Thoroughly modern Millie Small

In the chilly spring of 1964, a debut single by an unknown Jamaican singer became a surprise musical hit in Britain, before storming pop charts around the world. Millie Small’s infectious “My Boy Lollipop” sounded like nothing before, and it helped clear the way for global domination by Jamaican music. James Ferguson recalls the unlikely story

Illustration by Rohan Mitchell

March 1964 was a dull month in Britain. The swinging 60s had yet to really arrive, the Cold War loomed ominously in news bulletins, and industrial action by power workers threatened to turn off the lights. The Conservative government, led by the aristocratic Sir Alec Douglas-Home, was on its last legs, and economic malaise prevailed.

If news was stale, music at least was fresh and exciting. The Beatles ruled the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, their triumph memorialised by newly unveiled waxworks in Madame Tussauds. Mods and rockers were fighting to a rock-and-roll soundtrack on south coast beaches, while the Rolling Stones had reached the Top 5 for the first time. Youth was in the ascendancy against the geriatric political establishment — and no one was more youthful than the seventeen-year-old Jamaican Millie Small.

It was impossible in the chilly, grey spring of 1964 to escape the sound of “My Boy Lollipop”, Small’s first and only UK hit of fifty years ago. It was also quite unlike anything that most British pop fans had ever heard before. Its combination of girly vocal intonation, galloping offbeat rhythm, sugary lyrics, and harmonica interlude was infuriatingly infectious. It was everywhere: on the radio, television, juke boxes, and firmly glued into people’s brains — an early example of the earworm. It was also the first piece of Jamaican popular music — specifically, ska — to break through into the British mainstream.

In fact, the song itself was hardly Jamaican at all. It had been composed in New York in the mid-1950s as “My Girl Lollypop”, and recorded in the shuffle style in 1956 as “My Boy Lollypop” by the teenage Barbie Gaye. It failed to make an impact, but it was noticed by the Jamaican founder of Island Records, Chris Blackwell, when shopping for records in New York to sell on to sound systems in Kingston. By then he had somebody in mind for a new version of the song.

Millicent Dolly May Small was born on 6 October, 1946, in Clarendon parish, the daughter of an estate foreman and one of thirteen children. A precocious talent, she won a national radio talent contest at the age of twelve before moving to stay with relatives in downtown Kingston, where she recorded hit songs at Coxsone Dodd’s legendary Studio One. These local hits caught Blackwell’s attention as he was setting up Island Records, and in Millie Small he saw a way of launching an assault on the British market.

In July 1963, Blackwell brought Small to London. According to Heather Augustyn in her recent book Ska: The Rhythm of Liberation, he had become her legal guardian, and enrolled her in the Italia Conti theatre school to study speech and dancing, the former apparently to tone down her Jamaican patois and accent. Some months later, towards the end of the year, Small was joined in a South London recording studio by Ernest Ranglin, the Jamaican guitarist and composer, and other session musicians to record the song. Like Small, Ranglin — now an acclaimed jazz performer — had been brought over from Jamaica by Blackwell.

A strange urban myth later developed, claiming that the harmonica solo on the single was played by Rod Stewart. In fact, the musician involved was Pete Hogman, who says he was asked to produce a “chuggy sound.” He was paid seven pounds and ten shillings for the session.

After mixing, “My Boy Lollipop” by Millie (no Small) was released on 12 March, 1964, and by 4 April was twentieth in the UK pop chart. On 23 May it peaked at number two, remaining in the chart for eleven weeks. It had been released on the Fontana label, as Blackwell — wisely, as it turned out — realised the fledgling Island Records would struggle to cope with demand, and licensed the rights to the established label. The song reached number two in the United States, and in Ireland it was literally top of the pops. In total, the single sold six million copies. Its phenomenal success helped launch Island Records, and opened the door to reggae as an international force.

Cover versions followed: in German and French that year, in Serbo-Croat in 1966. Bizarrely, the song was to resurface again in 1982 as “My Girl Lollipop”, performed by the 2-Tone band Bad Manners, whose front man, Buster Bloodvessel, was the anatomical antithesis of the diminutive Millie.

There was a brief moment of Millie mania. “There hasn’t been a voice like it since Shirley Temple,” enthused the Daily Express, and Millie appeared on TV, in magazines, and performed in a television special with the Beatles. She even learned to curtsy before meeting the Duke of Edinburgh. She toured the UK and Germany before a whistle stop tour of the United States, accompanied by Blackwell. A promotional tour of Africa and Latin America was sponsored by Pepsi-Cola.

Throughout, the “pretty, pixie-faced teenager” (as Teenville Magazine described her) exuded a charmingly naïve view of her success — even if some of her remarks might have offended her Jamaican compatriots:

I love making records. And I love it here in England, much better than back home in Jamaica. Coming to Britain was the most thrilling thing I have ever done. I always dreamed of having enough money to buy a big house for my family. Now I can bring them all over here!

But behind the saccharine sentiments, there was a more poignant reality. In his book White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s, record producer Joe Boyd recalls the moment Small finally returned to Kingston:

The motorcade wound its way through cheering, flag-waving crowds: this was Jamaica’s first international success following independence. Finally, it reached Millie’s shack in Tivoli. She jumped out of the limo and ran towards her mother with open arms. The older woman backed away fearfully from the most famous person in Jamaica and bowed low. “Welcome home, Miss Millie,” she said, holding out her hand.

Millie Small would never again enjoy such celebrity. She recorded and performed throughout the 1960s, and then more or less disappeared from public view. In 2011 she was awarded the Order of Distinction by the Jamaican government, which was accepted on her behalf by former Prime Minister Edward Seaga. She has since announced that she intends to return to Jamaica to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of her hit.

And, fifty years later, few songs are as evocative and instantly recognisable as “My Boy Lollipop”. “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is,” mused Noel Coward, that lover of Jamaica, and in Millie’s case his words ring especially true.