Jamaican singer Millie Small died after suffering a stroke at age 73. The star was best known for her hit single My Boy Lollipop, which in 1964 reached number two in both the USA and the UK. With more than seven million sales, it remains one of the best selling ska songs of all time. Founder of Island Records Chris Blackwell declared her death and described her as “a sweet person..really special”.
It was Blackwell who took Small to London in 1963, making her version of My Boy Lollipop, which showcased her childlike, high-pitched vocals.
Born in Clarendon, South Jamaica, Millicent Small was one of seven brothers and five sisters, born on the sugar plantation where her father was an overseer. She won a talent show at Montego Bay’s Palladium Theatre at the age of 12, and she recorded for Sir Coxone Dodd’s Studio One label in Kingston in her teens. She joined up with Reggae singer Roy Panton there, and they became one of the most successful duos on the island, scoring a massive hit with We’ll Meet.
Upon releasing some of those albums in the UK on his new record label, Island. Blackwell took an interest in the singer and took her to London in 1963. Small was enrolled for speech training and dance lessons at the Italia Conti Stage School. She visited the UK until cutting My Boy Lollipop with a group of London session musicians (Small believed Rod Stewart played the harmonica solo but rejected being present at the recording). This made her an international phenomenon, published in February 1964, and helped popularize ska music around the world.
Big, however, was unable to duplicate My Boy Lollipop’s success. Scoring only one more hit, a soundalike named Sweet William, later that same year. Yet she began performing and recording. It regularly appeared on television shows like Juke Box Jury and Ready Steady Go in the 1960s.
She recorded for legendary reggae label Trojan Records. After leaving Island in 1970, where her first solo was a cover of Mayfair by Nick Drake. It was the b-side, however, that attracted more attention. Called Enoch Power, this was a defiant reaction to the racist, anti-immigration “Rivers of Blood”. The speech by Enoch Powell caught the mood of the Caribbean community in the UK.
She lived in Singapore and New Zealand in later years. Before returning to London where she focused on writing, painting, and raising her daughter. When My Boy Lollipop publishes in 1987 to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of Island Records. The singer gave Thames TV a rare interview. Where she revealed she had been penniless and sleeping rough in London at one stage.
In 2011, the Governor-General of Jamaica named Small a Commander in the Order of Distinction for her contribution to the Jamaican music industry. The singer survives by her friend. Joan is also a London-based musician.