LITTLE EVA (1943 - 2003)
The girl from Railroad Street
Little Eva, who topped the charts in 1962 with "The Loco-Motion" and was the inspiration behind several other Carole King and Gerry Goffin compositions, died on April 10 following a long battle with cancer.
When Little Eva quit the music business in 1971, she returned home to North Carolina a penniless single parent of three young children. She found employment as a housekeeper, caretaker and cook. When work wasn't available, she and the kids survived on welfare. At the time of her hit records her weekly salary had been $50 plus expenses. Her previous job as a $35-a-week live-in nanny for Carole King and Gerry Goffin must have seemed positively well-paid by comparison.
Eva Narcissus Boyd was born on June 29th 1943 in Belhaven, North Carolina. She was the tenth of David and Laura Boyd's thirteen children. The family home was situated on (prophetically) Railroad Street. The Boyds were a religious family and Eva's maternal grandfather was a church minister. She always wanted to be a singer and was inspired by the gospel, country, rhythm & blues and rock & roll records she grew up listening to on the radio. For a while Eva and four of her siblings had their own gospel group, the Boyd Five.
In the summer of 1959, Eva went to spend the school holidays with her eldest brother Jimmy, who lived with his wife in Coney Island, New York. She returned to Belhaven for a few months but, having acquired a taste for life in the big city, quit school and, in 1960, got the bus back to New York and found herself a job as a maid in Hempstead, Long Island.
Eva's sister-in-law was friendly with Earl-Jean McCrea of the Cookies, an established vocal group then making demos for publisher Don Kirshner. Among the many writers signed to Kirshner and business partner Al Nevins' Aldon company were the husband-and-wife team of Carole King and Gerry Goffin. When the Shirelles' version of Goffin and King's "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" reached #1, the young scribes decided to devote themselves full-time to song writing.
With a home, a husband, a baby daughter and another on the way, Carole King decided to employ a nanny. Meanwhile, the Cookies, their line-up in flux, were on the lookout for a new member. Earl-Jean McCrea encouraged Eva to apply for both jobs, which she did by performing "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" at her interview-cum-audition. Eva landed both positions and, in 1961, moved into the Goffin apartment in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. She shared a room with baby Louise Goffin. Carole King gave birth to her second daughter Sherry shortly afterwards.
With Gerry supplying the lyrics and Carole the melodies, the Goffin/King team were on a roll. Over the next year or so they wrote for such great artists as the Drifters ("When My Little Girl Is Smiling", "Some Kind Of Wonderful"), Tony Orlando ("Halfway To Paradise") and Bobby Vee ("Sharing You", "Take Good Care Of My Baby") plus many others.
The Cookies, who had released a handful of singles of their own in previous years, were now working primarily as a session group. They had backed-up many Atlantic artists – Joe Turner, Lavern Baker, Ruth Brown, Chuck Willis and, most significantly, Ray Charles, for whom they'd doubled as the Raeletts – and were now singing on demos for such Aldon writers as Neil Sedaka. In March 1962 Eva joined the three other Cookies on a four-song Ben E. King session and can be heard clearly on "Gloria, Gloria" and "Don't Play That Song (You Lied)".
When Dee Dee Sharp shot to #2 with "Mashed Potato Time" in May 1962, Don Kirshner suggested to Goffin and King that they write a similar number for him to pitch at her label, Cameo Records, as a possible follow-up. The result was "The Loco-motion". The hot writers had their babysitter Eva record a demo version. Goffin himself produced the session, which took place at Dick Charles' studio, where most Aldon demos were cut. Kirshner flipped when he heard the disc and decided that it good enough to release and that he would form his own label to do so.
Goffin and King rushed Eva to Mirasound, their preferred studio for master recordings, to re-record "The Loco-motion". They were unable to reproduce the fabulous sound of the original demonstration disc, which, with the simple addition of some overdubbed backing vocals by Carole King and Eva, was the version used as the initial release on the new Dimension label in June 1962. Miss Boyd, who was less than five feet tall, was bestowed with the name Little Eva and two years were lopped off her age by Kirshner's publicity machine.
