Sweet on Millie!

Sweet on Millie!

Observer senior writer

Monday, October 07, 2019

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The Jamaica Observer continues its 'Reggae 50' feature on people, organisations, and events that have made an impact on reggae over the past 50 years.

IT was 1964, the year of “Beatlemania” and the British Invasion of America. That summer, a 17-year-old Jamaican singer named Millie Small rocked the United Kingdom (UK) with a song called My Boy Lollipop.

Distributed by the Island Records subsidiary Fontana, My Boy Lollipop raced to number two on the British national chart and made the Clarendon-born Small a sensation, one year after she was brought to the UK by Island Records boss Chris Blackwell.

My Boy Lollipop was actually a cover of a 1956 song called My Girl Lollypop by Barbie Gaye, an American teen singer. Small's version was a smash, making the US pop chart as well as other tables in Europe and Australia.

The song hit at a time when there was mass migration of West Indians to the UK. Dandy Livingston, then a budding singer, had migrated there in 1959 and recalls the impact My Boy Lollipop had, especially on the growing Jamaican community.

“It was played everywhere; in 1964 for a Jamaican song to be played on radio [in the UK] like that was fantastic. We didn't even think of it as a ska record — it was just a good song,” Livingston told the Jamaica Observer.

In a 2016 interview with Britain's Express newspaper, Small said her parents worked on a sugar plantation in Clarendon. They encouraged her ambition to be a singer, and she entered contests such as the Vere Johns Opportunity Hour, the Digicel Rising Stars contest of its time.

Her first time in the national spotlight came in 1959 when she was runner-up in 'Vere Johns', winning 30 shillings. She was then paired with singer Roy Panton with whom she did the song We'll Meet, a minor hit.

Moving to the UK, Small remembers her initial songs failing to impress listeners. Then came My Boy Lollipop, which was done to a ska beat, with arrangement by guitarist Ernie Ranglin.

At the time, ska acts like Prince Buster and Derrick Morgan were popular among Skinheads, rebellious white British youth. My Boy Lollipop was not as hardcore, but it outsold songs by more established white artistes signed to bigger labels.

“I got invited onto all the pop shows of the day, including Ready Steady Go — which I did often — Top Of The Pops, Juke Box Jury and Thank Your Lucky Stars,” Small told the Express. “One of the biggest shows I did was Around The Beatles, with The Beatles, who were very friendly like everyone was, but it was mostly 'hello and goodbye' rather than making lasting friendships.”

Though she had a minor hit with Sweet William in 1964, Small said she stopped recording in 1970. She lived for a time in Singapore and did shows in New Zealand and on the UK club circuit when she returned to that country.

During the 1970s and 1980s when roots-reggae and lovers rock thrived, the UK still had a flourishing ska scene. Even then Small, who gave birth to a daughter in 1984, was never tempted to make a comeback.

“I focused on being a mother from 1984 when my daughter was born, and since then I've been happy living a quiet life, sleeping and dreaming and meditating,” she said. “I don't miss those 60s days. I enjoyed it while it lasted, and it represented a time of pure happiness, but I look to the future now that I'm older and wiser.”

In 2011, Millie Small was awarded the Order of Distinction by Jamaica's Government for her contribution to the development of the country's music.

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