A cover for all ages
Sweet successFriday, October 01, 2021
BY RICHARD JOHNSON
Today, the Jamaica Observer's Entertainment Desk begins a 30-part feature titled Cover Me Good. It will look at songs covered by Jamaican artistes which became hits.
NO history of Jamaican popular music is complete without the inclusion of the 1964 smash hit My Boy Lollipop by Millie Small, and the impact it had in taking the music to international ears.
However, a lesser known fact is that the ska-flavoured song is a cover.
My Boy Lollipop is a cover of My Girl Lollipop, originally written by Robert Spencer of the doo-wop group The Cadillacs, and credited to Spencer, Morris Levy, and Johnny Roberts. It was first recorded in New York in 1956 by Barbie Gaye.
It was Island Records head honcho Chris Blackwell who first heard Gaye's version and decided to record Small, who was then a teenager, but not before changing the title, and with the help of music great Ernie Ranglin, arranging the track to the increasingly popular ska beat.
In a previous interview, Blackwell said he had purchased the original record in 1959 and found it in his archives in 1963 and decided to do a remake.
“I would go to New York now and again and buy records and sell them to the sound system guys in Jamaica. One of these records was the original version of My Boy Lollipop. But I'd make a copy of each one on a reel-to-reel tape, it was before cassettes, and when I brought Millie over to England, I sat down trying to work out if we can find a song for her. I found this tape which had the original version of My Boy Lollipop and I said, 'That's the song we should do,' so it was really, really lucky that I found the tape,” Blackwell was quoted as saying.
Millie Small's version of My Boy Lollipop is considered the first commercially successful international ska song, and has sold over six million records worldwide. Back in 1964, the hit song also enjoyed chart success reaching the number two position on the UK singles, US Billboard Hot 100, as well as in New Zealand, Australia, and Canada. It was number five in Germany and hit the top spot on the charts in Ireland.
Millie Small, who died in London in May of 2020 at age 74, and My Boy Lollipop are also credited with introducing British broadcaster and Jamaican music lover David Rodigan to the sounds of the island.
As a teenager, Rodigan recalled being transfixed my Small and her performance of My Boy Lollipop on a popular British television show.
“It was just so exciting...this unique vocal, the style of singing she had. She appeared on Ready, Steady, Go which was the number one TV show and she was just so energetic. She had this wonderful aura and the backbeat was so exciting. I'd never heard anything like this before. This was 1964 and I was not aware of ska music, so it was really my introduction to Jamaican music and the song was just so catchy, so infectious,” he shared in an interview with the Jamaica Observer from his home in London.
Like so many, Rodigan too was unaware that this track with its catchy lines and new but infectious beat was a cover version.
“I had no idea. I thought it was an original al recording and it was only many years later that I discovered it was a cover. I think Barbie Gaye's version is obviously a good record too, but Millie's is the better version,” he said.
For Rodigan, the key to a successful cover version of a song is to make it unique by injecting passion and depth.
“You almost have to ignore the original and try and recreate something which is unique. I remember a member of the Chin family from Randy's saying when they did cover versions, they did not encourage artistes to listen to the original. Of course, Jamaican music is famous for doing covers, but make a song special in its own way,” he added.
“The best example for me was an incredible version of a song that was an international number one, Bridge Over Troubled Water [by] Simon and Garfunkel. The Jimmy London version is absolutely incredible. You wouldn't think you could get a better version than the original, but I have to say the Jimmy London version is truly inspiring and really moving. I feel the same way about David Gates and Bread with Everything I Own. I think the Ken Boothe version is, with all due respect to the original, a superior version. I think it's magical,” Rodigan added.