Within weeks, Little Eva was appearing on American Bandstand, lip-synching "The Loco-motion" and demonstrating the required dance steps, which, incidentally, were her own creation. The record entered the Hot 100 in the last week of June. By the end of August it had replaced Neil Sedaka's "Breaking Up Is Hard To Do" (another Aldon copyright) at #1, leapfrogging Dee Dee Sharp's follow-up "Gravy (For My Mashed Potatoes)" along the way.
An album was recorded and rush-released to capitalise on Eva's new-found fame. With the exception of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim's "I Have A Love" from West Side Story, the material selected for the LP was drawn entirely from the Aldon songbook. Gloriously produced by Gerry Goffin, with Carole King and Claus Ogermann handling the arrangements between them, the Cookies featuring prominently on many of the tracks and woodwind wizard Art Kaplan the star of the session players, Little Eva's "Llllloco-motion" LP was, indeed, some kind of wonderful. The album was released in both monaural and stereophonic versions but the title track was in mono on both; yet further evidence that the version used was the original demo recording.
Eva's follow-up 45, "Keep Your Hands Off My Baby", was probably a better record than "The Loco-motion" but was destined to be forever overlooked in favour of its famous predecessor. However, it peaked at a very respectable #12 on the final Billboard Hot 100 of 1962 (#6 R&B, and #30 here in the UK). Little Eva celebrated her success by marrying her long-time boyfriend James Harris on December 18th, but didn't let the special occasion prevent her from appearing at the Harlem Apollo that evening.
Just five places behind "Keep Your Hands Off My Baby" on the best-seller list of Christmas week 1962 were Eva's pals the Cookies with "Chains". In an attempt to fatten the group's sound, Gerry Goffin had Eva join in on the unison lead vocals, as was obvious from the very first word of the song.
Little Eva's temporary replacement as Goffin and King's babysitter was her younger sister, Idalia Boyd. She took over the job fro the summer of 1962, but soon went back to North Carolina to complete her final year in high school. Idalia made another brief visit to New York that winter and, following a few days of rehearsal at Don Kirshner's house, recorded the delightful "Hula Hoppin'" with Eva helping out on backing vocals. Dimension released the track in early 1963 with "Some Kind Of Wonderful" on the flip, which used the same backing track as the Little Eva album version. Idalia, a shy girl, unlike her ebullient big sis, didn't hang around to monitor the sales figures, which were minimal. "Hula Hoppin'" – an Hawaiian-style tribute to Chubby and Dee Dee (Checker and Sharp, obviously!) – went on to become a collectors' item.
Having taken the melody for "Hula Hoppin'" from "Hawaiian War Chant", a 1940's Polynesian pastiche; for Little Eva's next single, "Let's Turkey Trot", Carole King borrowed heavily from "Little Girl Of Mine", a huge R&B hit for the Cleftones in 1956. So heavily, in fact, that the melodies of the two songs were virtually identical. The lyrics; well, these days Gerry Goffin would rather not even try to remember them. One wonders how Earl-Jean McCrea and the Cookies, felt about having to provide the farmyard noise backing vocals? Whatever, "Let's Turkey Trot" – which was not another newly-invented ballroom step but one which dated from, to quote the lyrics, "back in 1910" – was one of Eva's best records and provided her with yet another Top 20 Hit (#16 R&B, #13 UK), her third on the, er, trot.
Like her role model Dee Dee Sharp before her, who was eulogised in song by Vinnie Monte with "Mashed Potato Girl", Little Eva was also the subject of a tribute record: "Little Eva" (the title) by The Locomotions (the group), released on the Gone label in 1963.
Meanwhile, in the spring of that year, Little Eva got to make her first trip overseas, sharing top billing with Brian Hyland on a tour of Great Britain. She also travelled to Paris to perform but her father passed away while she was in France, leading to the jaunt having to be curtailed.
