Belhaven is a small, poor town in North Carolina. It was there that David and Laura Boyd struggled to raise their large family which would eventually, by the mid 1940s, include thirteen children. From the point of view of music history it’s fortunate they didn’t stop at nine children because Number 10, born in late June 1943, was a girl whom they named Eva Narcissus Boyd who later came to be known on pop charts all around the world as, ‘Little Eva’.
Under that soubriquet in 1962 and 1963 she would record a glorious series of life affirming pop records – one of which, ‘The Locomotion’ is indelibly imprinted on the memory of anyone who has ever heard it (though the steps to the dance may remain a little hazy for most of us!). I defy anyone not to light up a smile as this record speeds along propelled by Carole King’s driving piano and spurred by Art Kaplan’s insistent sax.
On top Eva sings her heart out winning our affections with the unbridled enthusiasm, the sheer pizazz, with which she lives out the song. Pretty soon everyone was doing a brand new dance and Eva by August 1962 was looking down on the world from the fabled Number One spot on the charts!
In Belhaven Eva had soaked up all the enormous music available on the radio and honed her singing chops with a family Gospel group, ‘The Boyd Five’. Eva was naturally ebullient and it was inevitable that she would feel as she grew up that Belhaven was not the place to get ahead and forge your dreams into reality. Of course, she was inevitably drawn to the great magnet city on the Hudson, New York, which continually called out to all who wanted to make a new life – come on up! If you can make it here you can make it anywhere!
So, having had a taster of life there in 1959 staying with her brother Jimmy as 1960 dawned Eva boarded the bus out of town to try her luck in the Big Apple. Initially she got a job as a maid on Long Island. Brother Jimmy’s wife was friends with Earl-Jean McCrea who sang with established vocal group The Cookies who had backed up many prominent artists on the Atlantic label including the King of them all – Ray Charles.
Earl-Jean copping that Eva could really sing asked her to try out for a vacant position in The Cookies in 1961. Her successful audition piece had been one of the greatest ever yearning love songs, ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’ written by the immortal songwriting team of Carole King and Gerry Goffin.
Carole and Gerry with inspiration at full flood and publishers beating down their door for the next big hit decided that it was essential to employ a nanny for baby Louise to free them up to attend, full time, to their muse (especially as another child was on the way!). So in short order Eva became a member of the Cookies and a live in nanny in Sheepshead Bay Brooklyn. Eva could also on hand to demo some of the songs pouring out of the Goffin/King hit machine.
Eva is heard for the first time on record on a Ben E King session adding punch to, ‘Gloria, Gloria’ and the marvellous, ‘Don’t Play That Song (You Lied)’. Around that time street wise Publisher Don Kirshner asked/demanded Gerry and Carole to come up with a smash hit dance song in the vein of, ‘Mashed Potato Time’ which had been a number 2 record for Dee Dee Sharp in May 1962. Don wanted the new Goffin/King composition to be Dee Dee’s follow up to Mashed Potato.
But, canny operator that he was, when he heard the demo of Locomotion by Little Eva he was certain he had a major hit on his hands and if he set up his own label (Dimension) to issue the record he would really accumulate the greenbacks! In fact the demo was so good, so infectiously captivating, that a big time studio re-recording could not match it’s magic and the issued version was thus simply the demo with some added vocals from Eva and Carole.
Eva was now a long way from Belhaven – appearing on the premier pop TV show of the day, ‘American Bandstand’ and settling into a whirlwind schedule of demos for Goffin/King, recordings with The Cookies and her own solo career – it would be the time of her life. With The Cookies she can be heard on another certified Goffin/King pop classic, ‘Chains’ from November 1962.
In Liverpool The Beatles, aficionados of the Girl Group sound, listened intently and, ‘Chains’ sung by George Harrison, would feature on the lads debut LP (though I have to say their version does not have the overwhelming vitality of The Cookies version). The Beatles also heard, liked and performed live, Eva’s follow up to Locomotion, ‘Keep Your Hands Off My Baby’
There’s nothing of the novelty song about that one! This is a tough girl group song which gives Eva the chance to show what a fine fluent singer she could be and how she could effectively vary the volume and tone of her singing to convey the emotion of the song. Like many of the girl group songs it’s a song nominally about a boy but really about the complex web of relationships between girls.
Keep Your Hands was a number 12 hit but alas, effectively the last solo hit Eva would have (though she recorded some other fine sides). This can, at least in part, be ascribed to the demands on Goffin/King to write and reserve their best songs for more big name artists and the lack of a savvy manager figure to look out for Eva’s interests (there’s the almost inevitable murky story of how little money she made from her days in the pop limelight).
But, there would be one last hurrah, and a mighty one at that, for Eva on record and in the charts in the essential (though mysteriously uncredited!) contribution she made to one of the most charming records of the early 60s, ‘Swinging On A Star’ by Big Dee Irwin.
Now, if that doesn’t give an enormous boost to your happiness index I have to say you must be seriously depressed! The record overflows with wit and sheer love of life with Eva providing the joyously sassy vitality of youth. You can hear the vocal chemistry and warmth of the relationship between Big Dee and Eva in their relaxed banter that makes the song such a pleasure to listen to (the flip, ‘Just A Little Girl’ is excellent too).
And as 1963 closed so did Eva’s career as a hitmaker though she kept recording through to 1971 when she determined to return home to North Carolina following the death of her mother. Eva had a troubled marriage with James Harris which reportedly involved extensive domestic violence (they were later reconciled).
When she returned home her purse was virtually empty despite her hits and she had three young children to care for. Taking whatever work was available she showed she was made of stern stuff and settled down to the obscure life she had left behind for those dizzying few years of the early 1960s.
Though Locomotion was a re-released hit in the UK and a Number One US hit for the second time through Grand Funk Railroad (!) Eva saw no boost to her bank balance. Strangely it was the bland Kylie Minogue version from 1988 which opened the door for Eva to be seen and heard again. She appeared on retro, ‘Golden Oldies’ shows, recorded some gospel material and toured with pop contemporaries like Bobby Vee and Brian Hyland.
Eva died in April 2003 from cervical cancer. For many years her grave in the Black Bottom Cemetery was marked by nothing but a tin marker. However, through the good offices of the town of Belhaven and monumental mason Quincy Edgerton a fitting headstone featuring a speeding locomotive now rests atop her final resting place.
It is no small thing, as Eva did, to have made records which will always evoke the joy of youth and the glorious gift of life. There are times when we all need a song which will make us happy even when we are feeling blue. Thank you Eva – may you rest in peace.
In addition to the songs mentioned above I suggest you give a listen to the following attractive performances by Eva:
‘The Trouble With Boys’
‘What I Gotta Do (To Make You Jealous)
‘Takin’ Back What I Said’