Millie Small--An appreciation
Millie Small performing big hit "My Boy Lollipop" and followup "Sweet William"
Millie Small, who helped introduce the world to Jamaican pop music in 1964 with the enduring international hit “My Boy Lollipop,” died May 5 at 72, as warmly regarded as she was when she burst on the scene virtually out of nowhere.
“I was 14 or 15 when I first heard ‘My Boy Lollipop’ and it was a revelation,” says music publicity veteran Bob Merlis, proudly mentioning that his 1958 Seeburg jukebox has featured the jukebox-only pressing of the “My Boy Lollipop” single (backed with its follow-up hit “Sweet William”) “since the day I got it 30-plus years ago.”
Of “Lollipop,” Brooklyn native Merlis recalls, “There had never been a record in my experience that sounded remotely like it. The syncopated rhythm, her unique voicings and accent, and the overall happy tone of the record captured me immediately. I bought the 45 and was always happy to hear it on the radio when I tuned in WMCA or WABC.”
Merlis notes that in 1964, the record was considered part of the British Invasion, “and it was, in fact, recorded in Britain--by Jamaicans. My friend Paul Issa was from Jamaica and let me know she was the ‘blue beat girl,’ and that the music was a reflection of the ska sound--unknown to most Americans at the time. The follow up, ‘Sweet William,’ was equivalently enthralling for me. I just loved the way she sang ‘he’s my boy’--elongating ‘oy’ in a way that almost presaged Flava Flav doing that in Public Enemy.”
Now a Jamaican hotelier, Issa, recalls how “old family friend” and legendary Island Records founder Chris Blackwell had been signing and recording ska musicians in Jamaica, including then teenager Small.
“I was at boarding school in New York in 1964, and Bob kept singing this song over and over, and when I finally heard it on the radio and recognized the ska beat I shouted, ‘That’s Jamaican! That’s Jamaican music!’ I couldn’t believe I was hearing it on WABC radio on New York. It went on to be a huge hit, of course, and it felt so good that something Jamaican had gone international.”
Born Millicent Dolly May Small on Oct. 6, 1947, she was only 12 when she began her recording career, in the duo Roy & Millie with Roy Panton. She became known as “The Blue Beat Girl” as bluebeat was a generic term for Jamaican music, with “Lollipop” being the biggest hit from the infectious pre-reggae ska genre.
Jamaica’s first million-selling single, the giddy tune (her boy Lollipop, she sang, made her heart go “giddy up”) was further buoyed by Small’s girlishly gleeful, high-pitched vocal, not to mention the bouncy horn-fueled ska beat.
“It wasn’t until decades later that I learned that ‘My Boy Lollipop’ was not original with Millie—that it had been previously recorded in the late ’50s by an American named Barbie Gaye,” says Merlis. “Now that I’ve heard it, I can say that Millie, in no uncertain terms, made it her own. Credit should be given to arranger Ernest Raglin for putting all the musical pieces together in a way nobody could have imagined earlier. It’s the first Island Records production of note, and groundbreaking insofar as it was a launching pad not only for Millie but for Island founder Chris Blackwell.”
Blackwell, of course, went on to release the historic reggae recordings of The Wailers, Bob Marley, and Toots and the Maytals.
“I would say she’s the person who took ska international because it was her first hit record,” Blackwell told the Jamaica Observer following Small’s death. “It became a hit pretty much everywhere in the world. I went with her around the world because each of the territories wanted her to turn up and do TV shows and such, and it was just incredible how she handled it. She was such a sweet person, really a sweet person. Very funny, great sense of humor. She was really special.”
Merlis concludes: “I loved Millie’s records and I loved the very idea of Millie. A cute mod Jamaican lass in London bringing new music to the world. She’s my girl!”
An interesting side note to “My Boy Lollipop,” incidentally, is that Rod Stewart was long thought to be the harmonica player—but denied it. However, in a 2016 interview with Goldmine magazine, Small insisted in 2016 that it was in fact Stewart.
But Small did understandably grace the late Tony “Little Sun” Glover’s seminal Blues Harp harmonica instruction book. In an adorable photo in the back of the book, she’s standing at the bottom of a mobile stairway alongside an airplane, harmonica in mouth.
“She doesn’t actually play blues harp,” wrote the clearly captivated Glover, “but it’s a groovy picture.”
Roy & Millie's "We'll Meet"