This is the 14th post in a weekly, yearlong series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song will be posted each Monday throughout 2016. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
The story goes that teenaged Eva Boyd was working as a babysitter for songwriters Carole King and Gerry Goffin when King saw Boyd doing a new dance. Intrigued, King asked what the dance was, and ended up writing “The Loco-Motion,” which Boyd recorded in 1962 under the stage name Little Eva.
But King has said that’s not what happened.
Boyd did babysit for King and Goffin, but she was not the muse behind “The Loco-Motion.” After Boyd’s death in 2003, King told NPR that the success of Dee Dee Sharp and other Philadelphia singers inspired King and Goffin to write a dance song using their own artist. “We happened to have [Boyd] right here, so we wrote “The Loco-Motion.”
But Boyd did inspire another song by King and Goffin. The duo wrote “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss,” recorded by The Crystals, about the domestic abuse Boyd received from her boyfriend.
“The Loco-Motion,” describing a dance of that same name, reached Number One on both the Billboard Hot 100 and the Billboard R&B charts in 1962. There was no dance called “The Loco-Motion” when King and Goffin wrote the song, and the lyrics are vague in their instructions:
Now that you can do it, let’s make a chain, now
(Come on baby, do the Loco-motion)
A chug-a chug-a motion like a railroad train, now
(Come on baby, do the Loco-motion)
Do it nice and easy, now, don’t lose control
A little bit of rhythm and a lot of soul
But when Boyd performed the song onstage, she did her own dance. That dance — the one Boyd did in concert — became associated with “The Loco-Motion.”
The same year that Little Eva’s “The Loco-Motion” came out, French singer Sylvie Vartan released “Le locomotion.” The song sounded faithful to the original, with the same arrangement, except it was in French.
After becoming famous on “The Donna Reed Show” as a teenaged actress, Shelley Fabares pursued careers in movies and music. Her second album, “The Things We Did Last Summer,” featured a version of “The Loco-Motion.” Her version was fine, but, like Vartan’s, was pretty similar to the original. But Fabares’ pleasant voice makes it worthwhile. The album’s title track, which sampled the line “Do the the Loco-Motion,” stood out on the album as more indicative of Fabares’ talents and capabilities.
On his 1964 release, “Boss Beat,” Pat Boone covered “The Loco-Motion.” His version had slightly more guitar in it than the previous versions. Nothing stood out in this version, but there were some country flourishes to Boone’s vocals that are enjoyable. For really interesting cover songs by Boone, though, check out “In a Metal Mood: No More Mr. Nice Guy,” in which he covered Judas Priest, Metallica, Dio, and AC/DC, among others. Seriously.
“Ike & Tina Turner’s Greatest Hits, Vol. 1” featured a funky, slowed-down version of “The Loco-Motion” that, in place of the signature horns of the original, featured piano and heavy bass. When Little Eva recorded her version, she was still a teenager, which is evidenced by the innocence of her voice. In Tina Turner’s “The Loco-Motion,” she sang with more authority, as if she was a bartender and “The Loco-Motion” was a shot of 151 and gasoline that would get you lit.
Grand Funk Railroad covered “The Loco-Motion” for its eighth album, “Shinin’ On,” released in 1974. The song, while slower than the original, was heavier, with bluesy guitars and handclaps. According to the band’s drummer, Don Brewer, the song was an afterthought. “We had basically finished the album,” he told Songfacts. “We really weren’t even thinking about what to do as far as another song was concerned. And Mark [Farner, the band’s lead singer] came in one day and just off the top of his head he was singing, ‘Everybody’s doing a brand new dance,’ you know, just for fun. And we all went, ‘Yeah! Grand Funk doing The Locomotion!’ You know, it was like a tongue-in-cheek kind of thing. And we said, ‘Let’s try it. Let’s do it.'”
The track was reminiscent of The Beach Boys, a similarity Brewer said was intentional. Producer Todd Rundgren “had the idea of doing the song kind of like the Beach Boys’ ‘Barbara Ann,’ where it sounded like a big party was going on. Except Todd could really crank up everything with the hand claps and all that stuff. So it just had this huge sound to it and it sounded like a big party.” Grand Funk Railroad’s “The Loco-Motion” reached Number One on both the Billboard Hot 100.
The Ritz made a disco version of “The Loco-Motion” on its 1979 album, “Puttin’ On The Ritz.” The arrangement of the original was barely noticeable in this version, which was bass- and synth-heavy.
In 1980, King recorded a version of the song for her album “Pearls: Songs of Goffin and King.” In contrast to the Little Eva version, there’s minimal horns in this version, save for a lone saxophone solo in the middle. King sang it more like a light rock song rather than a pop song.
This is not the first time we’ve discussed a song in which a songwriter wrote a song and recorded a version after another artist had already recorded it. Michael McDonald co-wrote “What A Fool Believes” with Kenny Loggins to appear on a Doobie Brothers album, but Loggins’ version was released first. In that post, we conceded that McDonald couldn’t cover a song he helped write. That same logic applies with King’s “Locomotion;” it’s another version of the song, but not a cover.
Post-punk band Električni Orgazam covered “The Loco-Motion” on its album, “Les Chansones Populaires.” This version featured no horns and no keyboards, just bass, guitar and drums. Where Grand Funk Railroad’s rock version was very polished and produced, this lo-fi version had more of a punk/garage aesthetic.
