Evie Sands – Woman unchained
Genghis Cantina tends to be a bit of a singer-songwriter ghetto. Wander into this small West Hollywood performance space any night of the week and chances are you’ll happen across a solo acoustic guy or gal emoting in all the proper, folkish ways. Sometimes it’s interesting; just as often it’s flat-out dull.
But on one particular Saturday night this past May, you could sense it was not just another evening in strum land. Sure, the small, fortysomething woman on stage — thick black hair, crushed velvet jacket, left-handed Strat — doesn’t cast a presence all that extraordinary, but when she teases with one particularly lucid guitar line and asks the three dozen audience members, “So do you remember this song?”, the room comes to life like the moment after another minor awakening from the San Andreas fault. And when the song reaches its first swelling chorus and the words “Just call me angel of the morning, baby” — a snippet long ago deemed classic by pop radio — artist and audience are suddenly sharing the same magic carpet ride, propelled by feelings of triumph and the common understanding that Evie Sands is reclaiming her long-lost morsel of rock lore.
Well, yeah, no doubt. But consider this: If it weren’t for a recurring run of bad luck three decades past, it’s fair to at least consider the possibility that in the here and now, we might be speaking of Sands like we do, say, Dusty Springfield — referencing boxed sets, artists she influenced, and other such laurels. “Hypothetically, and I’m only saying this as a point, not as if [to suggest] I’m something fantastic, it could be me who was inducted into the [Rock and Roll] Hall of Fame,” says Sands, sitting in a San Fernando Valley restaurant the morning after this most recent Genghis gig. “There’re 50 different scenarios that we could have right now.”
If the utterly unscientific speculation of what could have been for Evie Sands is boundless, the anecdotal proof of what went wrong is without debate. Hers was a career that began in the mid-’60s at age 12, when the sing-happy Brooklyn child with the voice of soul style and pop bounce hooked up with Chip Taylor (the writer of “Wild Thing” and eventually several other well-placed songs) and Al Gorgoni (guitarist, most notably, on Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl”) to cut the first-ever version of Trade Martin’s “Take Me For A Little While”. Released on Black Cat, the label of legendary songwriting team Leiber & Stoller, the 1965 single had smash written all over it.
But a not-so-funny thing happened on the way to the bank. The song was literally stolen away from Sands when hitmaking R&B diva Jackie Ross heard a test pressing, cranked out her own version and shipped it to radio just days before Sands’ version was slated for delivery. It was an instant hit, and while Black Cat did soon get Ross’s cut yanked from the airwaves, the moment was tarnished too deeply for Sands to earn anything more than spotty, regional success. Without mercy, DJs mostly distanced themselves from this affair; some even made Sands out to be the culprit.
That shadow was cast long and far, enough to dim the chances for success of single number two, the Taylor/Gorgoni song “I Can’t Let Go” (which would soon become a globetrotting hit for the Hollies). But things were finally looking up again in 1967 when Sands released the aforementioned Taylor gem, “Angel Of The Morning”. In its first week, request lines were lighting up at radio stations coast to coast. Soon, though, here came bad luck swinging his cane once again: Sands’ label, Cameo Records, went bankrupt. A few months later, like clockwork, Merilee Rush and the Turnabouts took the song to #7 on the pop charts (Juice Newton followed suit with a remake in 1981 that hit #4).
Sands rebounded and had a modest hit in 1969 on A&M with Taylor’s “Any Way That You Want Me”; Rolling Stone pegged it as one of the best singles that year. But soon enough, misfortune followed. A shakeup at A&M saw the departure of Sands’ backers, leaving the singer the option of creative direction by corporate design. “I think all of us artists sometimes are faced with these decisions where somebody will say, ‘I have this little slot that I see you fitting into,'” says Sands. “And it just wouldn’t feel right.”
Sands did go on to garner two more hits for Capitol in the mid-’70s, but it was apparent that the times they had a’changed. Well into her 20s, she was resigned to the fact that stardom was no longer peeking around the corner. She gravitated to songwriting — Barbra Streisand, Gladys Knight and her hero Dusty Springfield counted as clients — and, after releasing the aptly titled Suspended Animation in 1979, disappeared from public view, seemingly for good.
For the next two decades, a series of misfires and self-induced head games created a barricade far too tall to climb for Sands. Even the concept of putting a band together seemed completely implausible. “I don’t even know how to say it in words,” she says, “but there was a part of me that really felt like I had died.”
Women In Prison, released in April on Taylor’s Train Wreck Records, might be the official mile marker for the return of Evie Sands, but the event is rooted in a three-year rehabilitation process that began in 1996 at Jack’s Sugar Shack, a Hollywood nightclub. It was here that Taylor, himself an experienced recluse (he spent several decades playing the ponies instead of the guitar), was gigging and invited his old friend Evie up to sing “Angel”, “I Can’t Let Go” and a couple others. It was the first time in maybe 25 years that the duo had created music together.
After the show they talked — “He was looking at me and saying, ‘This is a waste,'” Sands recalls — and set in motion a creative rebirth that would finally coalesce a year later. Sands, Taylor, Gorgoni and multi-instrumentalist Tommy Spurlock convened in Nashville for several writing sessions that developed into Women In Prison. Stripped down and folksy, this is an album that, after all we now know about Sands, might come as a surprise. Songs such as the loose, Bo Diddley-ish “Cool Blues Story” (a duet with Lucinda Williams that pays homage to the giants of the genre), the sassy, lopin’ “Fingerprint Me Baby”, and the swampy “I Ain’t Done Yet” tell the story: Women is less about radio playlists of the ’60s and ’70s than it is about the blues, rockabilly and soul music that stung Sands in her earliest days. “The new album is about getting back to my roots, the things that touched me and inspired me,” she says.
And while it’s not quite the knockout blow that any kind-hearted music fan would be aching for in a situation such as this — think confessional, Bonnie Raitt-style roots music for the middle-aged survivor — that’s nearly beside the point. Women is most powerful because it is a testament to resilience, the demonstration of a human being learning how to walk again. As the line in Sands’ haunting “Brooklyn Blues” reads: “That tree is still standing, just like lonely me.”
Still, there was more work to be done. Midway through the process, Taylor laid down the law: It was one thing to record again, but the commitment had to extend to live performance, even if it meant going it alone in two-bit bars and empty rooms. That concept struck at the core of Sands’ two-decades-long professional paralysis: “How could I do it? I have to have a band…find people…can’t pay ’em…you can’t tour…”
Taylor’s response: “‘You have to think about doing it yourself, alone.'”
Sands: “Alone? Are you nuts?!”
Taylor: “‘Just do it.'”
To Taylor, such a directive was easy to deliver. “‘Hey, you’re the best I’ve ever heard,'” he says, recalling the conversation. “‘Now if you want to let people hear that, there’s no shortcut.'”
Her first gig came last summer at Genghis Cantina, accompanied only by a bassist. “I think it was June 28,” she says, smiling. Since then, the rewards have come steadily: gigs in Scotland backed by indie-pop darlings Belle & Sebastian, who requested the role (thus prompting Taylor, surprised by the level of cultdom surrounding Sands, to consider revisiting more of the old sounds on the next project); a triumphant performance with Taylor at New York’s Bottom Line; and, of course, the release of the album.
And then there was her first solo gig, at a Monterey, California, club, eleven months after her return to the stage. “It’s like the rest of my soul came alive again,” she says, nearly floating out of her seat. “Now, I have my instrument and I can go anywhere in the universe and play, and there’s nothing that will stop me. If one person or ten million people want to hear it, I’m there to sing and play.”