Millicent ‘Dolly May’ Small’s story began in the district of Clarendon, a parish located in the south of Jamaica, where on 8th October1946 she was born into a family of seven brothers and five sisters. The children were raised in a thatched shack in the plantation grounds where her father worked as a sugar plantation overseer, his meagre earnings and those from his wife’s occasional work as a seamstress and hairdresser allowing for little in the way of home comforts. Yet the family managed to make ends meet, cultivating vegetables on a small garden allotment to help fill bellies, and a love of music, to help fill the hours.
At the age of 12, Millie’s routines for friends and relatives led to her winning a talent contest at the Palladium Theatre in Montego Bay. At the same time, a move to her aunt’s home in downtown Kingston gave her access to the growing number of local record producers, notably a hungry young sound system operator-turned-music maker, Clement ‘Coxson’ Dodd, an astute businessman with a keen ear for raw talent.
At the beginning of 1962, Millie auditioned for Dodd, who was struck by the similarity of her voice to that of Shirley Mae Goodman of the famed R&B duo, Shirley & Lee, ever-popular in Jamaica despite the decline of their career in the USA. Dodd placed her in the care of Owen Gray, a singer with a slew of hits to his name. Gray worked on Millie’s technique and timing before the two recorded a handful of Shirley & Lee-sounding sides that included Sit And Cry, Do You Know and Sugar Plum, the latter becoming a significant hit.
Gray resumed his solo work and his teenage partner was paired with another aspiring local singer, Samuel Augustus ‘Roy’ Panton. After honing their act in local clubs, the young duo attended a recording session for Roy Robinson, a friend of Dodd’s. The resultant We’ll Meet, released on the rookie producer’s E&R label, promptly became a major hit on the island in the spring of ’62 and marked the beginning of a run of Roy & Millie hits.
Returning to Dodd, the pair cut a number of tracks for his Worldisc and All Stars labels, with Dearest Love, This World, There’ll Come A Day and Cherry I Love You all strong sellers. But financial recompense remained meagre and, early in ’63, they switched producers, commencing a brief spell for Lindon Pottinger’s Gay Disc operation that spawned further popular sides in Oh Merna, Oh Shirley and one of the best-selling Jamaican singles that summer, Marie. A spell with Prince Buster resulted in the worthy single, I’ll Go Over And Over, but as it climbed the national radio charts, a phone call to Millie’s parents brought about an abrupt halt to their successful partnership.
Over the preceding months, London-based Anglo- Jamaican record entrepreneur, Chris Blackwell, had been taking a keen interest in Millie, having released the discs on his Island imprint. Convinced of her mainstream marketability, he liaised with his Jamaican-based business partners, Graeme Goodall and Leslie Kong, to bring her to the UK. Arriving alone at Heathrow Airport in the summer of ’63, Millie was swiftly enrolled at the Italia Conti Stage School for speech training and dancing lessons. There soon followed a tour of northern England and the Midlands, after which she attended her first London session at Olympic Studios in Barnes.
Blackwell and his associate, Harry Robinson, had formed a production company with Chris Peers, their BPR (Blackwell Peers Robinson) set-up having hit big with You Don’t Have To Be A Baby To Cry by female duo, The Caravelles. Although their greatest triumphs to date had been with Decca, Blackwell chose to give first option on Millie’s signature to Jack Baverstock, A&R Director of Fontana Records, who promptly signed her on a five-year deal, releasing the first of her UK-produced singles – the self-composed Don’t You Know, coupled with a Harry Robinson original entitled Until You’re Mine, in December 1963.
The single sank without a trace, selling little more than 7,000 copies. Robinson’s light-weight, pop arrangements failed to compliment Millie’s distinctive high-pitched delivery. Even before Don’t You Know hit the stores, Blackwell had decided a different approach was required and, at the follow-up Olympic session, Ernest Ranglin was enrolled to arrange proceedings. Backed by an array of top session players, the respected Jamaican jazz guitarist attempted to re-create the ska sound then taking Jamaica by storm, and by so doing helped craft what would prove to be an irresistible combination of lively West Indian rhythms and western pop.
Among the handful of sides voiced that day was a lively version of My Boy Lollypop, a song first recorded in 1958 by obscure US rock’n’roller, Barbie Gaye. But while Blackwell was convinced of the track’s commercial potential, he was less than satisfied with the harmonica break, purportedly performed by British R&B singer Jimmy Powell. Consequently, another local player, Pete Hogman, re-cut the part, his catchy solo complimenting the track to perfection.
