The Loco-Motion

Al Nevins, a former member of hitmaking instrumental group The Three Suns, and Don Kirshner, a music publishing hustler from the get-go, formed Aldon Music (naming it after themselves) in 1958, kick-starting a prolific era for New York songwriters. Many songs by the top-flight writers at their headquarters in Manhattan's Brill Building were recorded and sent out as demonstration discs for established artists to consider, resulting in a string of hits on a variety of record labels. The quality of some of the demos were so good that by 1962 Kirshner decided to start his own label, Dimension, mainly to cut out the middle man and make more money. It didn't take long to cash in; inaugural release "The Loco-Motion" by Little Eva was a number one smash.

It wasn't necessarily a coincidence, then, that Eva Narcissus Boyd grew up on Railroad Street in Belhaven, North Carolina. The tenth of 13 children, her love of music fueled a fantasy of someday becoming a singing star. For a time, she and four of her siblings sang locally in a family gospel group, The Boyd Five. Moving to New York City in 1960, at age 16 when she could legally quit school, she spent about two years working as a maid without any solid leads that might establish her in the music biz. Through a family friend, she met former North Carolinan Earl-Jean McCrae of The Cookies (a different, younger version of the '50s group that recorded for Atlantic and other labels). Earl-Jean helped Eva get an audition with Aldon Music songwriter-producers Gerry Goffin and Carole King; impressed by her vocal sincerity and cheerful disposition, they used her as a backing singer on a few demos by the Cookies, who would soon have their own series of hit songs. The husband-and-wife team hired her as a live-in nanny for their daughters, two-year-old Louise Goffin and newborn Sherry, giving Eva a steady income of 35 dollars per week.

Dance records were the big thing in '62: "The Twist" ruled the landscape and Dee Dee Sharp's "Mashed Potato Time" came on strong that spring, spreading from Philadelphia's Cameo-Parkway label throughout the entire nation and beyond. Kirshner, for one, wanted a piece of the dance craze action. Gerry noticed a dance Eva did while working and listening to music that followed an up-and-down, arm-thrusting pattern and it made him think of a train, so he and Carole created "The Loco-Motion" to fit the dance. They had Eva record the demo, the plan being to pitch the song to Dee Dee. Kirshner liked what he heard and decided to dub additional vocals onto the track by the Cookies and Carole, then issued it himself on his new Dimension label.

No arm-twisting was necessary; stations started playing it immediately. In early July, just-turned-19-year-old Eva performed the song (and revealed the dance movements) on Dick Clark's American Bandstand, in Philadelphia, right under the noses of the Cameo-Parkway dance trend influencers. By the end of August, the single was number one on both the pop and R&B charts. In France, Sylvie Vartan covered "Le Loco-Motion" with a near-identical arrangement and two months later found herself at the top of the charts in her homeland.

The close relationship the young singer had with her at-home and in-studio bosses gave them more song ideas. "He Hit Me (And it Felt Like a Kiss)," recorded in L.A. by The Crystals with producer Phil Spector, was written after Eva admitted to Carole her love for her boyfriend despite being physically abused by him. A sensitive, controversial subject for the early '60s, the Crystals disc wasn't a hit, though it received airplay at several stations around the country. Eva's second single, "Keep Your Hands Off My Baby," was inspired by her feelings for the same guy, just in case anyone else should be interested in him. The song came close to the top ten in December, the same month Eva married her boyfriend, James Harris, despite his shortcomings.

Then it was back to the dance theme with a 'gobble-diddle-it' tune, "Let's Turkey Trot" (' grandmother taught this dance to me...she did it at the turn of the century!'), employing a melody very similar to The Cleftones' 1956 hit "Little Girl of Mine." It reached the top 20 in March of 1963...three-for-three on the hit front! These successes opened the door for her sister, Idalia Boyd, who joined Eva in New York, took over her nanny job and followed in big sis's footsteps with "Hula Hoppin'," an early '63 Dimension dance single based the melody of "Hawaiian War Chant," which originated about a hundred years earlier as "Kāua I Ka Huahua'i" and became popular with 1930s big bands under its more famous title. A strange record with a reverse twist appeared on the Gone label at that time: a mid-tempo love song, "Litle Eva," by a vocal quintet from Long Island called The Locomotions.

