Sometimes the success of a record cannot be measured by how many copies it sold, but rather by the impact it had. Such is the case with My Boy Lollipop by Barbie Gaye. If you are a fan of the 60s, you know this song as a huge hit around the world in the summer of 1964. If you are fan of bluebeat and ska, you know this song as a groundbreaker that introduced the Jamaican beat to the world. If you are a Rod Stewart fan, you know this song for the wrong reason.
At age 16 or 17 Barbie Gaye had already experienced success as a part of 'The Christmas Shower of Stars' at the Brooklyn Paramount Theater which was organised by the legendary DJ Alan Freed of WINS, a radio station that would figure prominently in 1964 when the Beatles arrived in New York City. Based on her stage success, this young white girl entered a recording studio to record some R'n'B tracks, one of which was My Boy Lollypop. My Boy Lollypop was written by Johnny Roberts and our old friend Morris Levy under the name R. Spencer. Upon release Alan Freed began pushing it on WINS, and while it didn't chart nationally, it did make it to the WINS chart and Freed's Top 25.
As a senior in High School, songwriter Ellie Greenwich, who we all know for her talents as a Brill Building song writer with husband Jeff Barry, would hear My Boy Lollipop on WINS. She was so impressed with Barbie's style, that as a first year student in 1958 at Queens College in New York she would pen both sides of her first single, Silly Isn't It b/w Cha-Cha Charming released on RCA Victor records, and credit the writing and her performance to Ellie Gaye after Barbie.
Fast forward to 1963. Millicent Smith, of Clarendon in Jamaica would be under the supervision of Chris Blackwell of Island records. She had been recording as a part of a duo called Roy and Millie for the Jamaican Studio One label, and managed to have a local hit with a song called We'll Meet. Rechristened as Millie, or Little Mille Small in the USA, she would record and release the relaese the track as My Boy Lollipop (with an I instead of a Y) and take it to number 2 in the USA and the UK, and number 1 on the CHUM chart in Canada. With a monster sound built for AM radio, the track grabbed you and pulled you in. Millie's version is particularly known for the hot harmonica solo in the middle, a solo that was not played, as rumoured, by Rod Stewart. With production by Chris Blackwell it would be the biggest hit to date for his own Island records, albeit released in the UK on Fontana.
Millie managed to eek out one further minor hit in the US and Canada, a track called Sweet William, but would see bigger success in the UK. Barbie Gaye would disappear into obscurity, little realising her impact on the music scene through to the present day, as even the Spice Girls can be heard singing My Boy Lollipop in their film Spice World.
As dynamite as Millie's recording is, Barbie's original is by no means a slouch. Barbie's voice brings to mind the styling and sound of her contemporary Brenda Lee. The harmonica solo on Millie's version is found here as a hot sax solo. While Barbie's version is classified as R'n'B, the roots of ska and bluebeat are present here and can be heard loud and clear. The B-side, Say You Understand, is a more typical R'n'B sound that showcases Barbie's talents and re-enforces all comaprisons to Brenda Lee.
My Boy Lollypop is much easier to find on 45 than on 78, and even easier to find on CD. However, for some odd reason, most CD versions omit the first 6 notes of the recording! So, if you like the song, dig out your turntable, head to a record shop and get it on the coolest format around and really inpress your friends!