In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
When Carole King and Gerry Goffin — the married-couple songwriters who cranked out so much solid-gold pop music in the early ’60s — wrote “The Loco-Motion,” they had the idea that Dee Dee Sharp, who’d already had a dance-craze hit with “Mashed Potato Time,” might sing it. But Sharp passed, so they ended up recording a version of the song with Eva Boyd, their 17-year-old babysitter, singing it. (Goffin and King were young themselves; King was only two years older than Boyd.) The song made Boyd (briefly) famous, but it didn’t make her rich.
Boyd never scored another hit after “The Loco-Motion,” and she didn’t stay in show business much longer. A few years after the song hit, Boyd, who’d been born in North Carolina, moved back there with her own kids, working shitty low-pay jobs. According to some stories, she only made $50 per week as a singer under contract. (She’d made $35 per week as a babysitter.) She didn’t make any royalties on “The Loco-Motion.” She eventually returned to performing after Kylie Minogue took a cover of “The Loco-Motion” to #3 in 1987. (Another cover of the same song, from Grand Funk Railroad, also hit #1 in 1974.) Boyd died of cervical cancer in 2003, when she was 59, and her whole life story plays as a testament to how fucked-up the music business can be.
It didn’t have to be that way. “The Loco-Motion” proves that Boyd was a perfectly delightful pop singer. The song itself is simple to the point of deep silliness. It’s a dance-craze song that was written without an actual dance in mind. (When the song hit, Boyd had to invent a dance to go with it. The dance itself didn’t stick. I lived with my family in London in 1988, when the Kylie Minogue version got played at every summer-camp dance, and all the kids just formed conga lines when it came on.) The lyrics are all Boyd reassuring us, again and again, how easy the dance is: “My little baby sister can do it with me / It’s easier than doing your ABCs… There’s never been a dance that’s so easy to do / It even makes you happy when you’re feeling blue.”
The arrangement is pure early-’60s girl-group breeziness, with handclaps and backing-vocal waaah-oohs and a honking saxophone solo. And Boyd sings it so breezily and conversationally that she makes it sound perfectly natural. It’s refreshingly unpolished; she sounds less like a studio-created pop singer than like a friend urging you onto the dancefloor. If she’d been a studio-created pop star, maybe she would’ve gotten a better contract. But then she probably wouldn’t have hit with that song, either.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene in Inland Empire where David Lynch makes disorienting and vaguely nightmarish use of “The Loco-Motion”: