Jamaican singer Millie Small — singer of the 1964 hit “My Boy Lollipop,” which is widely considered the first reggae-inspired global hit — has died at the age of 72 after suffering a stroke, according to a statement from Island Records. “My Boy Lollipop” — which featured Small’s childlike vocals and a rhythmic bounce that is technically in the style of the reggae subgenre ska — reached No. 2 in both the U.S. and England that year.
The song was also the first major hit for Island Records, whose founder Chris Blackwell produced it. “Millie opened the door for Jamaican music to the world,” Blackwell said in a statement Wednesday. “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.”
She was born Millicent Small, one of a family of 12 children, in Jamaica and was raised on the sugar plantation where her father was employed, according to The Guardian. She won a talent contest at the age of 12 and soon was recording for legendary producer Coxone Dodd, enjoying several hits with singer Roy Panton. Blackwell released several of those recordings on Island and brought Small to London in 1963.
There, she took speech training and dancing lessons before recording “Lollipop,” which was released in February of 1964. After the song became a hit, she made her acting debut in a television special, “The Rise and Fall of Nellie Brown.” While she continued to tour and record throughout the 1960s, she scored only minor hits. However, in 1970, she released a song called “Enoch Power,” which criticized British politician Enoch Powell’s anti-immigration comments and was widely embraced by the country’s Caribbean population. She retired from music soon after, saying “it was the end of the dream and it felt like the right time.”
In 2011, Jamaica’s Governor-General made her a Commander in the Order of Distinction for her contribution to the Jamaican music industry.
She is survived by her daughter Jaelee, a singer based in London.