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.