Legend had it that when Carole King heard her newly hired babysitter Eva Narcissus Boyd sing she yelled, ‘Stop! We must record that voice!’. Another story often told is that Eva’s dancing around her living room inspired the lyrics to The Locomotion. Truthfully, King and her husband Gerry Goffin knew exactly how good a singer Eva was when they hired her as a babysitter, since she had been singing on demos and working with their girl group the Cookies.
The song Locomotion was actually originally written for Dee Dee Sharp, who’d just had a hit with Mashed Potato Time’ in 1962. The writing duo saw an opportunity to capitalise on the song and its dance craze that was sweeping the charts and set out to write her a similar follow up. Unfortunately (for Dee Dee anyway) at the time many artists were tied into contracts with specific songwriting factories so the song was passed over. This forced legendary Brill Building publishing house owner Don Kirshner to establish Dimension records, in order to release music for their own artists. It was him who saw the potential of Little Eva as an artist in her own right, deciding to release her version of the song in that same year.
Eva herself was just nineteen and had moved to the city from North Carolina, leaving behind two young children with her mother. She auditioned for the Cookies, singing Will You Love Me Tomorrow? and was hired as a studio singer and a kind of lay member who filled in when one of the girls had prior commitments. The band would go on to sing back up vocals on many of Eva’s songs, notably on her other minor hit Let’s Turkey Trot.
The overnight success of Locomotion took Eva by surprise, explaining how it ‘overwhelmed me as a singer. I had dreamed about it and talked about it. I had even written an essay about it. You hope it would happen.’ The reality was more of a whirlwind than she could ever have imagined – with the song reaching number one and selling over a million copies. Eva herself came up with the famous dance routine during her hectic publicity schedule, since the song itself was not written with any specific moves in mind.
Little Eva’s debut album was produced by Goffin, arranged and conducted by King and most of the songs are from their pen. The cover picture is Eva standing on the top of an old steam train – when asked for her memories of the shoot she recalled, ‘That was cold. I was standing on this train in a straw hat, with my stomach exposed and I was freezing. I weighed 98 pounds.’ She was now a pop star and her album was title ‘Llllllco-motion’ to capitalise on her hit, and reflect the energy of their new singing star.
The album begins with her signature song, which still tastes like fresh bubblegum to this day. Second song ‘Some Kind of Wonderful’ lives up to its name. She may have been billed as a solo star but Little Eva’s sound relies heavily on girl group harmonies, like on Breaking Up is Hard to Do and Uptown. As a singer she had ambitions beyond this sound, seen on the dramatic broadway song I Have A Love from West Side Story, a track she personally requested be included on the album. The best examples of her fresh and sweet voice can be heard on Sharing You and her gorgeous version of Up on the Roof. The album finishes with Will You Love Me Tomorrow?, the song she sang for her initial audition to join the Cookies and you can hear an edgier style she brings to this song, inspired no doubt by her upbringing listening to jazz songs.
Although she never sang it, Little Eva would inspire another of King and Goffin’s famous songs, The Crystals’ ‘He Hit Me and it Felt Like a Kiss’. After Eva brushed off a particularly nasty fight with her boyfriend, Goffin wrote the lyrics to reflect her experiences. Phil Spector would go on to make the song sound as disturbingly romantic as he could. I first heard this song when Hole covered it at their Unplugged show and Courtney rightly called it a really ‘sick song’ – her version added an unhinged masochism, raw emotion and slyly satirical side to the song which the sweet sixties girl singers could never even have dreamed of.
The rest of Eva’s story echoes that of many soul singers who found themselves at the mercy of material written by others. After changes at the record label which left her working with lesser writers and ever diminishing returns Eva gave up music in the 70s to look after her mother and raise her family. She was coaxed out of retirement in the late eighties after Kylie Minogue revived her famous hit song and People magazine ran a ‘where are they now’ story. Eva said of the cover, ‘Kylie’s revival is alright, but mine is better. You can’t improve on perfection.’ She recorded a gospel album in 1989 called Back on Track and began appearing at many oldies revival concerts.
Sadly Little Eva died of cancer in 2003 and was buried without a headstone in her hometown of Belhaven. Thankfully in 2008 a local monument maker would donate a beautiful headstone fitting for a singer whose career was allowed to fizzle out much faster than it should have.