Little Eva's name didn't appear at all on the label of her next chart record, but there was no mistaking her distinctive voice chiming in with some sassy comment at the end of each line on Big Dee Irwin's "Swinging On A Star", his Bob B. Soxx-style update of the old Bing Crosby chestnut. On the B-side, a fantastic version of the Drifters' "Another Night With The Boys", Dee and Eva tackled the song as a bona-fide duet, making her lack of billing even more puzzling. The record reached #38 on the Billboard Hot 100 in July 1963, and #7 on the UK charts some four months later.
If Little Eva's singles were lacking in anything, it was original ideas. And that criticism was certainly deserved by her next attempt, "Old Smokey Locomotion", a too-obvious amalgam of "On Top Of Old Smokey" and "The Loco-motion". It sold quite well and reached a chart peak of #48, ultimately losing out to "On Top Of Spaghetti", Tom Glazer's kiddie-novelty bowdlerisation which hit #14 at around the same time. The record did, however, feature Eva's first non-LP flip, a superb Goffin & King original entitled "Just A Little Girl", which may have well prevented her carer downslide had it been promoted as the plug side. (In the UK, where American hits frequently took several months to gain release, "Let's Turkey Trot" and "Old Smokey Locomotion" were issued back-to-back on one single.)
Throughout her career as a Dimension artist, Eva had continued cutting demos for Gerry Goffin and Carole King. They obviously felt that she had a voice that could help sell their compositions to other artists and producers. One such song was "One Fine Day". Legend has it that the Chiffons' producers, the Tokens, simply took Eva's demo, wiped her voice from the track and over-dubbed the Chiffons vocals. Ironically, "One Fine Day" by the Chiffons entered the Billboard Hot 100 the very same week as Little Eva's "Old Smokey Locomotion" but, unlike Eva's record, it sold and sold, eventually reaching #5. Eva remained pragmatic and never showed any signs of jealousy or bitterness. She was simply doing her job, singing demos and singing them well.
Little Eva's next release, hot on the heels of "Old Smokey Locomotion", was a terrific return-to-form which paired "What I Gotta Do (To Make You Jealous)" and "The Trouble With Boys". Production wise, they sounded perfect for their time. Lyrically? Well, Lesley Gore would have probably killed to record such future girl-talk classics. Unfortunately, neither side really caught on and "What I Gotta Do" stalled just one place outside the Hot 100. "Let's Start The Party Again" – a joyful racket with Eva doing her best Gary U.S. Bonds impression – fared even worse, bubbling under the charts at #123 for just one week before disappearing. (Hidden on the B-side was "Please Hurt Me", a previously unused gem from the "Lllloco-motion" album sessions). Never again would Little Eva grace the American charts. She'd had her moment of glory.
Big Dee Irwin had followed "Swinging On A Star" with a brace of solo singles. Both were rather excellent, but neither sold too well. So for Dee's next release, Little Eva was once again called upon to duet, this time with equal billing. Still not tired of recycling old songs, Goffin and King gave Mel Torme's "The Christmas Song" and the traditional "I Wish You A Merry Christmas" (for which the royalty-hungry pair claimed writer credits) the full Dimension treatment. To no avail. Not even Phil Spector and Darlene Love could get a Christmas hit in 1963. Something to do with one Lee Harvey Oswald.
There was only one Little Eva record released in 1964 and it was possibly her most contrived. That year, Goffin and King wrote excellent songs like "Oh No Not My Baby", "I Can't Hear You No More" and "They're Jealous Of Me" but, unfortunately for Eva, the powers that be at Dimension were still intent on marketing her as a singer of novelty dance tunes. "Making With The Magilla" was a monkey-rhythm'ed ode to Hanna-Barbera's cartoon gorilla. It was also the last-ever Dimension release to carry a Goffin-King label credit.
The following year, Little Eva got some tasty adult material in the shape of "Wake Up John" and "Takin' Back What I Said" – both rather fine Chip Taylor compositions, sharply arranged by Charles Calello and produced by Jack Lewis. (A further title, "Get Him", also recorded at this session, remained unissued until the Murray Hill label unearthed the master tape and included it on their "Best Of Little Eva" album in 1988.) But it was too late – Dimension was on its last legs and the record received little promotion. The label ceased operations shortly afterwards.
