John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

“My Boy Lollipop”

14-year-old Millie Small brought Jamaican rhythms to America in 1964 with this infectious hit.

By - Mar 20th, 2015 11:24 am
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Millie Small (1964)" by Harry Pot / Anefo - Nationaal Archief. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 nl via Wikimedia Commons.

Millie Small (1964)” by Harry Pot / Anefo – Nationaal Archief. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 nl via Wikimedia Commons.

Jamaica is just far enough from the mainland to get things a little wrong. Thank God for that. I’ve heard that it was the lack of bass response in their transistor radios that made it difficult to hear the kick drum when they listened to all the R&B that drifted across from New Orleans. Americans mostly accent the first and third beat, but somehow the first one got lost in the Bermuda triangle resulting in what my friend John Parrott calls the “the most omnivorous music,” Ska and Reggae. He claims they devour other musics and make them better… much better.

That may be exaggeration, but listen to Toots And The Maytals perform John Denver’s treacly classic Country Road, and you’ll see what he’s talking about. A song that always made me cringe now gives me joy and gives me a grudging respect for the over-sentimental Denver.

Some forms of ska (and I don’t pretend to be an expert) are called “one-drop.” They lose that big down beat and then add a snare to the third beat. The result is magical. Everything old is new again and you can lose yourself in a pleasantly disorienting rhythm park. So Jamaica, you’re not not so wrong after all.

That said, the American music that ska is derived from really didn’t need improving. It was and will always be magnificent. But a tale of two cities, New York and Kingston, two very young and gifted ladies, and one song illustrates exactly how perfection can be improved.

Until I started  researching this song I’d never heard of Barbie Gaye. She was brought to the attention of Alan Freed, the disc jockey who introduced R&B to white America and is often credited (some say wrongly) with coining the phrase “rock and roll.” Barbie was all of fourteen when she was discovered singing on the streets of Brooklyn. Her manager was given a song written by Robert Spencer of The Cadillacs called My Girl Lollypop, It was bestowed on him by Morris Levy, a shadowy, mobbed up guy who was everywhere you look in the record biz at the time. (There was so much corruption then, and even well into the 1960s, it’s a wonder the music was so good.) In a move way too familiar to a lot R&B artists, the first thing Levy and another gangster pal did was add their name to the writer’s credits — the second thing they did was remove Spencer’s name!

OK, so Barbie gets the song and is told get ready to record in a week. She changes the gender, creating “My Boy Lollypop.” The she fools around with the lyrics and skips school the next week to cut it. The popular style at that moment was something called “shuffle rhythm.” It assigned the left and right hand chores of great piano players like Professor Longhair to different band members, orchestrating their uncanny swing. The two most salient features of this beat, were a driving bass line on all four beats and very heavy accent on the upbeats. The result was infectious in a beautifully lopsided way. The original recording of this song swings like mad and Barbie is 100 percent pro. Her exuberance brings to mind Brenda Lee. Both were singing their age, unlike many current female artists who affect a baby doll sound long into their adult years.

The original version, with Freed’s relentless promotion on his show, made it to number 25 on his top 25. So outside of New York, where this all went down, nobody heard it. Nobody that is, but Chris Blackwell.

The legendary founder of Island Records got his start with this song. He spent his childhood in Jamaica, returning to England for school and then back to Jamaica in his early twenties to eventually stock jukeboxes. His exposure to the latest sounds led him to form Island Records. Here the story gets interesting. Millie Small, winner of a TV talent contest at age twelve, moved from the Jamaican countryside to Kingston to pursue a singing career. She made a record or two and Blackwell heard her and signed her to his label. He was then somehow named her legal guardian and soon flew her to England to record a song he likes, the one nobody outside of New York has heard, My Boy Lollipop — now spelling lollypop with an “i.” I know there are probably stories like this today, but the idea of a 22 year old label head becoming legal guardian to a teenager and then flying her across the ocean to record? You can imagine that one turning out all kinds of ways. The way it did wind up was a smash record in England, America and Australia.

The difference in the rhythm from the American version is subtle and crucial. The shuffle feel has an even stronger accent on the off beat and the free-floating sense of time can be disorienting as your Americanized ears search for the “one” beat. It may be hard to imagine, having heard Reggae and ska for such a long time now, how revolutionary this beat was. It was every bit as game changing as rock and roll and, when it mutated into Reggae, it became even a little more dangerous.

Here are the lyrics, repeat as necessary:

My Boy Lollipop

My boy Lollipop
You make my heart go giddyup
You set the world on fire
You are my one desire
Whoa, my Lollipop

Whoa oh, my boy Lollipop
Never ever leave me
Because it would grieve me
My heart told me so

I love you, I love you, I love you so
But I don’t want you to know
I need you, I need you, I need you so
And I’ll never let you go

My boy Lollipop
You make my heart go giddyup
You set the world on fire
You are my one desire
Whoa, my Lollipop

The lyrics are well crafted, cute and straight to the point. This is a three chord song (one less than the Barbie Gaye version), so we’re not writing about harmonic sophistication either. The magic that attends this song comes from a simple twist in an age old rhythmic formula and it makes it a weightless delight.
One last thing — I was disappointed to read that the rumor I’d heard for years and shared with friends is not true. The harmonica solo on this joyful romp is not by Rod Stewart. How cool would that have been?

2 thoughts on “Sieger on Songs: “My Boy Lollipop””

  1. Anonymous says:

    Even people who didn’t grow up in this era (like me) remember this song. Fascinating history!

  2. Frank says:

    Barbie gayes version was in fact heard outside of New York. It was frequently played at Jamaican Sound Clashes in the late 50s early 60s. There are several compilation records available online that include Barbie Gaye’s version.

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