Winston 'Merritone' Blake, Jamaican Sound System Pioneer, Dead at 75

Winston "Merritone" Blake
Steve James 

Winston "Merritone" Blake receiving his award as an icon in the sound system movement at the International Reggae Day concert/awards ceremony in Kingston.

Winston "Merritone" Blake, the venerated Jamaican musicologist, producer, and owner/operator of Merritone Music, succumbed to complications from asthma on Feb. 27 at a Kingston hospital. He was 75.

Merritone is Jamaica's oldest continually operational sound system, founded in 1950, prior to the emergence of the island's indigenous popular music forms and its prolific recording industry.

"We were here before reggae, when R&B records were played alongside calypso, mento and country and western, that's what filled Jamaica's dance floors back then," Blake reminisced in a July 2015 interview with Billboard in Kingston. "When rock and roll came in, R&B dried up in the U.S. that's when Jamaica started making its own music."

Merritone's enduring popularity is due to their signature musical offerings consisting of vintage and contemporary selections from several genres, complemented by Jamaica's ska, rock steady, reggae and dancehall, played in precisely blended segments. Annual events including the Merritone Family Reunion held in Jamaica each October and the Merritone Family Fun Day in various North American cities, typically sell out months in advance, each pulling broad swathes of international fans.

"In traveling the world over the past 50 years Winston Blake presented the best of Jamaica's music to multiple generations; he will be missed for his warm personality, considerable charm, exceptional skills as a selector and as an exemplary ambassador for Jamaican music," commented Andrea Davis, founder of International Reggae Day (annually, July 1). Blake and Merritone were honored in Kingston as icons within Jamaica's sound system fraternity on International Reggae Day 2015.


Winston Blake was born on Nov. 19, 1940 to Ruthlyn and Winston St. Valentine "Val" Blake in the eastern Jamaican parish of St. Thomas. Ruthlyn died while Winston was a child. Winston and his brothers Trevor, Tyrone and Monte urged their father, a Public Works employee and Phillips Electronics salesman who struggled to make ends meet to form a sound system (consisting of a turntable, speakers and a selector who chose the records) and play at events as a means of generating income. Val initially resisted because sound systems were considered a dishonorable middle class pursuit; the Blake boys, like many middle class youths of the era, embraced the movement.

"Jamaica's class structure was very rigid and sound systems were for society's lower echelon," recalled Blake, "but due to economic needs, our father eventually decided to start Mighty Merritone, St. Thomas' first sound system." 

Val Blake passed away in 1957 and his sons took the reins of Merritone. When Kingston's most formidable sounds including Duke Reid's Trojan and Coxsone Dodd's Downbeat played in St. Thomas, Merritone played, quite confidently, right alongside them. "We weren't a heavyweight sound with powerful big speaker boxes, we played for parties, smaller dances, our sound was mellow, more refined," explained Monte Blake. 

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In 1962 Merritone debuted in Kingston at the Wembly Club; they've been based in Jamaica's capital ever since. By the mid-60s Merritone secured numerous bookings across the island, with followers from all societal classes. Because Jamaican music wasn't played on the island's sole radio station (RJR) at the time, artists and producers depended on Merritone and other sound systems to get their records heard. 

Blake launched the Merritone Talent Search in the late 1960s. Beres Hammond, harmony trio The Mighty Diamonds and Winston's future wife, the late Cynthia Schloss are among the luminaries whose careers started there. Blake produced several of Ms. Schloss's biggest hits including a reggae version of the country standard "Send Me The Pillow That You Dream On." Blake's other notable productions include Hopeton Lewis' 'Take It Easy,' in 1967, widely regarded as Jamaica's first rock steady record. 

In 1973 the Blake brothers opened Kingston's landmark Turntable Club, which enjoyed a 28-year run. Bob Marley went there often, as did many prominent musicians, politicians and other professionals. Legendary producer Lee "Scratch" Perry waited several hours at Turntable one night in 1977, before handing Winston a 7" inch single.

Blake recorded several minor hits as a vocalist including 'Cambodia', credited to Blake Boy, produced by Harry J, and as Judge Winchester on the Perry produced "Public Jestering."

A recipient of countless awards including the Jamaican government's Order of Distinction for contributions to the island's entertainment industry, Merritone's seven-decade success story is based on the same principles by which Winston Blake lived his life. "When you do things the right way, it stands the test of time. Every night I go out, downtown, uptown and everybody gives me maximum respect; that makes me happy. I tell people I don't have to die to go to heaven because I live there now."

Blake is survived by five children, seven grandchildren and brothers Monte and Trevor Blake.