Little Eva immediately hooked up with the Feldman/Goldstein/Gottehrer production team for a one-single liaison (well, one and a bit singles, read on). Bob, Jerry and Richard had previously masterminded such hits as the Angels' "My Boyfriend's Back" and were, in 1965, hit artists in their own right, thinly disguised in three black polo sweaters as the Strangeloves. Following their success with the stompy-punky "I Want Candy", F/G/G applied the very same Strangeloves sound to everything they touched for a while, Eva's version of Ben E. King's "Stand By Me" on Amy included.
In a moment of deja vu, Eva got no label credit whatsoever on her next record, which was the result of a collaboration between F/G/G and Jimmy "Handy Man" Jones. Jimmy's revival of Huey ‘Piano' Smith's great call-and-response number "Don't You Just Know It" on Parkway bore F/G/G's trademark production, and a certain anonymous Miss Boyd hollering the "response" parts of the song.
Another year, another recording outlet and another producer. Eva's hastily conceived cover version, for Verve, of Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich's UK hit "Bend It" failed to sell, as did a second Creed Taylor-supervised single for the label. Shame, really, because "Take A Step (In My Direction)", released mid-'67, was a rather good soul record.
Over two years then elapsed without a major event in Little Eva's career; time she spent working the club circuit to earn a living and to support her children. In 1970 Eva signed to the Spring label, future home of soul stars Millie Jackson and Joe Simon. She was billed as Little Eva Harris, her married surname, on the funky Motown medley "Get Ready/Uptight" but, after separating from her husband, reverted to her more-familiar previous epithet for future releases. A frantic update of the Shirelles' "Mama Said" was followed by a much-needed original, "Night After Night", supplied by her producer John Lombardo. Eva, whose publicity photographs now showed her sporting a trendy Afro ‘do', thought highly of Spring's owners, the Rifkin brothers, who were very good to her financially. However, her stint at the label was short.
Laura Boyd, Eva's mother, died in 1971. The event prompted the former star to re-evaluate her life. Down on her luck, with an estranged husband, three young children and no money in the bank, Eva decided to quit the music business and go back to Belhaven to live. She immersed herself in her new life and tried to forget how unhappy she's become in New York. When she could, she worked a succession of menial jobs. At other times she had to rely on welfare cheques to pay the rent and clothe the children.
When "The Loco-motion" re-entered the UK charts in 1972, Eva remained blissfully unaware. (Actually, the record had remained in catalogue ever since its original release a decade earlier.) Grand Funk Railroad's version of the song became a US #1 two years later. For the next fifteen years, Eva lived in total obscurity. She re-found God, became a regular churchgoer, patched up her marriage and had two more children. Disastrously, James Harris died in 1983.
In 1988 yet another version of "The Loco-motion" became a huge worldwide hit, this time courtesy of another tiny pop princess, Australian Kylie Minogue. At the time, Eva was working as a cook in a soul food diner. The media tracked her down, and numerous press, radio and television features and interviews resulted, as well as the aforementioned "Best Of" album. Realising that she was not a forgotten figure, Eva decided that she would use the renewed interest as an aid to ease herself back into showbiz and to fulfil a new ambition to record a gospel album. Later that year she went to California to record the selections that would comprise her "Back On Track" album, issued by the tiny Malibu gospel label late in 1989. One track, "In Memory Of C.J.", was a poignant epitaph to her late husband.
In more recent years Eva made a return to the stage, touring the UK on an all-star bill with Little Richard. Among her last shows was a mammoth charity event to raise funds to help pay the medical bills of ailing legend LaVern Baker.
Mick Patrick and Malcolm Baumgart - adapted from the "L L L L Little Eva! The Complete Dimension Recordings" CD booklet - Westside WESM 512. With thanks to Eric Charge and Joe Haertel
Eva Narcissus Boyd (Little Eva), singer: born June 29, 1943 – died April 10, 2003.