Coupled with Something’s Gotta Be Done, My Boy Lollipop saw issue in February 1964. It soon picked up radio airplay and entered the UK pop charts, and Millie made her London stage debut, performing the song in Surprise Beat ‘64, a variety show at the Vaudeville Theatre in the West End. Less than a week later, she appeared on the ABC Weekend TV show, Thank Your Lucky Stars, an event later recalled by Blackwell’s Island partner, Graeme Goodall: “Chris got a female choreographer to help Millie with a dance routine... It was a total disaster. So we just threw Millie in at the deep end. She just did her thing in her unique, inimitable way and blew them all away.”
Millie repeated the feat on the BBC’s Top Of The Pops and, by May, My Boy Lollipop had sold 300,000 copies, pipped only to the No. 1 spot by The Searchers’ version of The Orlons’ Don’t Throw Your Love Away.
Eager to repeat the single’s success Stateside, Blackwell made a whistlestop trip to Chicago to negotiate its release on Mercury subsidiary, Smash. It entered the US Billboard chart and hit No. 2, this time pipped by Peter & Gordon’s A World Without Love.
Millie had become an international phenomenon. Back in the UK, she continued to tour and appear on TV, from Jukebox Jury to Around The Beatles. Her gruelling schedule showed no signs of slowing up, despite the singer collapsing from exhaustion, suffering a bout of food poisoning and being involved in a road accident. By the end of the spring, her hit single had notched up a further 200,000 sales, earning ‘the Blue Beat Girl’ a silver disc.
But the eagerly awaited follow-up, Sweet William, released on 15th June, was simply too similar to what had gone before. In retrospect, the flip, Oh Henry (an ode to her newly acquired puppy dog), may have proved a more successful A-side, and the disc stalled at a disappointing No. 30.
But Millie was still an international celebrity, given a gold disc for the million-selling Lollipop in New York and an overwhelming welcome upon her return to Jamaica a couple of days later. The Jamaican national newspaper The Gleaner reported how she had been driven in an open-top car through Kingston while thousands of well-wishers thronged the streets, cheering her on. A series of sell-out Independence Anniversary Lollipop shows at the National Stadium and Sheraton Hotel followed. She also appeared at the Capri Theatre in May Pen, Clarendon, the parish of her birth, with Otis Redding, Patti Labelle & The Bluebelles and Inez & Charlie Foxx, all playing second fiddle to Jamaica’s own ‘Little Queen’.
There followed a swift return to New York, where she performed at the World’s Fair, headlining a three-hour Ska Spectacular show that also featured Byron Lee & The Dragonaires, Prince Buster, Jimmy Cliff and Eric ‘Monty’ Morris. Back in Britain, Fontana released her first UK album, More Millie, a ska-heavy collection of Ernest Ranglinarranged sessions, including up-beat covers of Derrick Harriott’s Sugar Dandy, the Fats Domino hit, I’m In Love Again, and Tom Hark, a song first popularised by South African kwela group, Elias & His Zig-Zag Jive Flutes, and later a significant hit for British band, The Pirahnas. Other tracks of note were the upbeat Bluey Louey, He’s Mine and a soulful interpretation of Chuck Willis’ plaintive ballad, What Am I Loving For, replete with a typically graceful solo from Ernest Ranglin.
More Millie also appeared in the US as My Boy Lollipop, although two of the weaker tracks, Do- Re-Mi and Since You’ve Been Gone were replaced by Don’t You Know and Until You’re Mine, from the singer’s initial Fontana single. The best of Millie’s Coxson Dodd and Roy Robinson material with Roy Panton and Owen Gray was collected on the album, The Most Of Millie & The Boys, released in Jamaica on the WIRL imprint. In the UK, three four-track EPs also came out, with Fontana, Blackwell’s own Island enterprise and their main Jamaican music rivals, Melodisc, all exploiting the young singer’s popularity.
The Fontana set was a straightforward collection of the first four Millie recordings issued on the label, while Melodisc’s Millie And Blue Beat (issued on their famed Blue Beat imprint) brought together a quartet of sides cut by the singer with her former partners prior to her relocation to London. The Island set, Millie And Her Boyfriends, followed a similar formula, although the inclusion of an unissued version of the Ivory Joe Hunter ballad, Since I Met You Baby, added to its appeal. The recording featured the songstress paired with respected Jamaican balladeer and Island stablemate, Wilfred Jackie Edwards, who had been instrumental in helping his young compatriot settle in the bustling capital months earlier. Their duet was also issued as a 7” single on Leslie Kong’s Beverley’s label in Jamaica and promptly became a Top 10 hit, its success due in no small part to some exquisite fret work, yet again courtesy of Ernest Ranglin. Elsewhere around the world, various 4-track EPs were released, while German record buyers were treated to a version of Lollipop sung by Millie in their native tongue.
