Tue | Oct 17, 2017

Winston Blake plays his final ‘Merritone’

Published:Sunday | February 28, 2016 | 12:00 AMMel Cooke
Winston 'Merritone' Blake

Winston 'Merritone' Blake, OD, who died at the University Hospital of the West Indies (UHWI) yesterday morning, is being remembered as an icon of Jamaican popular music. He was 75 years old.

Blake's moniker comes from the sound system founded by his father Val in Springfield, St Thomas, in 1950 and carried on by his sons Winston, Trevor, Tyrone and Monty to become the oldest sound system in the world which continues to operate. Tyrone died in 2012.

Frankie Campbell, chairman of the Jamaica Association of Vintage Artistes and Affiliates (JAVAA), of which Blake was a founding and long-serving executive member, said: "We use the word 'icon' very loosely these days, but indeed, he was an icon in every sense of the word." Campbell, who is also the bass guitarist/manager of Fab Five band, recalled Blake taking the band on its first overseas trip to Cayman in January 1971, two months after it was formed.

This nurturing of younger players in the music industry continued to Blake's death and Campbell pointed out that he was very supportive of especially live performances. "Once he was available, he would have been there," Campbell said. "He was always giving advice."

For ethnomusicologist and university lecturer Dr Dennis Howard, "It is a significant loss to the music, entertainment and the sound system industry. Winston has been instrumental to these industries, from back in the '70s because at one time, the Merritone brand was so popular."

According to Howard: "The Turntable on Red Hills Road is legendary and the sound system itself and the Blake family are legendary, because of their contribution to entertainment and music in general, and it's not only Jamaica popular music that they are known for. They are known for jazz and blues, soul, funk, and many more."

"It's a significant loss and he is a legend. A part of his success is that he was always someone who will be reaching out to you. He was a people person and that's one of the reasons why the brand was so successful," added Howard.

And Campbell noted that Blake was also instrumental in producing songs by his late wife, Cynthia Schloss, and Hopeton Lewis, among others. However, it was in the sound system arena that he spent over half century on the road.

"They (Merritone) took the music to the mass of the people, but especially the middle class ... . We focus on the Bob Marleys of this world and the live performers, but over the past 50 years, Winston has been travelling all over the world," Campbell said, noting that he was especially popular in Europe and North America.

Merritone hosts an annual reunion in Jamaica, the sound system celebrating 65 years as last year's staging was held from October 11 to 19.

- Andrew Harris contributed to this story.