Millie Small was a Jamaican singer who stunned the music business in 1964, when her wildly catchy breakout single, "My Boy Lollipop," reached number two on both the U.S. and U.K. charts, and later went on to become one of the top-selling ska hits of all time. Just a teenager at the time, Small never managed to top her initial commercial success, although she did record a second album for the Trojan label in 1970 which featured a more mature sound and included the politically charged single "Enoch Power." Little was heard from Small after she left the business in the early '70s, though rumors of new material persisted up until her death from a stroke in 2020.
Born Millicent Small in Clarendon, she was the daughter of an overseer on a sugar plantation and was one of the very few female singers in the early ska era in Clarendon. She was already recording in her teens for Sir Coxsone Dodd's Studio One label with Roy Panton (as Roy & Millie), with a hit behind her in that capacity ("We'll Meet") when Chris Blackwell discovered her and brought her to England in late 1963. Her fourth recording, "My Boy Lollipop," cut in London by a group of session musicians that included guitarist Ernest Ranglin (and, according to some accounts, Rod Stewart on harmonica) and featuring her childlike, extremely high-pitched vocals, was the first (and indeed, one of the few) international ska hits and introduced global audiences to the bluebeat style. It remains one of the biggest-selling reggae or ska discs of all time.
Small, who was known as "the Blue Beat Girl" on her album, was perceived as a one-shot novelty artist from the start because of her unusual, high-register vocals (which actually owed a lot to Shirley Goodman of the '50s New Orleans R&B duo Shirley & Lee), and she only made the Top 40 one more time, with the "My Boy Lollipop" soundalike "Sweet William." She did cut an entire album around the two hits -- More Millie -- which also included the first of several of her covers of Fats Domino material ("I'm in Love Again"), with whom she later recorded an album.
After her contract with Island ran its course, Small recorded for Trojan Records; her first single for the label was an interpretation of Nick Drake's "Mayfair," but it was the B-side, "Enoch Power," that received the most attention for its potent criticism of the anti-immigration stance of British right-wing politician Enoch Powell. They were included on her 1970 album Time Will Tell, which featured a more mature sound overall.
Although she continued to tour for a few more years, by 1973 Small had more or less retired from the music industry. In spite of her public reticence, she granted a handful of interviews over the following decades, teasing that she had been working on new material. In 1987, Jamaica awarded her a Medal of Appreciation and later, in 2011, granted her the Order of Distinction for her contributions to Jamaican music. Small died on May 5, 2020 following a stroke.