Baby Talk


The first time my friend Michael Turner chatted me up about the way many female singers use a baby voice we were at Gloria’s in Port Royal and I was too distracted by the head and tail still on his red snapper and the froth on my Red Stripe to get past the surface response of, “Yeah, there are a few of them, aren’t there?” We threw out Millie Small of course, and a few others. The second time he mentioned it was recently on instant messenger and he sent me few links to some Hazel & the Jolly Boys tunes, and there it was again. I had to investigate.

Why the baby voice? Why do a number of women in the early 1960s sing like a little tiny girl? It can’t be real, right? It sounds like a falsetto. It’s the difference between the Madonna of “Like a Virgin” and the Madonna of “Like a Prayer.” Two different voices, one contrived, one full and deep. Vocal personas. Of course the most notable of examples is Millie Small’s “My Boy Lollipop,” and considering the popularity of this song, I have come up with a couple of theories on the baby voice and would like your opinions, so chime in at the comment section at the end. And if you’re not sure what I mean, here are a few links:

Millie Small’s Sweet William: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qsZ2LMmc8J8

Hazel & the Jolly Boys and the Fugitives: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mFZY-qRkxNM

Hazel & the Jolly Boys and the Fugitives: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=435G6-ISqlY

Okay, so let’s start at the beginning. It has been theorized that the falsetto (and I do believe this is related, as I will show) originated in African folk music. I’m not sure this really translates to Jamaican culture though because the African folk music featuring falsetto came from the Mbube style of South Africa, and the tribes that came to Jamaica through the slave trade came from West Africa, so there may or may not be a connection. But the early American rhythm and blues forms, and the music that preceded that, like blues and gospel, also featured falsetto, and this music definitely influenced Jamaican music.

In the 1930s and 1940, even before those radio broadcasts came to Jamaica via New Orleans, Miami, and Nashville radio airwaves, groups like the Swan Silvertones and the Soul Stirrers used falsetto in their repertoire. One of the most important blues singers, “Howlin’ Wolf who helped to develop the Chicago blues style, combined both falsetto howl and a growling voice to characterize his own sound. Clarence “Frogman” Henry, Jr. had his classic novelty R&B tune “Ain’t Got No Home,” in which he uses a falsetto.

In the 1950s, groups like The Ink Spots, Little Joe & The Thrillers, Jan & Dean, the Flamingos, Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers, and dozens of others used a falsetto for the high tenor to round out the full line-up of harmonic tones. Were these groups an influence on Jamaican vocalists? You betcha they were! Patsy Todd told me herself, “I’m somebody who liked to listen to the radio, and I really got interested in this group, Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers. I used to hear them singing and I used to sing after them.”

We know that a number of Jamaican vocalists over the years then employed the falsetto from time to time, including the Jiving Juniors in 1962 with “Sugar Dandy,” Desmond Dekker in plenty of songs, and of course, Junior Murvin in the classic Police and Thieves in 1976 to name just a few.

How is the falsetto connected to the baby voice? They sure aren’t the same thing. Well I would argue that it is a woman’s attempt at a tiny little voice, like the falsetto. A female voice attempting a falsetto is, well, just a female voice in a way, so perhaps they were trying to minimize their voice in the same style—after all, Jamaican musicians during this era were attempting to emulate the sounds they heard from America with their own take on it.

But I do have a few other thoughts on this subject too. I really do feel that Millie Small’s voice in her “My Boy Lollipop” classic is her singing voice. I just talked to Millie a few months ago and her voice is tiny, even in conversation. That’s not to say that as Millie’s singing voice matured that other deeper qualities didn’t come out, but in 1964 at age 15 when that song was recorded, she was using her little girl voice which can be heard in almost all of her other songs like “We’ll Meet” with Roy Panton in 1962, “Sweet William” in 1964, and “Hey Boy Hey Girl” with Jimmy Cliff in 1966. Considering that a little girl voice was so popular during this era that even the men were trying to use one, Millie sure didn’t try to get rid of it. The heavy tones and gloomy themes of Billie Holliday and female jazz singers were no longer in fashion. It was upbeat, spritely, fresh, and independent. Considering the popularity of this song, which was HUGE, it’s not too farfetched to see that many other vocalists continued in the same vein. In 1967, Hazel Wright recorded “Stop Them” with the Jolly Boys and the Fugitives, with the B side “Deep Down,” both of which feature the baby voice. There are others too so identify some more in the comment section, if you hear one or two.

There is one more thing I want to mention before I finish my end of the discussion here, especially since the form of the duet was so popular during this time. There is the underlying, certainly not overt, image of the female as sweet, demure, needing a strong man for survival, while the male is the strong provider, the savior, the powerful character. This is a traditional and stereotypical role for men and women, especially during this era. Before you cry foul, think about the images portrayed in American television during the late 1950s and early 1960s, the images of sexuality and femininity—they are innocent and wearing pearls. That’s not to say there weren’t other images of women during this time, but the baby-voiced girl certainly fit in with the times.

Just a few of my thoughts. What are yours?

And I am adding this paragraph to my post after reading some EXCELLENT comments made by fellow JA music aficionados. The influence may very well be Shirley & Lee, that duo that has hugely popular in Jamaica during the late 1950s. The vocal team was from New Orleans so not only were Jamaicans getting songs like “Let the Good Times Roll” and “The Flirt” on radio from WNOE, but they also witnessed Shirley & Lee in person since they performed in Kingston a number of times. They performed at the Carib Theater in October, 1957 when they were billed as “The Sweethearts of the Blues.” They returned in August 1961 and performed at the Palace Theater, and again in July, 1962 when they performed at the Ambassador, the Ritz, in Spanish Town, and the Cosmo Race Course and their songs were frequently ranked on Jamaican charts.

For a sample of Shirley & Lee, check this out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uM9yYL6BD-4

Thanks, all, and keep the dialogue going!