to them.
In the 1970s, Winston opened the Turntable Club on Red Hills Road in Kingston. This would be the epicenter of nightlife in Kingston, and in the tradition of the original Mighty Merritone sound system, the Turntable Club allowed all people, regardless of socioeconomic status, to listen to the best artists and selectors in the city. As a result, everyone stopped by the Turntable Club, including the Rolling Stones, Bob Marley, and King Tubby.
For his contributions to the Jamaican music and entertainment industry, Winston received the Order of Distinction in 1998. In 2012, he received a proclamation from the office of Yvette Clarke, 11th Congressional District, New York for his contributions to music.
For news on the upcoming spotlights and fun discoveries tied to early Jamaican music, join the group for the Bovine Ska and Rocksteady on Facebook.
Lily and Generoso
Here is our Winston Blake Memorial Program from March 1st, 2016