Popular music legend has perpetuated the myth that a young Rod Stewart played harmonica on ‘My Boy Lollipop’…
My Boy Lollipop – Millie
Fontana TF 449 (UK) / Smash 1893 (USA)
Recorded at Olympic Studios, London
Released March 1964
Writers Johnny B. Roberts & Robert Spencer (aka Morris Levy)
Producer Chris Blackwell Accompaniment directed by Ernest Ranglin
UK #2 4/64 USA #2 7/64
It’s now over 50 years since Millie Small had this huge international hit, but while she soon faded from public view (apart from a revealing appearance in British men’s magazine Mayfair in 1970), the song is still as well-known as it was back in 1964, and a popular party favourite. ‘My Boy Lollipop’ was not, in fact, a new song when Millie recorded it, having first been a relatively unknown American R&B hit for Barbie Gaye in the late 1950s. However, one man who had heard the song was Jamaican raised recording entrepreneur Chris Blackwell, and he thought it could be turned into a pop hit. The story goes that while Blackwell, Millie and arranger Ernest Ranglin were motoring to Brighton one afternoon and discussing possible material, Millie began singing ‘Lollipop’ – Ranglin quickly wrote an arrangement and the song was recorded the very next day when they returned to London!
Born in Clarendon, Jamaica in 1946, Millicent Smith began recording in her early teens, notably a number of duets with Roy Panton and Owen Gray. She also recorded with Jackie Edwards, another Blackwell disciple who later wrote the Spencer Davis Group # 1’s ‘Keep On Running’ and ‘Somebody Help Me’. The music Millie recorded was a Jamaican hybrid of American jazz and R&B music called ‘Ska’ or ‘Blue-Beat’ (this name derived from the Jamaican ‘Blue Beat’ record label), and Millie rapidly became known as “The Blue-Beat Girl”. (Among several other titles, Desmond Dekker, famous for his 1969 Number 1 ‘Israelites’, was known as the King of Blue-Beat)
One of the main reasons that Jamaican music became so popular in Britain during the 1960s was the high number of West Indian immigrants who had come to the country since the early 1950s. Many Ska and Blue-Beat records sold in huge quantities (even more than in Jamaica), but since records were often sold literally from the back of a van, the sales weren’t registered and they made little impact on the charts. In 1963, Chris Blackwell, who had recently formed Island Records in London and closely followed the Jamaican music scene, brought Millie over to the British capital. He coupled her with a highly successful Jamaican guitarist, bandleader and arranger by the name of Ernest Ranglin. One of the most in demand arrangers during the Ska period, it was Ranglin who was regarded as originally creating the Ska sound on his ‘Shuffling Bug’ at the very beginning of the 1960s, though some cite Theo Beckford’s earlier ‘Easy Snappin’ as the starting point. Ranglin had also recorded the very first album released by the young Chris Blackwell, and it was his arrangement skills coupled with Blackwell’s pop sensibilities that turned Millie’s cover of ‘My Boy Lollipop’, recorded at London’s Olympic Studios, into an international hit. (Incidentally, in order to keep his fledgling label afloat in the early days Blackwell released some unusual records including an album entitled Music To Strip By, a 1963 collection by Bob Freeman which came with a free G-string!)
Popular music legend has perpetuated the myth that a young Rod Stewart played harmonica on ‘My Boy Lollipop’ – at the time of its release he was a member of Long John Baldry’s Hoochie Coochie Men – although in more recent years Mr Stewart has taken to denying his participation. (However, many rock books and web sites continue to highlight this piece of so- called rock trivia.) Though we’re talking around 50 years ago, had he participated in the recording, Mr Stewart, well known for his reluctance to part with his small change, would surely recall receiving his session fee! In a 2002 interview with Record Collector, Stewart asserted that the harmonica player was definitely not him. While uncertain who the player was, Stewart thought it could have been John ‘Junior’ Wood, a known harmonica player who looked a lot like him. Since that interview, various members of Jimmy Powell’s Five Dimensions (Stewarts’s first group in 1963/4) have laid claim to the harmonica gig, so it looks as if the question will never be satisfactorily resolved. (There was some further correspondence on the subject in Record Collector in 2003 following the aforementioned interview with Mr Stewart where it was asserted that former Dimension’s member Pete Hogman was the ‘harmonica’ man, and this now seems to be the accepted scenario)
Chris Blackwell licensed ‘My Boy Lollipop’ to Phillips’ Fontana label in Britain and the catchy tune soon sold over 7 million copies throughout the world, also reaching #2 in America. A similar follow-up, ‘Sweet William’, reached #30 in England and #40 in the States a few months later, however apart from the small British hit, ‘Bloodshot Eyes’ a year later, that was the extent of Millie’s success, though ‘Lollipop’ was a small UK hit for her again in 1987. Surprisingly, Jamaican music didn’t benefit very much from this considerable breakthrough since ‘My Boy Lollipop’ was looked upon as a one-off novelty hit. While a number of Ska and Blue-Beat records hovered on the outer reaches of the British charts, it wasn’t until 1968 that the music found its way back to the international lists courtesy of Johnny Nash, by which time Ska had evolved into Rock-Steady. This was somewhat ironic, since although Nash recorded many of his hits in Jamaica, he was himself an American, born in Texas.
There appear to have been some sort of copyright/publishing irregularities regarding the composition of ‘My Boy Lollipop’, and while I have not, despite extensive research, been able to fully clarify the situation, I offer the following supposition. While some copies credit Johnny Roberts and Robert Spencer as the writers, others name Roberts and American music business godfather Morris Levy. An industry wheeler and dealer with alleged mafia connections, Morris Levy formed Roulette Records in 1956 and discovered the goldmine of song publishing. (Levy had been running the legendary nightclub Birdland for the mob when a representative of the US songwriting organization ASCAP arrived one day and told him he needed a license to play music. Levy threw the guy out at first because he thought it was some kind of scam but soon discovered it was in fact the law, which was why he went into publishing – another way to make some easy money!)
By the mid-1980s he was estimated to own some 30,000 copyrights that generated a mighty income. It was also his custom to add his name as composer to songs that he published, thus collecting a writer’s royalty as well as the publisher’s fee! Mr Levy’s other favourite hobby was buying up bankrupt record labels and catalogues at rock bottom prices. Under almost continual federal investigation since the early 1960s, in 1988, Levy was sentenced to ten years imprisonment for conspiracy to commit extortion. While often credited as co-author of the song, it’s extremely unlikely that Morris Levy had anything to do with the composition of ‘My Boy Lollipop’, and it appears that Robert Spencer is in fact a pseudonym for Levy. As of 2011 the song is registered in the US at BMI with credits going to Johnny Roberts, Robert Spencer and Morris Levy which would give Levy two slices of the cake, or at least his estate, since Mr Levy passed on in 1990.
Regarding Millie herself, as far as I can ascertain she ceased performing some years ago – she has a myspace page though it hasn’t been updated since 2009. As for ‘My Boy Lollipop’, the song remains a party standard (it was covered as ‘My Girl Lollipop’ by Bad Manners in 1982) and it’s rather surprising that it hasn’t been covered recently since it could surely be a big hit all over again. Perhaps Cher (brought to you by the makers of Botox®) should give it a try!
Copyright © 2016 SongStories/Tony Burton
Originally published by Tony Burton, Stavanger bibliotek og kulturhus.