Millie Small, the Jamaican singer best known for recording the chart-topping smash “My Boy Lollipop” as a teenager in 1964, died yesterday after suffering a stroke. She was 72.
Billboard and BBC News report that her death was confirmed by Island Records. The label remembers her as “a sweet person... really special” and “a true original, a wonderful human being [who] will be dearly missed by everyone.”
Born in Clarendon, Jamaica, Small spent her childhood on a sugar plantation before eventually moving to Kingston to pursue a career in music after winning the Vere Johns Opportunity Hour talent show at 12 years old. Island Records founder Chris Blackwell would then become her legal guardian and manager, bring Small to London in 1963 and produce her interpretation of “My Boy Lollipop,” which would take the world by storm and go on to become one of the best-selling ska songs of all-time.
“I would say she’s the person who took ska international because it was her first hit record,” Blackwell told the Jamaica Observer. “It became a hit pretty much everywhere in the world. 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.”
With the success of “My Boy Lollipop,” Small expanded her career to include a role in the musical The Rise and Fall of Nellie Brown before continuing to tour and record new music throughout the years. Though despite her success, she would eventually fall on hard times, admitting in a rare 1987 interview that she had been homeless for a period of time.
“I saw how the other half live,” she said at the time. “It’s something I chose to do.”
In 2011, her contributions to the Jamaican music industry earned her an Order of Distinction from Jamaica’s Governor-General.
Small is survived by her daughter, Jaelee.