Sweet Millie!
How Britain went wild for ‘Lollipop’
Millie Small

The Jamaica Observer’s Entertainment Desk continues with the 11th in its Child Month series highlighting some of Jamaica’s young performers who shot to stardom.

IT was spring 1964 and the Swinging Sixties was red-hot in Great Britain. The British Invasion, led by The Beatles, began its march to the United States early that year.

Not to be left out was a 17-year-old singer from Jamaica named Millie Small who shot up the pop charts in both countries with the ska song, My Boy Lollipop.

Its feel was different from the pop songs of ‘Invasion’ groups like The Beatles and Herman’s Hermits, or the rock and roll of Cream and The Rolling Stones. Released by Island Records, Small’s cover of American Barbie Gaye’s 1956 single quickly became a hit with Britain’s growing Jamaican community and in white clubs.

Before Small became an international sensation, she was a simple country girl from the cane fields of Clarendon. She won the Vere Johns Opportunity Hour talent contest at 12 years old and started her recording career with producer Clement “Coxsone” Dodd.

Her mentor was singer Owen Gray, who had a clutch of hit songs for Dodd and Island Records in the early 1960s.

In a 2020 interview with the Jamaica Observer, Gray said he put Small through her paces during rigid training sessions in west Kingston. When he thought she was ready to record, he took her to Dodd who was emerging as a force through his Studio One label and sound system.

Gray and Small recorded several duets for him such as Sugar Plum and You Don’t Want Me No More.

“I taught her to sing, how to speak properly. If anybody wants to know about Millie Small, they have to talk to me,” Gray said.

When Gray left for London in 1962 his protégé found another vocal partner in Roy Panton, with whom she recorded well-received songs before moving on to sing for producers Prince Buster and Island Records founder Chris Blackwell.

It was Blackwell who took Small to London where he believed she had a shot at stardom. Her initial songs flopped but the savvy Blackwell found a trump card in My Boy Lollipop, which was arranged by guitarist Ernie Ranglin.

Blackwell recalled the song’s origins during an interview with the Observer in October 2021.

“He [Ranglin] and I were sitting around trying to figure out a good song for Millie. I said, ‘We’ve got to find a song for Millie.’ We were listening to some music and we found a song that came out in America about six years before and was expected to be a hit, but it was a flop,” he said. “When I played it, I looked at Ernest and Ernest looked at me, and he said, ‘Boy, this could be for the song for Millie; this could be the song for her.’ ”

Blackwell disclosed that Small and Ranglin were supported by “regular British session musicians” on My Boy Lollipop which quickly roared up the British charts. The US, which was big on soul music from Motown and Stax, caught on later.

Small toured Europe and made promotional stops in the US. Although follow-up songs like Sweet William and Oh Henry were minor hits, she never replicated the remarkable success of My Boy Lollipop.

Millie Small became a recluse and rarely recorded for most of her adulthood. She died in London in May 2020 at age 73.

Millie Small in studio
Howard Campbell

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