If you ask anyone who the biggest band of all time in Barbados is, they would undoubtedly say – The Merrymen.
This Calypso band – The Merrymen – took the world by storm in the 1960’s – a time when the music scene was exploding with the rise of the Beatles, The Beach Boys and The Doors.
The Merrymen started in Barbados as a four man band playing what they knew best – traditional Barbadian Calypso. Calypso started as a form of communicating political views and news in Trinidad, and became popular music in the 1950’s when songs like The Banana Boat song ‘Day-O’, were taking the world by storm. ‘Day-O’, for instance, written by a fellow Barbadian, Irving Burgie, became the first full length record to ever sell more than a million copies.
The Merrymen formed their band in 1962 and started playing gigs in Barbados at The Driftwood Inn in St Lawrence Gap, in schools and at charity gigs. Robin Hunte, tenor guitar and electric mandolin, Stephen Fields, guitar and vocals, and Emile Straker, lead vocalist, guitar and steel pan, started a trio and then Chris Gibbs, Bass Guitar, joined a few months later.
Their music became extremely popular locally in Barbados, and so they decided to make some records. Hunte managed a record department so they were able to produce the records themselves. One of their songs – “Big Bamboo” became a chart topper in every Caribbean territory as well as a number one hit in Holland, Germany and Belgium.
“That song changed our lives!” (Hunte)
Following the success of their albums they started to tour the Caribbean islands and pulled in an appreciative crowd wherever they went.
On the back of their success with “Big Bamboo”, the Merrymen decided to push the boat out and looked for a way to tour the UK. They found a festival that no-one from Barbados was being sent to and so they contacted The Barbados Tourist Authority who gave them the contacts they needed to organise the trip, and helped them book three big UK gigs – The Commonwealth Festival, The Royal Festival Hall and Trafalgar Square.
Amongst the adoring crowd at Trafalgar Square were two well known producers in the recording industry. These producers contacted them afterwards, and this is when their international recording begun.
They were booked for the eighteen week summer show at The Opera House in Blackpool and also to do major T.V. shows with stars such as Tom Jones, Dusty Springfield, Ken Dodd and Kathy Kirby.
“We started to play big gigs in the UK with many popular artists and it just mushroomed from there.” (Straker, lead vocalist)
This was the big break that they needed and it soon led to EMI, one of the music industry’s largest labels, who also signed The Beatles, to start producing their music. With the backing of EMI they spread their Calypso across the UK.
“The start in England was very exciting because at the time the British music scene was exploding with new genres and artists. Carnaby Street was electric, and we were at the forefront alongside artists like The Beatles, Dusty Springfield, and The Doors – we were the pioneers!” (Straker, Lead vocalist)
After their success in England The Merrymen decided to expand their worldwide reach. In 1967 they did a tour in Canada, and it was a huge success.
In Canada they played at huge venues such as The Ontario Place Forum, Massey Hall, O’Keefe Centre and the Sky Dome with equal success to England. They were asked to return to England, but having now got the taste of the international lifestyle, they didn’t want to be based solely in the UK. However, they did do one trip back to play at The Royal Albert Hall!
Eventually The Merrymen returned to their mother country where tourism had started to increase on a huge scale and the Government was pushing for the tourist industry to keep on growing.
The Merrymen helped attract tourists to Barbados with their electric performances. At this point they were also making one or two albums every year. With their classic album “Beautiful Barbados,” which debuted their hit song of the same title and composed by Lead Singer, Emile Straker, leading the charge.
Today, nearly fifty years on, The Merrymen are still together in Barbados. They still perform on special occasions. This year, however, Emile said they have been asked to perform on the Jolly Roger and at the beautiful Greame Hall Nature Sanctuary, which were two of their top venues in the past.
“We had a tremendous tourist market for years, but things have changed a bit. We also take jobs overseas, but only now and again for really important gigs or charity dos. Next week, for instance, we are going to Ottawa to play at the Hilton for a benefit hospital charity ball.” (Straker)
Despite the fact that the popular music scene has changed, the type of music that The Merrymen play is the kind of music that will never fade. Just as country and western will always be a part of America, and Irish folk songs a part of Ireland – The Merrymen will always be a part of Barbados!
“We have written a lot of our own music, which has become traditional folk music on the island. At a lot of the hotels, the tourists want to hear our music because it’s traditional Calypso Caribbean music.” (Straker)
In true spirit of the continued success of The Merrymen, they are currently working on a ten pack CD called ‘A lifetime in music with the Merrymen‘, which will include over 250 of their songs, a dvd with past performances and interviews.
The Merrymen are passionate about Barbados, and have helped Barbados become what it is today – a developed, established first world country. They have always helped their country develop by promoting Barbados right from the get go.
“I am not only Lead Singer with the band, but I have also been in the hotel, restaurant and entertainment business. My wife and I started the first Caribbean Cabaret dinner show which was called The Plantation Tropical Spectacular. It ran for 18 years and was the top show in Barbados – it was even featured on CNN a couple of times.” (Straker)
Emille’s son followed in his footsteps and played in the band Spice & Co. in the Tropical Spectacular. Spice & Co. were hugely successful in the 80’s and they travelled all over the world.
They have now retired, but every now and then the band gets back together to do a concert. Emile revealed that Spice may play at the next Holders Season, so be sure to keep checking the line-up to see.
As my conversation with Straker ended, he talked more about his personal life. Straker met his Barbadian wife nearly 50 years ago, when The Merrymen first got together, and their 50th anniversary is coming up at the end of 2011.
They have two sons and a daughter. This energetic, glittering star revealed a real sense of pride when he told me that he had just seen his grandson record some demo songs.
“His name is Copeland and he’s getting pretty good! He has just qualified as an Architectural Building Engineer in Vancouver, Canada.”
It seems the musical energy that The Merrymen injected into their beloved mother country will continue to influence and inspire generations to come.