Little Eva (Contemporary Musicians)
Little Eva simultaneously personified one of rock 'n' roll's greatest dreams come true and one of its most dire cautionary tales. Blessed with a perky, gospel-trained voice, she provided the drive and uplift to one of the early 1960s greatest hits, "The Loco-Motion." The song, which symbolized the best of the Brill Building era of teen rock, has been continually reissued, remade, and enjoyed by audiences worldwide since its initial release. However, Little Eva's career did not prove to be as durable. Changing musical trends prematurely ended her budding stardom, and by 1971 she was a welfare mother living in reduced circumstances. Fortunately she was able to enjoy a bit of renewed limelight in the years just prior to her death.
Born Eva Narcissus Boyd, she was one of 13 children. Her earliest singing was done in churches and as a member of the Boyd Five, a family gospel quartet. Her famous nickname came about as a way to distinguish her from another family member. "I had an aunt called Eva," she told the London Daily Telegraph, "so she was Big Eva and I was Little Eva." Although she was a devout churchgoer whose grandfather was a minister, the diminutive singer was like other teens of the era, and enjoyed listening to the explosion of rhythm and blues-based rock 'n' roll that occurred during the 1950s. Secretly dreaming of a career in music, Boyd made a trip to New York City in 1959, where the Brill Building was the center for teen-oriented rock 'n' roll. She returned again the following year and, still looking for work, took a job as a maid.
Boyd's sister-in-law knew Earl-Jean McCrae of the vocal group the Cookiesest known for such early 1960s hits as "Chains" and "Don't Say Nothin' Bad About My Baby." The group, which provided backing vocals for Ray Charles, the Drifters, Tony Orlando, Neil Sedaka, and Bobby Vee, also made demos for Don Kirshner and Al Nevins's Aldon Music. During the same time period, Kirshner's husband and wife songwriting team of Gerry Goffin and Carole King were starting to build a full-time career in music, but needed help managing their family life. "I got a job singing with the Cookies," Boyd told the London Independent, "and Carole needed a babysitter, as she was expecting and already had a three-year-old. She asked me if I wanted the job when I wasn't working in the studio and I told her, yeah." When not working as a babysitter, Boyd joined the Cookies and provided backup for Ben E. King's hits "Gloria" and "Don't Play That Song (You Lied)." She was making $35 a week with the Goffins, and earning union scale as a session singer, but her biggest break was just a song away.
"Loco-Motion" Became a Classic
Teen music of the early 1960s was dance crazy, and recordings such as "The Twist," "The Pony," and "The Watusi" dominated radio airwaves. In April of 2003, Carole King explained on National Public Radio's All Things Considered how she and Goffin created one of the era's most memorable dance records. "What really happened is, we knew that [Boyd] could sing, she had a really great voice, and right around the time of Dee Dee Sharp and 'Mashed Potatoes' and the success of those Philadelphia artists, we thought, 'OK, it's time to do a dance record with our own artist,' and we happened to have her right here and we wrote, 'The Loco-Motion.'"
Initially conceived by Goffin as a demo for Dee Dee Sharp, the recording featured Boyd, the Cookies, and King supplying background vocals. The song impressed Don Kirshner. Unable to improve upon the sound in a better studio, Kirshner released the demo on Dimension Records, a label created specifically for the girl-group productions of Goffin and King. Brimming with youthful soul and an infectious hook, "The Loco-Motion" became a number one pop record in the summer of 1962. Eventually, Little Eva would receive $30,000 in royalties for the massively popular record, but at the time she drew a salary of only $50 a week. At the time, having a hit record meant more than money to the young artist. "'Loco-Motion' overwhelmed me as a singer," she declared, according to John Clemente in Girl Groups: Fabulous Females That Rocked the World. "I mean, I had dreamed about it and talked about it.You hope that it would happen. I got to travel all over America, England and Paris."
No One-Hit Wonder
For her stage show, Little Eva created a dance to go along with her hit record, appeared on Dick Clark's American Bandstand, and was able to leave Goffin and King's employ as a babysitter. Commercially speaking, however, it appeared that she had reached her peak. As a number one hit on both the pop and R&B charts, "The Loco-Motion" became such an enduringly popular record that Little Eva's follow-up recordings tended to be overlooked. November of 1962 saw the release of the sassy "Keep Your Hands Off My Baby," featuring a effervescent girl group sound, courtesy of the Cookies. Hitting number 12 on the pop charts and number six on the R&B charts, the record was prominently featured on Llllloco-Motion, one of only two albums that the Dimension label would ever issue, the other being a compilation of hits by King, the Cookies, and Little Eva. That same year, Boyd provided the uncredited co-lead vocals on "Chains," a solid dual market hit for the Cookies, which was later covered quite successfully by the Beatles.
