Chris Blackwell and ‘My Boy Lollipop’: Ska, Race and British Popular Music
Ska evolved in Jamaica around 1960. I shall talk a little more about its development later. In 1964 there were three hits in the British top ten that utilized a ska beat. On 14 March Millie reached number two with ‘My Boy Lollipop’. A week later, The Migil 5’s ska version of ‘Mockin’ Bird Hill’ reached number ten, its highest position. In December, Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames got to number one with the jazz track, ‘Yeh Yeh’, to which they gave a soft ska influence. Discussions of ska, and reggae, have tended to focus on the music’s Jamaican origins and have emphasized its qualities as black music. In this chapter my interest is in the relationship between ska and British popular music of the early 1960s. How did ska enter white Britons’ musical consciousness such that by the late 1960s there were numerous ska hits and by the late 1970s there was a ska revival, with groups such as Madness and the 2 Tone groups, including The Specials and The Selecter, having chart hits? To this end I shall concentrate on the most popular of the three 1964 ska hits, Millie’s ‘My Boy Lollipop’. This song was first recorded as a rhythm and blues song in New York by Barbie Gaye. It seems that the fourteen-year-old Gaye was discovered singing on a Coney Island, Brooklyn, street corner by the mobster Gaetano Vastola. It is likely that Gaye was Jewish; she was certainly not African-American. Millie was a black Jamaican, and her version was recorded in London using white English musicians. However, it was arranged by the eminent black Jamaican guitarist, Ernest Ranglin, who had earlier in his life toured the Caribbean with Jamaica’s best-known swing band, the Eric Deans Orchestra. Ranglin was brought over to England by Jewish Jamaican entrepreneur Chris Blackwell for the specific purpose of helping him record Millie.