By Drew Ailes
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As a music-business veteran now moving into his fifth decade as a professional, soulful blues singer Terry Evans is pragmatic about what it takes to survive and prosper in a hit-driven, youth-obsessed world. "My style of music doesn't have a big place in the market. You create fans, and that's how you live," says Evans. Since launching his solo career in the early '90s, Evans has built his fanbase by relentlessly crisscrossing three continents, playing blues festivals and clubs and putting out a series of remarkably consistent, well-received recordings on small labels. His most recent outing, 2001's Mississippi Magic (Audioquest), garnered a W.C. Handy Award nomination this year for Best Soul/Blues Album, putting Evans in a category that includes blues legends Little Milton and Ike Turner.
Although Evans is not nearly as famous as those esteemed gentlemen, his voice has been a constant presence on record for more than 25 years, thanks to his work as a first-call session/background vocalist. He's recorded and performed extensively with roots-music guru and film composer Ry Cooder, as well as Boz Scaggs, Maria Muldaur, Joan Armatrading, Dave Alvin, Rosanne Cash and Pops Staples. Evans earned gold records for his work on John Fogerty's Eye of the Zombie and John Lee Hooker's The Healer, and he played a prominent role in Cooder's score for the feature film Crossroads.
As a soloist, Evans evokes memories of soul and blues greats; listen closely and you'll hear echoes of Muddy Waters' guttural growl, Wilson Pickett's shout, the crooning of Sam Cooke and Otis Redding's joy and pain. But as he's moved from apprentice to journeyman to master of his craft, Evans has blended his influences into a distinctive, personal style of soul/blues that is his alone. His voice is simply a marvelous instrument, deployed with great skill and deep feeling by a mature professional now at the top of his game.
Evans' journey began in his hometown of Vicksburg, Mississippi, where, like so many other Southern singers, he started out singing gospel. "I came up in the church, you know," he says with a chuckle. Though his family and pastor encouraged his interest in religious music, Evans had to learn about the blues on the sly. "We'd have to slip around to listen to the music," Evans says, recalling how he eagerly sought out the work of Lightning Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, Elmore James and others.
As a teenager, he joined a local doo-wop group called the Knights, which included Marion and Charles Knight, father and uncle of infamous hip-hop impresario Marion "Suge" Knight. The Knights played parties, dances and clubs, often working with the Red Tops, a popular regional dance band that played swing, jump blues and instrumental versions of pop hits. Evans got some of his first professional experiences at the Blue Room Skyline, the premier local music spot that hosted Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan and other musical luminaries of the day.
Eventually greater opportunities beckoned, and after a series of peregrinations that included almost a year in St. Louis, he moved to the West Coast, where he worked at a series of day jobs, began writing songs and sang soul and R&B covers with various local bands. Evans enjoyed some modest professional success early on, getting one of his songs on the last album recorded by jump-blues bandleader Louis Jordan and performing with a singing group called the Turnarounds, who recorded the hit single "Birds and the Bees" but fell victim to a classic music-business screwjob when the producer credited the song solely to lead singer Jewel Akens.
Working the Southern California club circuit, Evans met singer Bobby King, and the two formed a tag-team soul duo in the style of Sam & Dave. By the mid-'70s, they'd hooked up with Cooder, touring with him throughout the U.S., Europe and Japan and singing background vocals on a series of albums including Chicken Skin Music, Get Rhythm, Show Time and The Slide Area. Evans and King also cut two fine duet albums on Rounder Records, 1988's Live and Let Live! and 1990's Rhythm, Blues, Soul and Grooves. In an effort to focus more on his own songwriting, Evans decided to go solo shortly thereafter and since has released six CDs under his own name.
As a songwriter, Evans says he concentrates on personal expression. "I don't really have a formula. What I'm feeling is what I go after. How it comes out is how it comes out. I don't have any tricks to the music," he says. However, Evans is quick to add that his band of the last twelve years -- drummer Phil Bloch, keyboard player Jeff Alviani, guitarist Jesse Samsel and bass player Kenny Dew -- plays an important role in shaping his songs. "The musicians I work with instill certain touches into the music," he explains. "I guess you could say that's the formula."
With such an experienced ensemble at his command, Evans is able to draw from his entire catalog of songs for live performances. And though he writes most of his own material these days, Evans does perform and record the work of other writers, too, notably the songs of master blues songwriter Willie Dixon, another native of Vicksburg. "People ask me about that every once in a while, and for a time, I didn't even realize it," Evans admits. "I don't purposely go back to some of [Dixon's] songs, but my spirit seems to make it back to the things that he's done."
Since going solo, Evans has found an especially warm welcome in Europe, spending ten to twelve weeks each year there on tour. His CD sales have been especially strong in Italy and Switzerland, and he won an award from an association of German nightclub operators. Three years ago, Evans and band also were part of the first open-air blues concert ever in Beijing, China. Sponsored by a major European brewery, the show was held in a 12,000-seat stadium so packed that the crowd spilled over into surrounding areas outside, where big-screen TVs were set up so all could see and hear. Without much previous exposure to the blues, the Chinese audience initially may have regarded Evans and the other acts on the bill as curiosities, but their enthusiastic response to the music so gratified Evans that he wants to put together a more extensive tour of China and the Far East.
Though he's used to working outdoor shows and large venues, Evans welcomes the occasional gig in more intimate surroundings. "I like a smaller place, too, where I can reach down and touch the people," he says.
Straddling the borders of soul and the blues, Evans has carved out a personal sound that earned him the nickname that's also the title of his last record: Mississippi Magic. "The name came from the bass player," he explains. "When the group introduces me onstage, that's his line: 'Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the Mississippi Magic, Terry Evans.'" Given that his last St. Louis appearance was a single set five years ago at the ill-fated blues festival held in Buder Park, St. Louis roots-music fans should seize the opportunity to enjoy a full evening of Evans' soulful sorcery.