After more live dates across Europe and recording sessions in London, she was back in the Big Apple, appearing alongside Dusty Springfield and The Searchers on Murray ‘The K’ Kaufman’s Labor Day Brooklyn Fox show, returning to the UK a week later for the release of her next Fontana single, a lively rendition of Marv Johnson’s I Love The Way You Love, twinned with a worthy version of Sam Cooke’s Bring It On Home To Me. The ska rhythms were abandoned, with respected British band-leader Syd Dale assuming the role of arranger, and the single disappeared without trace. November saw the release of a disposable seasonal number, I’ve Fallen In Love With A Snowman, although the record was redeemed by the excellent What Am I Living For, culled from More Millie, on the flip.
As 1964 drew to a close, the 18 year-old singer made her debut as an actress, playing the leading role of Selina in the Anglia TV musical, The Rise And Fall Of Nellie Brown, appearing alongside actor Ron Moody and African-American singer, Elisabeth Welch. She also starred in the pantomime, Once Upon A Fairy Tale, at the Granada Theatre in Clapham Junction, and made a cameo appearance in the UK music flick, Just For You, performing Sugar Dandy.
Early in 1965, a Ready, Steady, Go! one-hour TV special, Millie In Jamaica, included contributions from fellow Blackwell signing, Tony Washington, and former singing partner Roy Panton, along with Jimmy Cliff, Count Ossie, Prince Buster, Byron Lee, Louis Bennett and leading mento singer, Lord Jellicoe. To coincide with its airing, Fontana issued Millie’s bubbly version of the Bobby Charles/Bill Haley number, See You Later Alligator, coupled with a fine girl group-styled number, Chilly Kisses. In March, the so-called ‘Pint-Sized Hurricane’ embarked on her first world tour, including concerts in New Zealand, Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, the US, Brazil and Argentina.
In her absence, Island released The Vow and I’ll Never Believe In You, the first of her duets with Jackie Edwards to see the light of day since the Boyfriends EP. Blackwell’s decision to release the sides on Island rather than license them to Fontana indicated a new strategy to appease West Indian audiences. Millie would from now on regularly be paired with fellow ex-pats to release R&B-flavoured material on Blackwell’s less pop-centric imprints. Other Island work for Millie from this time included a prominent role on The Spencer Davis Group’s version of The Ikettes’ I’m Blue (The Gong Gong Song) and an impressive rendering of Ike & Tina Turner’s It’s Gonna Work Out Fine by her former mentor, Owen Gray.
In the spring of ’65, Millie was immortalised as a waxwork at Madam Tussaud’s and, a few months on, Fontana released her next single, the driving My Street, an impressive piece of sophisticated uptown soul written and produced in New York by Larry Fallon and Jimmy Miller. The track, which was coupled with a fine rendering of the 1958 Chuck Willis R&B ballad, It’s Too Late, also surfaced in the US on Island’s newly launched Brit label. It was far more complementary to the singer’s delivery than much of the weak pop material cut over the preceding months, but after sales yet again proved disappointing, any chance of a new direction for the singer was abandoned.
Millie Sings Fats Domino became the second of her Fontana long-players, but while the concept of Jamaica’s favourite diva interpreting a dozen of the illustrious piano man’s best-known works certainly proved a hit among Britain’s West Indian population, pop fans were less convinced and the LP was never a serious chart contender. Her eighth Fontana single was a typically energetic version of Wynonie Harris’ Bloodshot Eyes, coupled with Tongue Tied from the New York Fallon & Miller sessions. But again, the disc could only manage a lowly 48 on the pop chart. Millie maintained her relentless touring schedule across Australasia and Africa, promoting both her music and the chocolate drink, Bournvita. A sponsorship deal with British confectionary company, Cadbury, branded her as the ‘Bournvita Girl’, and the Bournvita Song’was issued as a promotional single throughout Africa.
Back in the UK, Island released the next Jackie & Millie 45 in February 1966 – a superior version of Gene & Eunice’s This Is My Story, which was soon followed by the pair’s equally commendable reworking of The Cliques’ My Desire. The latter was coupled with Millie’s impressive rendering of the Otis Redding/O V Wright soul hit, That’s How Strong My Love Is, her confident delivery illustrating a growing maturity as a vocalist.
