Merritone Disco is in celebration mode, having reached the biblical milestone of three score and ten, and for them, their mantra accurately sums up their modus operandi: ‘Things of quality have no fear of time.’ Or, as owner Monte Blake puts it, while exhibiting the cheekiness and bravado that is essential to any soundman worth his salt, “Great sound systems come, and great sound systems go. They are now resting in silence, and Merritone is still here.” Notably, the 70-year-old Merritone has the distinction of being the oldest continuously active sound system in the world.
In an interview with The Sunday Gleaner, Blake, the musical maestro who celebrated his 75th birthday recently, was only too willing to replay the oft-told ‘Merri-story’, but he warned in a sing-song voice, “Ohhhh, it’s a long story!” And it’s one that is so worth telling that there are even plans for a book about this sound system, which has its roots in St Thomas and moved to Kingston in 1962 and captured the hearts of Kingstonians at its first gig at the Wembley Cricket Club.
Monte describes that as a watershed moment for Merritone. “This likkle country sound from Morant Bay think them can come play in Kingston. Well, we were no fly-by-night sound, and we showed them,” the quintessential soundman, Monte, stated. Subsequently, Merritone, Monte said, became the choice of the collegiate set that graduated from the house-party circuit to attending sound system dances at venues such as Peyton Place, Glass Bucket, Sombrero Club, Copacabana, The Wheel, Victoria Pier, The UWI’s Students’ Union, the Old Dramatic Theatre at The UWI, Akara, Wagon Wheel in Mandeville, and Ocean View in Montego Bay.
“We were the first sound to play on campus (at The UWI), at Taylor Hall. Douglas Orane and some big businessmen, that’s where they met Merritone,” Monte the historian lectured. He added, “A lot of men met their wives by coming to Merritone, and now, we are playing music for entire generations – father, daughter, son, and their kids. We are more than just a sound, we are family.”
It is hardly surprising that after having been in the business for 70 years, Merritone, which was started by Val Blake and then handed over to his sons Trevor, Winston (deceased), Tyrone (deceased), and Monte, known collectively as the Blake brothers, has secured many firsts. It was the first sound to play at a hotel, the Sheraton Hotel in Kingston, and the significance of that also lies in what some would prefer to sweep under the carpet, the stigma attached to sound systems from those days.
“We went to the hotel and set up in the day, but when we went back in the night, the manager informed us that we couldn’t play there. They had moved everything. We told him that we were contracted to play for an event, and eventually, everything was sorted out,” Monte recalled, laughing out loud as he related the follow-up story, which saw this same manager subsequently calling Merritone for an event.
Merritone undoubtedly played a huge role in breaking down this stigma, but the Blake brothers also used a little psychology on the road to full embrace and acceptance by the entire gamut of society. “Ronnie Nasrala, who used to play with Byron Lee a lot, told us one day, ‘Your market is middle class, so use the name Merritone Discotheque’,” Monte related. They thought about it and so changed from ‘sound system’ to ‘discotheque’, which Monte explained is a French word meaning ‘playing music on discs’. Well, social media wasn’t around back then to troll them for this move; however, Gleaner cartoonist Leandro surely used his pen, and it was epic.
“As I recall, there was a cartoon of a girl telling her mother that she was going to the discotheque. Her mother’s response was, ‘Dis guh tek off yuh clothes!’” Monte said, still finding humour in what has certainly become a ‘Merri moment’ in the annals of this legendary sound system/discotheque.
He is proud of the fact that Merritone has had the distinction of having shared billing with some of the pioneering soundmen of the era, including Sir Coxsone Down Beat, Tom the Great Sebastian, V Rocket, Count Nick, Sky Rocket, Duke Reid the Trojan, Doc’s, Lord Koos, King Edwards, Prince Buster, and The Mellow Canary. Monte also pointed out that during those days, the radio stations would not play Jamaican music, and the sound system and the jukeboxes were the conduit through which the singers and players of instruments would make their music heard.
Merritone, always a leader, established the Merritone Talent Search at the Glass Bucket and secured sponsorship from The Gleaner and JBC (now TVJ). And, like all things Merritone, there is a story – in fact, many irresistible stories. For example, when a young Beresford Hammond left St Mary to audition for the Merritone Talent Search, he arrived late and was told by the Blake brothers to return the following week. Disappointed, he left and went back to St Mary, but the following week, he was there very early, and according to Monte, they knew from the get-go that Beres had the makings of a star. In 2013, Beres Hammond was awarded the Order of Jamaica by the Government in recognition of his “exceptional and dedicated contribution to the Jamaican music industry”.
Other artistes who emerged from these talent-exposure series in the late ’60s were Cynthia Schloss (who would later wed Monte’s brother, Winston), The Tamlins, Jacob Miller, Ruddy Thomas, and The Mighty Diamonds. Merritone also provided a major launching pad for several of Jamaica’s most successful dancehall DJs, among them U-Roy, Big Youth, Yellowman, Beenie Man, Sean Paul, and Elephant Man.
Merritone blazed a trail as the first sound system to travel overseas and was also the first to take its brand of musical entertainment to Cuba. “We won the hearts and respect of our Latin neighbours in Santiago and Havana,” Monte said.
An integral part of the Merritone story is the Turntable Club on Red Hills Road, their base for 29 unforgettable years, which saw the crème de la crème of Jamaican society, international celebrities, and the regular Joes all rubbing shoulders every Thursday night inside this melting pot that was Merritone. Merritone has moved on to other spaces since, including Waterfalls in Liguanea, but for the past two years has been playing ‘First Sundays’ at the Terra Nova All-Suite Hotel.
“A lot of people have stayed with Merritone throughout the years. They won’t come out every Saturday night, but they do come out, and that sustains us,” he said with gratitude. In October 2018, the institution called Turntable was declared a heritage site at a ceremony presided over by Minister of Culture Olivia Grange. The Blake brothers have never forgotten their roots, and in October 2000, when Merritone achieved its 50th anniversary milestone, the then St Thomas Parish Council approved a resolution changing the name of the house in which Merritone was born from Bay Mount to Blake Hill. This instrument was presented to Winston and Trevor Blake in a ceremony at Rudolph Elder Park in the town of Morant Bay.
According to Monte, many of the early Merritone fans are now icons in Jamaican society. “Music is the glue that binds, but it is other things as well. Winston was a philanthropist, and he loved people.”
In paying tribute to Winston ‘Merritone’ Blake at his funeral four years ago, Grange stated, “The many roles Winston and Merritone have played in the production and popularisation of Jamaican music is deserving of our sincerest gratitude as a nation.”