Merritone music: foundation for Blakes' education

          The Jamaica Gleaner  
By Mel Cook

Monty Blake reflected that if their father had died and left them a million dollars, "we might have gone through it ... What he has left for us is the legacy". - Colin Hamilton/Freelance photographer

THERE WAS a time when only two high school scholarships were awarded per parish. As schoolboys, Winston and Tyrone Blake did not get the coveted scholarships for St Thomas.

But when their father Val started boarding them in Kingston to attend school, the brothers heard the sound of support for their education calling to them from the speakers of a sound system. They amplified it (in stereo) for their father, urging him to start a sound system.
Next year, that sound system, Merritone, turns 60 years old.

"He was working with the Public Works Department," Monty told The Gleaner. Monty, along with Tyrone, completes the Blake brothers quartet that runs Merritone. Running a sound system was not exactly considered a lofty middle-class pursuit. As Monty Blake puts it, "those times, sound system was on the ground floor," that lowest level being below Torrington Bridge in Kingston.
Running with the idea    

Val Blake was already supplementing his income by selling Philips radios, in an era where radio was just catching on in Jamaica, and the boys thought it would be a natural progression. Val Blake's response to his sons' urging was not immediate, as Monty said he did not say anything to them. However, the sound did not fall on fallow ground, as "all of a sudden he decided to jump into it".
Monty Blake pointed out that pioneers - and Merritone was a pioneer in St Thomas - often do not make any money and says "even though we were a novelty it was not easy". He laughed as he remembered his father taking a goat from his mother (the brothers' grandmother) every time Merritone held a dance, invariably telling her that the event did not work out.

Craig Ross
The profit was figuratively eaten up. Then "all of a sudden people liked it", Blake said. With that, however, came competition. He pointed out that as a family business, members of the Blake family always played the music themselves, while others like Sir Coxsone Dodd and Duke Reid hired others to spin the tunes on their respective sound systems. "You had a few people who are not Blake by name, but they are family," Monty said, for example Dennis Thompson (Merritone deejay Mikey T's brother and Craig Ross' uncle).

Winston Blake

Bridging social gaps
Merritone has played and continues to play a critical role in bridging social gaps and bringing families together through their events (he mentions the blend of persons at their Thursday night Waterfalls events, as well as the generations that attend the family get-together in the United States in July).
And apart from fulfilling its economic purpose well beyond the initial objective of providing economic support for all four boys (Monty points out that Winston was one of the first persons to quit his nine-to-five and play music full-time), "one of the great things is the friends who went away". These friends also sent Merritone music, and Monty points out that "it is a cooperative effort".

Monty reflected that if their father had died and left them a million dollars, "we might have gone through it ... What he has left for us is the legacy". That includes the friends at the core of the 'Merri family'.

The Gleaner asked if there is another business that the family could have gone into and Monty Blake said "I think if we had taken up religion I could have done well." Then he laughed merrily.
"It is a struggle. This has got so competitive. All you need now is a computer," he said, adding that it is good, as many times he gets to hear records other people play.
"You have the job to break new records and retain the standards people know Merritone for," Monty Blake said.