Date: April 15, 2016 (Edited May 21, 2016)
Winston `Merritone’ Blake was first a businessman, and then an entertainer. As the Thursday-nights wore on, I would leave the company at my table, and wind my way through the crowd and temporarily position myself by his cockpit. I always thought it worthwhile, to see him at-work. There were lessons to be learnt. If his eyes met mine, he would beam his trademark smile and give me a thumbs-up. And if he had time, he would come over, bow - as if the pleasure was his and not mine, give me a firm two-handed handshake, and even plant a `Fortis’ kiss.
Winston might have known my face, but for sure, not my name. As most are now claiming, I can not. I was never a close friend, only a patron. But Winston – the businessman, knew the importance of making each and ever patron feel special. `Merri’ was more than about keeping us merry. He was a humbly built monument who brought people of all walks of life, together.
It’s been about fifty-two (52) years since I’ve been a Merritone patron - insisting to (Dr.) Tony Keyes back in 1964 that I was old-enough. Back then, Brut was the cologne to splash on; Flagg Brothers were the shoes to be seen in; and Copacabana – the St. Thomas Road sea-side club run by the Cokes, was the venue to be seen at. I liked the long drive and the cool night-air breeze to get out there, just as I did when Merri’s location moved to Red Gal Ring. By then I was in the way, as `Webba’ (Calvin Stewart), `Chicken’ and the gang, from Bay Farm Road, made their way up the hill, in a sprawling `fish-tail’ car. They had to pass Gore Terrace, and always left a seat for me. Afterwards, it was always a breeze rolling downhill, as by then we were all very-very merry.
Then in the early 80’s when I worked in Kirkvine, Manchester, come Wednesday-evenings, I would always call Ms. Vincent - the receptionist at the front desk, and with the firm instruction: “Get me a seat on the plane to Kingston tomorrow evening, and fly me back-up on Friday-morning.” The pay was enough, but not enough for me not to allow myself a perk. No questions were asked, by my boss Mr. Ian White, or his boss, Mr. Michael Peart. A ritual was a ritual, and, a promise was a promise. `Skipper John’ was waiting on me, and, weekly prayers had to be said. By that time, his location had moved to Turn Table at Red Hills Road. Whatever pressures were on my mind, as I approached the stairs and Merri’s music escaped in the down-draft, so did my work and worldly concerns. They escaped me too.
Thursday-nights at `Merri’ were heavenly for me – especially come Skatalites, and `Ball-a-Fire’ time; Don Drummond and his `Eastern Standard Time’ or, `Occupation’ time; John Folkes’ ‘Oh Carolina’ time; Hopeton Lewis’ Sounds and Pressure’ time; Toots And The Maytals’ `Dawg-War’ and Pain In My Belly time(s); or Stranger & Patsy’s `When I Call Your Name’ time. Then Winston would reach for his fire-horn, tambourine, and grater or Calabash shaker, make merry, and break all hell loose. Winston was a man who had all these little gizmos in his cubbyholes, and would reach for them like how a surgeon would reach for an operating-tool. Each tool had its time, and ‘Merri’ always knew `that time’, and, how to signal an end to `the time’. “One more to get-out of this now,” he would forewarn. Then he might use `Drum Song’ by Jackie Mittoo or `Mary Poppins’ by Tommy McCook and Danny Simpson, to transition to quieter times.
How fondly I remember him playing classics like, Barbara Acklin’s ‘Love Makes A Woman’; William Bell’s ‘Bring The Curtain Down’; Walter Jackson’s ‘Baby, I Love Your Way’; Mercy’s `Love Can Make You Happy’; Freda Payne’s `Band of Gold’; Arthur Prysock’s `Again’; The Four Tops’ `It’s All In The Game’; The Spinners’ ‘It’s A Shame’; The Supremes’ ‘Someday We’ll Be Together’; The Temptations’ ‘Lady Soul’; and Stevie Wonder’s `Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday’. And to hear him sing descant to Paul Young’s ‘Every Time You Go Away’. Even today, when I hear those ballads, I hear `Merri’. No one knew how to slide into them, like he knew.
Then there were the Fortis fixtures –big `Fortis men’ – Don Clarke, Delano `Zack’ Harrison, `Bongo-Len’ Tulloch, and later on, the ever-smiling Errol ‘Yogi’ Gage. If any of those gentlemen weren’t there on a Thursday-night, then trust me, there had to have been some family-bereavement. Such was Merri’s pull.
If one wanted to see anybody whom one hadn’t seen for years, then most likely, if they were in-town, they would be, `at Merri’. If Payton Fuller, Las Talbot or Michael Vernon had come-in from the cold, then, they would be in-the-house. In the heyday of a Test match in Jamaica, come Thursday-night, or a Saturday-night, chances were, that Jeff Dujon, Desmond Haynes, Michael Holding, Clive Lloyd, or Lawrence Rowe, would be in-the-house. So would intellectual luminaries like Orlando Patterson, and politicians, too numerous to mention. Then there was the Hope Road crew of Garth White and Jerry Small. Such was Merri’s pull.
As I said, I learnt a lot from seeing Winston at-work. I admired his energy, enthusiasm, court-awareness, preparation, and his strive for perfection. Even when his house was full, he was never a slouch. He would play as if the place was empty and as if he was trying to earn his `tea-bread’.
Before all this new-fangled computer-selected music era, Winston would shuffle his 45’s like a deck of cards. Then when he found the right one, put it in his bullpen – on his second turntable. With his headset clamped between a tilted head and a raised shoulder, he would raise and reset, raise and reset the needle, until, the right grove was found. Then in one fell swoop he would make the draw. So deft was his operation that few realized until well after the fact that the government had changed. And then in elation, he would whip-off the headset, with the satisfaction of a Test batsman who had just scored his first Test century.
Then there were the personalized welcomes and birthday greetings. No one could read them while the music was playing, with the personalized-touch as ‘Merri’ could. His tone was forever fitting. And if by chance, your name happened to be on his list, you felt special.
In Dan Kelly, he had a loyal soul too. Some would say, too loyal. `Under no circumstances, let them leave’, was Kelly’s mantra. So even when Winston was overseas on-engagement, and it was approaching two o’clock in the morning, Kelly dressed in tie and with his umbrella, would still stick to the script: “Merri soo come man. Merri soo come.” Under no circumstances could he ever bring himself to saying, “Winston is off the island.” Both are now gone. And so, no longer can that be. They are both now, in spirit, somewhere off our island.
Rest well Winston ‘Merritone’ Blake!