Millie Small, the Jamaican singer behind ska classic My Boy Lollipop, has died after suffering a stroke, the BBC and The Jamaica Observer report. She was 72, according to a press release from Island Records.
Born in south Jamaica, Small launched her recording career in Kingston before moving to London in 1963. She signed with Island, then a fledgling label specializing in Jamaican music, and released My Boy Lollipop to international success in 1964.
She left the label in 1970 and released a cover of Nick Drake’s Mayfair, but it was the B-side, Enoch Power, that took off. A response to Enoch Powell’s notorious “Rivers of Blood” speech, the track became an anti-racist anthem and spearheaded her 1970 LP Time Will Tell.
In 2011, decades after her retirement from music, Small was made a Commander in the Order of Distinction in Jamaica, for her role in the country’s music industry.
Following the news of her death, Island founder Chris Blackwell said in a statement: “Millie opened the door for Jamaican music to the world…. She was such a really sweet person, very funny, great sense of humour. She was really special.”
He told the Jamaica Observer: “I would say she’s the person who took ska international because it was her first hit record.
Blackwell said he hadn’t seen Small, who died in England, in over a decade.
He discovered her music early on and persuaded her father, an overseer on a sugar plantation in Jamaica, to allow him to become her manager and take her to England in late 1963 when she was old enough to travel by herself.
Small had said: “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 was the one who suggested a cover of the R&B song My Boy Lollipop, which was originally recorded by Barbie Gaye in 1957.
The ska hit was held off the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100 in the US in 1964 by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and it made it to number two in the UK.
The arrangement is credited to Ernest Ranglin, who plays the guitar, and the saxophone solo was replaced by the harmonica.
Small had insisted that Rod Stewart played the mouth organ but he denied this.
She later released, Sweet William and Bloodshot Eyes charted in the UK at number 30 and 48.
Her recording career ended in 1970, and she moved to Singapore. She reappeared on a London news report in 1987, poor and living in a youth hostel with a young daughter.
Speaking in 2016, she said: “I focused on being a mother from 1984, when my daughter was born, and since then I’ve been happy living a quiet life, sleeping and dreaming and meditating.”