Millie Small dies; Blackwell remembers her as 'a special person'


Millie Small dies; Blackwell remembers her as 'a special person'

Wednesday, May 06, 2020

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Millie Small, the Jamaican singer who introduced the world to ska with her hit My Boy Lollipop in the 1960s, died yesterday in England. She was 73.

Last night, legendary producer and founder of Island Records Chris Blackwell, who along with Ernie Ranglin produced the song Jamaica's first million-selling single described Small as a sweet and special person.

“I would say she's the person who took ska international because it was her first hit record,” Blackwell told the Jamaica Observer from New York.

He recalled that Ranglin played guitar and did the arrangement on My Boy Lollipop, which became the first Jamaican song to make it on to the British and American music charts, reaching number one in Britain and number two in the United States in 1964.

“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 humour. She was really special,” said Blackwell.

He said the last time he saw Small was about 12 years ago.

The information he had about her passing, he said, was that she suffered a stroke.

The National Library of Jamaica biography of Millie Small, whose given name was Millicent Dolly May Small, states that she was born in Vere, Clarendon, on October 6, 1946. She was the daughter of an overseer on a sugar plantation and the youngest of a family of 12. She was one of the very few female early ska era singers who originated from Clarendon.

In 1960 Small won a singing contest at the popular Vere Johns Opportunity Hour talent contest at the Palladium Theatre in Montego Bay. She received about 10 shillings for her prize. This success led her to team up with Roy Panton, at just 12 1/2 years old, to form the duo Roy & Millie, and they recorded the song We'll Meet for producer Clement “Sir Coxsone” Dodd. She also did the song Sugar Plum for Sir Coxsone, also a duet. Soon after she was heading the Jamaican disc hit parade. Small was paid the sum of 23 for three successful records.

When Blackwell was 26 he heard one of Small's local hits and convinced Sir Coxsone that he could launch her career if she came under his management. Blackwell took her to England in late 1963 when she was old enough to travel alone. In later years Small said that “I hadn't planned on being a star, but I always wanted to be a singer, and I felt like it was my destiny to go to England.”

Blackwell explained that when he took Small to London his friends thought he was mad because calypso was the popular genre then. Blackwell was actually the one who decided that Small should do a cover of an American rhythm and blues song, My Boy Lollipop, originally done by Barbie Gaye in 1957.

My Boy Lollipop is still regarded as one of the all-time biggest-selling reggae or ska discs. Arley Cha, who in 2006 was Small's producer, said the song still continues to be played every day across the United States, in every state, on CBS FM radio.

The song held the number three spot for the greatest all-time hit single for 1964; numbers one and two were the Beatles and Rolling Stones, respectively.

Small enjoyed popularity and success during the early period of her career. On her first visit to the United States, while at Kennedy International Airport, press photographers, newsmen, magazine editors, and radio and television crews were there to meet her. They danced and laughed with her on what could be described as one of the warmest and most unusual receptions, accorded to a foreign recording artiste.

Her flight was named 'The Lollipop Special' as she received the world's largest lollipop. She was idolised by many fans as was evident when the Port Authority police had to restrain an enthusiastic crowd of fans who went wild. Over 30 policemen had to surround Small as the crowd tried to get through the protective barricade just to touch her. This was followed by a hectic schedule with the media, interviews, and photo sessions.

Small returned to Jamaica to a massive welcome home party. She was escorted by police motorcycle to greet Prime Minister Sir Alexander Bustamante and the governor general.

Probably the highlight of her success and popularity occurred when she returned to the United States for the New York World's Fair 1964. The organisers had designated August 12 as Millie Small Day at the fair. Music critics hailed Small as the greatest singing sensation since the Beatles.

Small recorded a number of other songs; however, only two others became hit singles Sweet William and Bloodshot Eyes. Her song called Oh Henry was also popular.

On August 6, 2011, the 49th anniversary of the Jamaica's Independence, Small was conferred with the Order of Distinction in the rank of Commander (CD) for her contribution to the development of the Jamaican music industry. The award was accepted on her behalf by former Prime Minister Edward Seaga.

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