The Raymen recast “The Loco-Motion” as a rockabilly song. Similar to Električni Orgazam’s version, The Raymen’s version was gritty and unpolished. But unlike that version, The Raymen’s version featured horns. The Raymen combined surf rock and punk in a way not unlike The Cramps, though the Raymen were a little lighter, both in sound and mood.
Singer Barbara Gaskin and composer/keyboardist Dave Stewart (not the Dave Stewart of Eurythmics) released “The Locomotion” as a single in 1986. It’s slightly slower than the original, but definitely less forceful. The instrumentation, mainly percussion and keyboards, is scaled back so as to not compete with Gaskin’s restrained singing style. It’s refreshingly soft and sweet compared to some of the more exuberant versions.
Kylie Minogue’s first single was a cover of “The Loco-Motion,” released in Australia in the summer of 1987. The single came about because Minogue, who was then acting on the Australian soap opera “Neighbours,” had attended an Australian football benefit with her costars. At that benefit, Minogue sang versions of “I Got You Babe” and “The Loco-Motion.” Not too long after the benefit, Minogue, still a teenager, recorded a studio version of “Locomotion.”
The electro-dance remake was a hit in Australia, and the following year, Minogue’s debut album “Kylie” was released, featuring her cover, this time called “The Loco-Motion.” It was one of many synth-heavy covers of ’60s songs to have success in the late ’80s, along with The Pet Shop Boys’ update of “Always On My Mind” and Samantha Fox’s “I Only Wanna Be With You.”
On “The Abbey Road Sessions,” Minogue re-recorded many of her hits, each one in different styles from her original recordings. Her “Locomotion” was total Motown: slick horns, doowop backup singers, and a polished big band sound.
In 1992, LaToya Jackson signed a deal with the Moulin Rouge in Paris to perform a nightly cabaret revue called “Formidable.” She was to perform for a year, but broke her contract early. An album of performances from the revue included “Locomotion.” It sounded much like her version of “Tears Of A Clown” in that it had hammy, over-the-top keyboards. But that’s what made both those covers fun. You want a heartfelt remake of a song? Go elsewhere. With LaToya Jackson’s kitschy covers, you know you’re getting grade-A Velveeta cheese. And it’s delicious.
Charly García might not be known to American audiences, but in the Latin rock scene and his native Argentina, he’s considered a legendary pioneer. In Argentia, García ’70s band Sui Generis is akin to The Beatles in terms of status. He followed Sui Generis with supergroup Serú Girán and prog rock band La Máquina de Hacer Pájaros. His “Locomotion,” from his 1994 solo album, “La Hija de la Lágrima,” sounded like an experiment as much as a cover. With its pounding drumbeats, its closest ancestor in the “Loco-Motion” family tree would probably be the Grand Funk Railroad version. But the drums were the most prominent part, as the guitar parts were acoustic and mixed with ambient noise.
British girl group Atomic Kitten covered “The Loco-Motion” for the “Thomas And The Magic Railroad” soundtrack. It sounded like a 2000 update of Minogue’s version, stripping the late ’80s keyboards in favor of the clubby drumbeats of the late ’90s, with the not-quite-R&B vocal style popular among girl groups at the time.
Dwight Yoakam’s 2004 album “Dwight’s Used Records” included a cover of “The Loco-Motion.” When Yoakam covered “Suspicious Minds,” he played it in the style of early ’90s commercial country, but when his version of “The Loco-Motion” was a throwback to older country and Americana. Specifically, he channeled his inner Elvis Presley. Just listen, and you’ll curl your lip.
The Hot Stewards have made a career out of covering pop songs, mainly from the ’80s, in a style that combines electropop, pop punk, and glam. The band’s “The Locomotion,” from its 2007 album “Cover Up,” is a frenzied combination of screaming, crunchy guitars, keyboards, and Nintendo-esque boops and beeps.
“Wonder Woman” actress Lynda Carter released a covers album in 2011. “Crazy Little Things” featured a country-tinged version of “The Loco-Motion” that dialed back the instruments in favor of Carter’s voice. The only horns in this country-tinged version was a lone saxophone solo. Her twangy voice sounds naturally good, without any affectations or production polishes.
“The Loco-Motion” is an example of a song in which the songwriters’ fame eclipsed any fame achieved by the original recording artist. Case in point, King had a musical written about her. As such, “The Loco-Motion” could be considered a Little Eva song, or a Carole King and Gerry Goffin song that happened to be first recorded with Little Eva. Songwriters like King, Goffin, Burt Bacharach, and Hal David will get credit for the songs they wrote. There are probably more people who remember that “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” was written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David than there are people who remember that B.J. Thomas was the first person to record it (a fact I had to look up). And yet you’d probably be hard pressed to remember who wrote “Holiday,” which appeared on Madonna’s debut album. You might not have ever known. It was Curtis Hudson and Lisa Stevens, of the group Pure Energy. I didn’t know, either.
But for her part, Little Eva contributed more to “The Loco-Motion” that just being the first person to sing it. As pointed out earlier, the song described a dance that didn’t exist until she ad-libbed it while performing the song. How’s that for some metaphysical head-scratching?
You can listen to these songs and previously discussed cover songs in a Spotify playlist.