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ON THIS DAY


THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE


Illustration by Rohan Mitchell


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


M I


arch 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.


n 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.


86 WWW.CARIBBEAN-BEAT.COM 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


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