Her appeal was further exploited by Island with the Ska At The Jamaica Playboy Club LP, a various artists collection with Millie in a bunny-girl costume on the sleeve. It included an excellent ska rendering of Oscar McLollie & Jeanette Baker’s Hey Boy, Hey Girl, for which she had been paired with a youthful and relatively unknown Jimmy Cliff, although disappointingly, the partnership was fleeting, with the more experienced Edwards preferred as her regular collaborator. This was echoed in the release of Pledging My Love, the duo’s first album together, a set of soulful ballads that contrasted starkly with the pop Fontana material on her next 7”, a version of The Rocky Fellers’ Killer Joe, paired with another Fallon & Miller production, a stomping cover of Carry Go Bring Come, culled from the Playboy Club album.
The next Fontana single had been a minor country hit for US singer, Bobbi Staff: Chicken Feed. It was an untaxing number that unsurprisingly failed to make any inroads to the charts. Of more interest was the B-side, Wings Of A Dove, which marked a return to ska and compared favourably to versions of the song by a variety of Jamaican acts, including The Blues Busters, The Wailers and Prince Buster, who only weeks earlier had enjoyed UK chart success with his gangster-themed instrumental, Al Capone. Over the ensuing months, Desmond Dekker & The Aces, The Skatalites and The Ethiopians were added to the list of West Indian acts to successfully breach the British Top 40, but just as Jamaican music had found itself back in favour with the country’s record-buying public, the former ‘Queen Of Blue Beat’ was preoccupied with touring overseas.
In June, Island issued the next in the run of Jackie & Millie singles on its pink-coloured pop imprint. An appealing ballad entitled In A Dream, the track drew favourable comparisons with the work of Sonny & Cher, while the strident Ooh Ooh on the flip caught the attention of many a Mod, more recently becoming a favourite on the Northern soul scene. Island also released The Best Of Millie Small, 14 Fontana tracks from the preceding four years, and fans had to wait until the autumn till they got around to issuing her next single. A belated attempt to capitalise on the renewed interest in ska, You Better Forget/I Am In Love may well have garnered greater attention had it been issued months earlier, but unfortunately, by the time it reached the shops, the ska revival had already run its course.
By now, Millie was in desperate need of rest but had to fulfill her final contractual obligations to Island and Fontana. The last of her offerings for the latter came in the summer of ’68, when the company released the pleasant if lightweight When I Dance With You/Hey Mr. Love, while her relationship with Island came to an end with the LP, The Best Of Jackie & Millie Volume 2, which featured a dozen previously released solo sides and duets by both singers.
It was a disappointing conclusion to her five-year relationship with Blackwell’s enterprise. Since her arrival on British shores in the summer of ’63, Millie had served Island and Fontana well, recording in excess of 70 songs and promoting them with an energetic zeal at countless venues on six continents. She had also found time to appear in numerous film and TV shows and make her stage debut as an actress. Yet for all her efforts, many felt neither company had allowed her to fulfil her true potential.
Coinciding with her newfound liberty, Millie began dating Eddie Wolfram, a London-based painter, art historian, author and set designer, who quickly also assumed the mantle of her business partner, the pair forming Millwolf Enterprises Ltd in 1969. That February, the singer signed a one-year deal with Decca. Overseen by the experienced pair of Dick Rowe and Ivor Raymonde, her first session comprised a quartet of sides of which only Readin’, Writin’, Arithmetic and I Want You Never To Stop saw the racks.
Released late in June, the single did nothing, its failure prompting Millie to embrace the fastdeveloping style with which many of her fans were already familiar – reggae. Recruiting The Pyramids (aka Symarip) for musical backing and with Wolfram in charge of production, she cut an excellent version of Jackie Edwards’ My Love And I, along with an original number entitled Tell Me All About Yourself. Yet, despite their obvious commercial appeal, Decca declined the opportunity to release either side. They were licensed to Graeme Goodall’s Pyramid label that December, although any hopes of chart action were lost when the company hit the rocks and folded.
The dawn of the new decade signalled Millie’s move to the country’s biggest and most successful reggae concern, Trojan. Her first 45 for them was a competent rendering of Nick Drake’s Mayfair, backed by the overtly political Enoch Power. Given the prevailing mood of the times, it was no surprise the latter attracted greatest attention, its defiant message adopted by those of Caribbean descent recently intimidated by Enoch Powell’s inflammatory ‘Rivers Of Blood’ speech. Despite a radio ban, the number greatly enhanced Millie’s popularity among reggae fans, leading to an invitation to appear at the prestigious Caribbean Music Festival at Wembley Arena the following month.
