Singer Owen Gray remembers ‘Sugar Plum’ Millie Small
BEFORE MILLIE Small became the ‘lollipop girl’, she was a ‘sugar plum’. Not only is it a term of endearment, it is also the title of her first song – a duet as it was called back in 1960 – with singer Owen Gray. This collab was born out of the time she spent with Gray, who groomed her musically. As a shy teenager, Studio One producer Sir Coxsone Dodd, took Millie Small under his wings and asked Gray, a singer with a number of hits to his name, to tutor her.
“At that time, I was still working, doing printing and bookbinding, along with singing,” Gray, who resides in England, told The Gleaner. “Coxsone brought Millie to my yard gate one day. My mother was standing there and he told her that he wanted me to teach her some things. So I went to his place at Love Lane and I coached her. You know, she has that little squeaky voice, and I tutored her on tone and range.”
When Millie was ready to record, the first song that they did was Sugar Plum. “We recorded it on a Thursday, and, at that time, all we had was a two-track machine. The engineer was Graham Goodhall, and we were called Owen and Millie. That song burst her out in Jamaica. People loved it and started talking about Millie after that,” Gray told The Gleaner of the singer, who died in the United Kingdom (UK) on Tuesday at the age of 73 after suffering a stroke.
He added that Chris Blackwell of Island Records subsequently went to Coxsone and told him that he wanted to sign Millie Small. “So Coxsone told Blackwell that since Millie was already signed to him, he would have to buy out the contract, and he did. He took Millie to England in 1963 – I had gone there from 1962 – and it was while there that she recorded the hit song, My Boy Lollipop,” Gray recalled.
Recorded at the Olympic Studios in London and arranged by Jamaican guitarist extraordinaire Ernest Ranglin, My Boy Lollipop enjoyed international sales of five million copies and, as has been said quite often, flung open the door for Jamaican music to the world. This song is credited with helping Bob Marley, Desmond Dekker and Jimmy Cliff to make their name on the international stage, and also the success of Island Records in the pop music industry.
With both of them in England at the same time, and both doing work for Blackwell, the two would see each other fairly regularly, and even went to Australia in the early days. But after a while, their contact was just via telephone. “I haven’t seen Millie in years, but this (Wednesday) morning at 6:15 I had a dream, and at first I didn’t know who it was, then I realised that I was dreaming about Millie. It wasn’t long after that I got the call from Dennis Alcapone to say that she had died,” Gray said.
“Today is a sad day. She will be missed,” he added.
JA’S FIRST FEMALE STAR
Minister of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport Olivia Grange has also expressed sadness at the passing of Small, who she describes as “Jamaica’s first international female superstar”.
“Millie Small will forever be remembered as one of Jamaica’s great music icons. Under the guidance of legendary producer Chris Blackwell, she brought Jamaican music to the world, with My Boy Lollipop getting to number two on the US and UK charts in 1964.”
Grange said that she spent time with Millie Small when she accompanied late former Prime Minister Edward Seaga on a visit to Island Records in the UK. “We had a lovely time with her – and her baby daughter, Jaelee, who is now an accomplished musician – and found her to be that same warm, engaging, fun-loving, bubbly and charming woman that we heard singing My Boy Lollipop; and we found that she was also a wonderful mother.
She noted that Small’s story is one of resilience and the strength of the human spirit.
“She took the sweet with the bitter as she navigated the music industry at a time when Jamaican music and Jamaican female artistes were still new concepts to the world. Jamaica will remain eternally grateful to Millie Small, as she paved the way for ska to explode on the world scene through numerous television appearances around the world, including the BBC’s ‘Top of the Pops’. Her unique sound attracted audiences around the world and turned attention on Jamaican music, which allowed other genres to break through internationally,” Grange said.
In 2011, the Jamaican Government awarded Millie Small the national honour of Commander of the Order of Distinction.