Although Little Eva saw chart successes in 1963, she was increasingly being saddled with mediocre material, including Dimension's remake of "This Little Girl of Mine" as "Let's Turkey Trot," replete with barnyard harmonies from the Cookies. With talent such as Goffin and King at the helm, it now seems astounding that such thin material was given to the young singer. Worse, her career seemed woefully mismanaged. An appearance on Big Dee Irwin's "Swingin' On A Star" re-make of the old Bing Crosby hitent uncredited, even though the number was clearly a duet.
Little Eva's problems were compounded when Kirshner began to dismantle the Dimension label in preparation for his move to the West Coast to set up shop at Colpix and Screen Gems. Because she was still popular on tourhe had broken box office records at the Olympia Theater in Parisoffin and King tried in vain to update Little Eva's sound with more sophisticated material. By then, however, Beatlemania had rendered the early 1960s artists obsolete, and the closest they could come to a hit was the juvenile "Makin' With the Magilla," which was featured on the Hanna-Barbera cartoon Magilla Gorilla.
After the Dimension crew packed up for Hollywood, Boyd stayed in New York, billed as "Little Eva Harris," attempting comebacks with such labels as Verve, Amy, and Spring. She attained a more mature sound with some of these labels, but nothing clicked with the public. Subsequently, the death of her mother in 1971, coupled with her disgust over the industry practices that kept her from receiving what she had rightfully earned, furnished her with the reasons she needed to quit the business.
Returned to Oldies Circuit
Boyd had married James Harris back in 1962, but the couple separated during the lowest point in her career. She took their children back to Bellhaven, North Carolina, to start a new life, recommiting herself to the church and working at menial labor jobs. Times were tough for the family, who occasionally needed welfare assistance to stay fed.
While the artist known as Little Eva labored in obscurity, her debut record proved remarkably popular. A 1972 re-release of "The Loco-Motion" hit number eleven on the British charts, but the singer did not see any money from royalties. In 1974 the Michigan-based rock band Grand Funk Railroad hit number one with their version of the song, and as late as 1988, Australian pop-star Kylie Minogue had a million-seller with the number. None of this benefitted the song's original singer. Reunited with Harris, she was busy running Hanzie's Grill in North Carolina.
In 1988 Little Eva was convinced to come out of retirement and record the second album of her career for the small Malibu label. Titled Back on Track, the 15-song set featured a contemporary techno sound that touched upon Disco, Quiet Storm, and modern gospel soul. The emotional highlight was "Tribute to C.J.," a tribute to her husband, who had died in 1983. Though constantly in print, the album did not prove to be a success. By contrast, renewed interest in "The Loco-Motion" brought her back to live performing, and she toured the world again on oldies shows that featured Bobby Vee, Brian Hyland, and Little Richard. Talking to the London Independent in 2000, she put her greatest recorded achievement in proper perspective. "Kylie Minogue's revival is all right, but mine is better," she laughed. "You can't improve on perfection. 'The Loco-Motion' is a great song, but it ain't no 'Amazing Grace'." In 2003, at age 59, Little Eva died of cervical cancer.
"Keep Your Hands Off My Baby," 1962.
"Let's Turkey Trot," 1963.
(With Big Dee Irwin) "Swingin' On a Star," 1963.
Llllloco-Motion, Dimension, 1962; reissued, Collectables, 1992.
Back on Track, Malibu, 1989.
The Loco-Motion, Rhino, 1996.
Llll-Little Eva!: The Complete Dimension Recordings, Westside, 2001.
Bronson, Fred, Billboard Book of Number One Hits, 4th edition, Billboard, 1997.
Clemente, John, Girl Groupsabulous Females that Rocked the World, Krause, 2000.
Whitburn, Joel, Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits, 8th edition, Billboard, 2004.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), April 14, 2003.
Independent (London, England), April 12, 2003.
Dimension Album Discography, (March 3, 2004).
"Little Eva," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (March 2, 2004).
"Little Eva," Billboard, http://www.billboard.com (March 3, 2004).
"Little Eva," Interview, All Things Considered, National Public Radio, http://www.NPR.org (March 3, 2004).