Big Dee Irwin, who'd scored a hit ("Been So Long") in 1958 as the lead singer of The Pastels, had been recording solo for various labels since 1960. Eva did an uncredited call/response vocal on Irwin's top 40 version of Bing Crosby's 1944 chart-topper "Swinging on a Star." Then Goffin, King, Nevins and/or Kirshner figured it was a good idea to merge "The Loco-Motion" with the decades-old (and royalty-free) "On Top of Old Smoky." The idea was good enough to get "Old Smokey Locomotion" into the top 50; folkie Tom Glazer made the top 20 at the same time with his novelty variation, "On Top of Spaghetti." Little Eva toured Europe that spring with Brian Hyland while back in N.Y. a demo she'd done of Goffin and King's "One Fine Day" was picked up by The Chiffons and went top ten...a missed opportunity for Miss Boyd.

Little Eva

The next two 45s also originated from the pens of Goffin and King. "What I Gotta Do (To Make You Jealous)" elaborated on the relationship theme and "Let's Start the Party Again" promoted a bop-'til-you-drop concept; both songs stalled below the Hot 100. In November and December, Eva performed as part of Clark's mostly-eastern U.S. Caravan of Stars tour with a deep roster of hitmakers that included Hyland, Bobby Vee, Linda Scott, Jimmy Clanton, Dale and Grace, Paul and Paula, The Essex, Tymes, Jaynetts, Ronettes, Dixiebelles and Dovells. Another duet with Big Dee Irwin, "I Wish You a Merry Christmas" (she was credited this time), made the '63 holiday a little more delirious (spoken by Eva: 'Big Dee, did anyone ever tell you you were big, strong, handsome, kindhearted...and FAT?').

Nearly a year passed before her next release, the blatantly gimmicky "Makin' with the Magilla," a dance tune involving Hanna-Barbera's animated Magilla Gorilla character. The picture sleeve for the 45 outlined steps created by Fred Astaire's Dance Studio. "Wake Up John," a strong change-of-pace effort penned by Chip Taylor and arranged by longtime 4 Seasons conductor Charles Calello, couldn't stem the downward trend. When Dimension canceled her contract, Eva had very little money to show for someone with a million selling chart-topper and a few more solid hits. She followed with a one-shot release on Amy, a version of Ben E. King's signature song "Stand By Me" arranged with a more driving beat (and guitar solo by Rick Derringer of The McCoys) by Strangeloves dudes Bob Feldman, Jerry Goldstein and Richard Gottehrer. Rock-oriented productions continued: imagine a Little Eva rendition of British band Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich's "Bend It," one of two singles on Verve that appeared in '66 and '67. There were three on the Spring label: Motown medley "Get Ready-Uptight" in '68 (the only time she was credited as Little Eva Harris) and a pair of 1970 releases including a bigger-production-than-expected take on The Shirelles' classic "Mama Said."

Her mother, Laura Boyd, died in 1971. Eva was separated from her husband and decided to put the music career on hold and move back to North Carolina with her three children; with limited funds and few options, she took the same kinds of jobs she'd had as a teenager. She reunited with husband James, though he passed away several years later. Many years went by before she resumed singing, during which time two remakes of "The Loco-Motion" became extremely successful. Michigan band Grand Funk took their rocking version to number one in 1974 and in '88 Australian pop singer Kylie Minogue made the song a three-time top ten, a rare occurrence. Increased media attention convinced Eva to give it another try; a 1988 gospel/pop album on Malibu Records, Back on Track, resulted. Afterwards she returned home for good. Little Eva had peaked too early, before her 20th birthday, though her spiritual faith and positive outlook kept her going throughout the often-difficult times that followed. She died of cervical cancer, in 2003 at the young age of 59.

- Michael Jack Kirby


The Loco-Motion