LETTER FROM LONDON
I got a lot of good reaction from last week’s column about Millie Small. Is there any Scrooge alive who could humbug that bouncy mid-’60s worldwide hit, “My Boy Lollipop”?
The most unexpected and welcome was short and sweet: “Hello Mr Music. I enjoyed your article very much. Jaelee”
That would be Jaelee Small, her daughter.
She also informed me that her mother died at 72, not 73 as I wrote incorrectly. I’m surprised there is so much disagreement among credible sources about whether she was born in 1946 or ‘47. Which would account for the discrepancy of age at passing. But that should settle it. Sadly, it was less than three months ago, May 5. Our heartfelt sympathy and wishes for peace go out to Jaelee.
Because of the wording, I’m also uncertain whether she had 12 or 11 brothers and sisters. (She did grow up in a thatched shack on a sugar plantation in south Jamaica, west of Kingston.) So many bios of highly accomplished people of a certain age that I have been reading seem to start off that way. I guess if you can survive double-digit siblings, you’re ready to take on the world.
Surprise, surprise, in her mid-30s now, Jaelee has finally acted on her hereditary talent and wrote, performed and produced her EP titled Memoirs (part ii) Remixes. She says it reflects the wide mix of music that influenced her growing up, from well played vinyl of the Beach Boys, Pink Floyd and the Who to Aretha Franklin, Emeli Sandé and Haim. The lyrics do read like a memoir of self-discovery, growing up obviously under the shadow of a famous mother. My skip through revealed a striking strong voice singing some memorable tunes. Jaelee Small may be Millie’s daughter but she is her own artist.
MORE SMALL PARTS
There were a few, just a few other things I thought interesting, that I learned about Millie and “Lollipop” that didn’t make it into last week’s column.
She was groomed for stardom from her very early teens, first by Jamaican producers Lindon Pottinger, Prince Buster, and a nascent Coxson Dodd, then by Island Records (U2, Queen, King Crimson, Traffic, Toots, Tull, Black Uhuru, the Killers, Roxy Music and that local kid Bob Marley) founder Chris Blackwell, an Anglo-Jamaican who had a great sense for talent, but a mixed reputation among performers.
It was he who decided, along with London-based Jamaican jazz guitarist of note Ernest Ranglin, that “Lollipop” be arranged as ska, a new music wave sweeping over Jamaica but little known elsewhere. That’s a big gamble. Ranglin had some skilled session players but they had to read charts because none of them knew this ska stuff.
There is a famous, perfect harmonica break in the middle of “Lollipop,” very un-ska-like, that really makes it. Blackwell hated the first take and brought in another player, and the rest is history. A lot of history, including Millie, says that harmonica player was Rod Stewart, but he denies it, and it was likely Pete Hogman.
BLACKWELL SNATCHED MILLIE
From Prince Buster with a phone call to Smalls’ parents, asking permission to take her to England to make her a star. As she stepped off the plane, alone, at Heathrow, she was whisked off to the Italia Conti Stage School for speech training and dancing lessons. The dance lessons reportedly did not take, not even with a choreographer brought in, but when they finally gave up and left her on her own, her moves on stage were natural and charming.
Blackwell did, of course, make her a huge star, but one wonders why he couldn’t find another great song, leaving her a “one hit wonder.” Her follow-up “Sweet William,” released three monts later, probably failed because it was too similar to the still-charting “Lollipop.”
She headlined a three-hour “Ska Spectacular” show at the New York World’s Fair that year, with Byron Lee, Prince Buster and Jimmy Cliff, and got a hero’s welcome in Jamaica and played a big show near her hometown, with Otis Redding and Patti LaBelle opening for her (!). A year after “Lollipop” hit she embarked on a world tour of New Zealand, Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, the US, Brazil and Argentina, and later Africa. Just as Britain was opening up to ska, giving hits to Demond Dekker (“The Israelites”), the Skatalites and the Ethiopians. Bad timing.
And probably just too much everything. She insisted on fulfilling all her contractual obligations, and in one year’s time she collapsed from exhaustion, was hit hard with food poisoning, and was in a car accident.
She recorded an album of Fats Domino songs, and earlier a duet with then-unknown Jimmy Cliff. But after dropping out of the music business in the early ‘70s and moving to Singapore for two years, she never again recorded, and did only one in-depth interview. In it she claimed that she never got any royalties at all from 7,000,000-selling “My Boy Lollipop.”
Amy Winehouse said “My Boy Lollipop” was “one of her all time favourite records.” ‘Nuff said.
ANTHEM FOR OUR DYSTOPIAN TIMES: “Infected” by (the Great) Simon Stokes (warning: video contains raised middle fingers, lowered expectations).
DINNER PARTY — is the new supergroup made up of jazz and hip-hop heavyweights Kamasi Washington, Terrace Martin, Robert Glasper, and 9th Wonder. Their self-titled debut album that dropped earlier this month is an expertly crafted, understated fusion of swirling cosmic funk, free jazz, soul and hip-hop.
Supergroups don’t often succeed, falling victim to a too-many-cooks sound, but this is hardly the case with Dinner Party. Each member, all with backgrounds in playing music and producing, tap into their respective gifts to create a warm, soulful collection of songs that deepen in complexity with every listen.
An animated music video for the first track “Sleepless Nights” (featuring cool vocals by Chicago singer/producer Phoelix) shows the four descending upon the Crenshaw District in P-Funk Mothership-like fashion. Amidst political unrest, they begin to play their music, lifting spirits and creating a physical safety shield around their listeners.
Hopefully this is just the beginning of many more collaborations to come from these musical visionaries. The album was put out by Sounds of Crenshaw/EMPIRE and is available for purchase, or streaming on Spotify.
And while we are on the topic of Crenshaw, Metro Art had its final episode this past Tuesday, this time focusing on the Crenshaw District and Leimert Park, historically significant locations for music and black musicians, especially. For those of you who missed my previous recommendation, Metro Art teamed up with dublab to produce a series showcasing different music histories in Los Angeles, focusing on specific regions each episode, told through the voices of those who lived it. This final episode will be archived and uploaded to dublab’s website: http://dublab.com/
Charles Andrews has listened to a lot of music of all kinds, including more than 2,500 live shows. He has lived in Santa Monica for 34 years and wouldn’t live anywhere else in the world. Really. Send love and/or rebuke to him at firstname.lastname@example.org