Jamaica Gleaner / Millie Small is among several outstanding Jamaican recording artistes who celebrate birthdays in October. Others include Peter Tosh, Hopeton Lewis, Luciano, Shaggy, George Nooks, Jah Cure, Ziggy Marley, Linval Thompson, Gyptian, and Chronixx.
In a telephone conversation with Small this past week from her home in Shepherd’s Bush, London, she confirmed that she will be 70 years old this month (October), although she did not specify the date. The disclosure, which puts her birth year at 1947, runs contrary to several others given by other sources.
Small’s absence from the music scene for close to 50 years, and her refusal to appear on stage shows, have sent rumours swirling that she was in ill health, destitute and reclusive. She again rubbished those claims.
“I am well and feel as if I am 35,” she said, in response to one of my questions.
It was difficult to doubt her, because there was no change, or tremor in her voice that one would normally associate with old age. It was still that shrill, slender, young and sprucy voice associated with My Boy Lollipop and Sweet William , that was coming across in the conversation.
Asked to give a reason why she has stayed away from the music business for so long, her response was: “I have a dream and that dream is not yet completed, and I have to wait until that dream is completed before I can make my reappearance. I am sure it will be next year”, she emphatically stated. But several stage-show promoters say that this has been her stance for years.
Hailing from the parish of Clarendon and born to parents who were sugar plantation workers, the pint-sized female music dynamo made her first public appearance as a 12 year-old on the Vere Johns Opportunity Hour talent show at the Palladium Theatre in Montego Bay, winning the second prize of 30 shillings.
Music mogul Chris Blackwell heard about her, and after obtaining permission from her parents, took her to London in 1963, ostensibly to develop her singing career, but in reality, it was to help set up his Island Record Company in London. The following year, Small created history with a remake of Barbie Gaye’s 1957 blues song, My Boy Lollipop . It made the world stop and look at Jamaica as an emerging musical powerhouse, when it rose to number two on the UK, singles chart, number two on Billboard Hot 100 chart and number one in several European and African countries, while selling some 7 million copies worldwide.
Guitarist Ernie Ranglin, who did the arrangements, claimed that he was the only Jamaican who played on the song, which literally opened the floodgates for others like Desmond Dekker and The Aces, Dave Barker and Ansel Collins, Althea and Donna, Prince Buster, The Harry J. All Stars, Ken Boothe, John Holt and Jimmy Cliff.