April 1970 also saw the release of Time Will Tell, her first collection of new solo material for five years. By now, the innocent ‘girl next door’ image had become a millstone around the 22 year-old singer’s neck. To rid herself of it once and for all, Millie posed for a series of risqué shots that adorned the album’s sleeve and the pages of glamour magazine, Mayfair. The music itself was a mixed bag, with a brass ensemble that frequently sounded more Salvation Army than Muscle Shoals. One cut, the charming Poor Little Willie, was cut as a 45 in Spain, after Millie had re-voiced the song as Mi Chiquitito for the Castillian market.
Meanwhile, Trojan revisited some of the singer’s Island material, issuing a compilation of early duets entitled Millie & Her Boyfriends, along with repackaged versions of Pledging My Love and Best Of Millie Small. On the face of it, the world’s most successful Jamaican music label and its most successful export seemed a perfect combination, so it came as a surprise when, that August, Ed Kassner’s President Records announced she had joined their roster. Within weeks, the London-based independent had released We’re All In A Zoo/Piccaninny Man, but after the company opted to only issue the proposed follow-up, Hi-Lily, Ho-Lo in Germany, Millie and President parted company.
As the year was drawing to a close, she returned to Trojan, reuniting with Jimmy Cliff to record her next 7”, Honey Hush – a superior piece of pop-reggae featuring Jackie Edwards and respected US soul singer Doris Troy on backing vocals. The track could have led to further such work, but for reasons yet to be clarified, it was not to be, and the disc not only marked the end of her relationship with company, but with the British music industry as a whole.
Little was heard from Millie until the following spring, when, along with Jackie Edwards, Count Prince Miller and comedian Charlie Hyatt, she appeared in Jamaica at the Easter Extravaganzas in May Pen and the Montego Bay Palladium, where a decade earlier her victorious performance at a talent show had set her on the road to stardom. But despite glowing reviews, Millie had decided to call time on her singing career and, when the tour ended, she returned to London, before leaving for the Far East.
In 1973, after two years in Singapore, Millie returned to Britain, her arrival coinciding with the release of Lollipop Reggae, a best-of collection issued by Philips, the garish packaging of which did nothing to enhance her reputation as a serious artiste. Since then, she has preferred to remain out of the media spotlight, even when presented with opportunities to make a long awaited return. In 1982, British ska band, Bad Manners, achieved major UK success with a revival of her signature tune, while five years on, her own version of My Boy Lollipop returned to the pop charts. Yet neither occurrence prompted Millie to embrace stardom once more. Indeed, her only noteworthy public appearance since the early 70s came in November 1987 when she returned to Jamaica to receive the Medal Of Appreciation from Prime Minister, Edward Seaga.
In 2006, after two decades of virtual anonymity, The Gleaner announced Millie had finally returned to the studio to begin work on a series of recordings, while also revealing she’d spent the preceding years writing, painting and raising her daughter, Joan. Four years on, and we are still awaiting that long over-due return, but we can gain some comfort from the recent release of the first official CD of her Island and Fontana material.
Millie Small’s influence has been profound and manifold. She was the Caribbean’s first international recording star and its most successful female performer, her records and live work paving the way for other, more celebrated Jamaican acts to follow. To date, My Boy Lollipop has sold an estimated seven million copies, recently placed fifth in a national poll for the most popular Jamaican singles of all time, Her success not only made the world at large aware of the potential of West Indian music, but also helped establish Island as one of the greatest independent record labels of the Twentieth Century. All things considered, it is not an inconsiderable legacy for the plantation worker’s daughter from Clarendon.
USA Today said:
Jamaican singer Millie Small, whose 1964 song "My Boy Lollipop" helped introduce ska music to the rest of the world, has died, a representative for her music label confirmed.
Small died Tuesday in London at age 72 "after having been taken ill" over the weekend, according to a statement from Island Records provided to USA TODAY by Cathy Snipper.
“Millie opened the door for Jamaican music to the world," Island Records founder Chris Blackwell said in the statement. "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 really sweet person, very funny, great sense of humor. She was really special.”
Born in Jamaica to a sugar plantation overseer, Small was discovered by Blackwell and rose to fame in England with a rendition of Barbie Gaye's "My Boy Lollipop." The song went on to reach No. 2 on the U.S. and U.K. singles charts, the record label said.
Small is survived by her 36-year-old daughter, Jaelee, who is also a singer.
"Millie Small was a true original, a wonderful human being and will be dearly missed by everyone," Island Records' statement added.