Little Eva

Singer of 'The Locomotion', a No 1 hit for her in 1962 when she was just 19

Eva Narcissus Boyd (Little Eva), singer: born Belhaven, North Carolina 29 June 1943; married 1962 James Harris (died 1983; one son, two daughters); died Kinston, North Carolina 10 April 2003.

In 1962 Carole King and Gerry Goffin created a new dance to complement the twist and called their song "The Locomotion". The dance is long forgotten but Little Eva's record was one of the great pop hits of the early 1960s and it retains its power and potency to this day. "Kylie Minogue's revival is all right, but mine is better," Little Eva told me with a laugh in 2000. "You can't improve on perfection. 'The Locomotion' is a great song, but it ain't no 'Amazing Grace'."

Eva Narcissus Boyd was born in 1943 in Belhaven, North Carolina. Her grandfather was a minister and five of David and Laura Boyd's 13 children, including Eva herself, formed a gospel group, the Boyd Five. "I had an aunt called Eva," Boyd said, "so she was Big Eva and I was Little Eva."

In 1960 she worked as a maid in Hempstead, Long Island. She met Earl-Jean McCrae of the Cookies vocal group, who recorded demonstration records for songwriters in and around the Brill Building in New York. They often worked with the husband-and-wife songwriting partnership of Carole King and Gerry Goffin. "I got a job singing with the Cookies," said Eva,

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 so I told her, yeah.

Eva had a stormy relationship with her boyfriend, James Harris, and Goffin and King wrote songs around her problems, notably "He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)", which was recorded by the Crystals, and "Keep Your Hands Off My Baby", which became Eva's follow-up to "The Locomotion". The Cookies also did session work and Eva is strongly featured on Ben E. King's glorious "Don't Play That Song (You Lied)".

Chubby Checker had an international hit with "The Twist", which prompted Dee Dee Sharp to tell the world it was "Mashed Potato Time" early in 1962. Silly dance records were the order of the day and Goffin and King wrote "The Locomotion" for Sharp. Goffin was so impressed by Eva's demo that he asked the publisher, Don Kirshner, to forget about Sharp and start a new label to release Eva's record. Carole King and Little Eva added harmonies, and "The Locomotion" became the first release on Dimension Records in June 1962. Following the instructions in the lyric, Eva devised a routine to perform on American Bandstand, and the record climbed to No 1, easily outstripping Sharp's follow-up, "Gravy (For My Mashed Potatoes)".

When I showed Eva the famous publicity photograph of her standing on the front of a locomotive, she commented,

That was cold. I was standing on this train in a straw hat and with my stomach exposed and I was freezing. I weighed 98 pounds then and I was size 3. Look at me now. I am well over 200 pounds, but I am losing weight.

Eva's follow-up, "Keep Your Hands Off My Baby", was another US hit and, in December 1962, she married James Harris, appearing on her honeymoon night at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. Her sister, Idalia, had replaced her as the Goffin's babysitter, and Goffin and King were to write a dance single for her, "Hula Hoppin' ", on which Eva sang backing vocals. There was a also a tribute record, "Little Eva", by the Locomotions. Eva's album Llllloco-motion (1962) is the finest example of the songs published by Kirshner's Screen Gems company: "They are great songs," said Eva,

but you'll notice that I also did "I Have a Love" on there. I had been to see West Side Story and they indulged me and let me do that song.

The Cookies made excellent records in their own right, notably "Chains" and "Don't Say Nothin' Bad About My Baby", with Eva taking the top harmonies and Earl-Jean singing lead. The Cookies backed Little Eva on her third hit, "Let's Turkey Trot", making farmyard noises behind her exuberant vocals. Eva recorded the demo for Goffin and King's "One Fine Day", but the song was passed to the Chiffons, rather than being left with Eva herself, who was given the decidedly substandard "Old Smokey Locomotion", which ended her run of hits.

Little Eva also made an uncredited appearance on Big Dee Irwin's radical reworking of Bing Crosby's "Swinging on a Star" (1963). The affection between the two performers is self-evident. "He was a wonderful person," said Eva:

He was just like he looked, warm and friendly and cuddly. It was like making a record with Santa Claus.

The Beatles recorded "Chains" on their first album and performed "Keep Your Hands Off My Baby" on their début on the BBC's Saturday Club in January 1963. Little Eva came to Europe with Brian Hyland for a concert tour, but had to return early following the death of her father. Although her career hit hard times, she continuted to record but, rather than having new Goffin and King sings, she was covering UK pop hits like "Bend It". She had little money as she was only on a salary during her hit-making days.

When her mother died in 1971, Eva, separated from her husband, returned to Belhaven, taking a job as a nanny and raising her three children on her own. Her version of "The Locomotion" was a UK hit again in 1972, but she saw no royalties from it, nor she did benefit from Grand Funk Railroad's revival, which topped the US charts. Ever resilient, she patched up her marriage and, when her husband died in 1983, she recorded a tribute to him, "In Memory of C.J" on her 1989 gospel album, Back on Track.

Kylie Minogue had an international hit with "The Locomotion" in 1988, and promoters asked Little Eva to tour again. She came to the UK with Little Richard in 1992 and then undertook extensive UK tours with her friends Bobby Vee and Brian Hyland in 1998 and again in 2000. She had all the audience standing up doing the locomotion, of course.

Spencer Leigh

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