“I’m just a wild woman who sings the blues,” Margie Evans said laughing, in a voice that was part sizzle--like grease splattering on a griddle--and part plain, old-fashioned gusto.
“The blues is so much fun for me. It gives me strength, I’m telling you.”
Evans, who will sing on Sunday at Maxwell’s in Huntington Beach, didn’t always have this attitude. In fact, up until the mid-'60s, the Shreveport, La.-born singer rarely ever sang the blues. Then fate, in the form of bandleader Johnny Otis, stepped in.
Evans, who had moved to Los Angeles in 1957, met the bandleader when a friend took her to Otis’ office, “which was then on Vine Street in Hollywood,” Evans recalled during a recent telephone interview from her home in Los Angeles. “Johnny asked me if I was a blues person. I said, ‘No, I’m a church person.’ He was sitting at his piano and asked me to sing. We did ‘Goin’ Down Slow,’ and Johnny said to me, ‘Aw, honey, you ain’t nothin’ but a blues singer.’
“So I guess I was a blues singer before I got a calling to sing the blues,” Evans said, adding another scintillating laugh.
Evans, who worked with Otis in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s and was a 1983 recipient of a Keepin’ the Blues Alive award from the Memphis-based Blues Foundation, takes exception to the stereotype that any African-American who sings the blues is either an alcoholic or an illiterate, or both.
“I was working in Germany and there was a billboard of the show I was on, with my name on it, showing a black man in overalls with no teeth and a bottle of whiskey by his side, and I was offended,” said Evans, who has five CDs out, all on European labels. “I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I attended Grambling College and I have my own teeth and they are clean,” she said. “And I’m not shiftless and I’m not lazy.”
Lazy no, underemployed, yes. The singer, who said her main influences are Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Big Maybelle and Big Mama Thornton, works mostly out of town. In the past few years she’s traveled to Europe and to Canada, where she has appeared at the DuMaurier Jazz Festival with blues/jazz legend Jay McShann. Occasionally, Evans works at Lunaria in West Los Angeles, and she hopes to find other Southern California locations, one perhaps being Maxwell’s.
“There just aren’t enough places here in town, and there’s so much talent,” said Evans, who makes the bulk of her living appearing in films (1986’s “From Here to Maternity” and 1990’s “Flapjack Floozie”) and commercials. “It’s not a good feeling,” not being able to work where you live. But Evans said she’s not about to go out on the “chitlin’ circuit” of U.S. blues clubs that “don’t pay enough to take care of the band” and where the clientele might be less than savory. Even a wild woman, said Evans, isn’t equipped to handle that. “A female artist has to be careful,” she said.
At Maxwell’s, Evans will be backed by her band, the Young Blues Thrillers. The group, which includes pianist Johnny Hammond Smith and guitarist Tony Mathews, suits her perfectly, she said.
“They play with such feeling, I can’t stand it!” she screeched, laughing. “They make me feel so good.”
Blues standards, her own originals and a pop classic or two make up Evans’ repertoire. “I always close with ‘For All We Know,’ because that expresses how I feel about performing, and how much I appreciate people taking the time out to come and hear us, and let us entertain them.”
Evans will probably also sing “Let’s Call It Quits,” a tune she wrote a few years ago when she was considering breaking up with her husband, Jim. They’ve now been married 35 years. “So it’s like a joke on myself,” she said.
Asked what’s kept her marriage on track, Evans gave credit to her spouse. “The accolades go to the man, because I’ve probably been hell to live with,” she said, breaking into one of her patentable laughs. “And, would you believe, he’s a preacher. He must be the kind of man for me.”
* Margie Evans sings Sunday at 4 and 6 p.m. at Maxwell’s, 317 Pacific Coast Highway, Huntington Beach. $5 cover, plus $7 food or drink minimum. (714) 536- 2555.