Soul Man Sam: the singer, the song and the stage

“It was a gift. I always could sing. I never took no lessons, none of that. I just searched for different artists that I loved and I listened to their music” (Photo: Paul Safford)

JOSEP PEDRO

Born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1948, Soul Man Sam is one of the most talented and beloved blues, soul and R&B artists in Austin, Texas. Having developed his singing abilities as a youngster in Memphis and as a professional in Alaska, Sam Evans moved to the Texas capital in 2011, quickly becoming a force to be reckoned with. A relaxed, easygoing and sharp veteran artist, Soul Man Sam is a true gem from the golden soul era, a hidden hero, a late bloomer that always kept his music and entertaining talent. His rare and impressive delivery and stylistic range includes the soul music of giants such as Sam Cooke, James Brown, Otis Redding, Al Green, and Solomon Burke, as well as blues standards by B.B. King, Bobby Bland, and Muddy Waters. In fact, Soul Man has opened up for artists such as Gladys Knight and the Pips, James Brown, Ike Turner and Koko Taylor.

Boosted by his natural integration in the Austin music scene, Soul Man Sam is making a significant contribution while tracing bonds between different areas and sub-scenes within the “live music capital of the world”. He performs regularly at emblematic venues such as the Skylark Lounge, C-Boys, Antone’s and The Continental Club, among others. He leads his own band, Soul Man Sam & the SMS Band, and he has also performed with an impressive selection of local bands and musicians, including Blues Boy Hubbard, The Eastside Kings, the Austin Blues All-Stars, Birdlegg, Jimmie Vaughan, Mike Flanigin, Brian Scartocci, and Gary Clark Jr. Always well surrounded by friends, audiences and fellow musicians, as well as by his wife and manager, Beverly Evans, Soul Man Sam stands out for his sincere and emotional singing. Following the soul and blues traditions, he really exemplifies the singer’s dedication and commitment to the song by providing a perfect balance of feeling, class and spontaneity. The mission seems to be a playful one, where music moves bodies while reaching souls, where Soul Man San and his band invite the audience to gather in a musical communion.

What was your initial relationship with music in Memphis?

Well, me singing, I came up in the church. I use to sing in church all the time, in the choir and stuff like that. We had little singing groups that we put together and walk around the projects were we lived. We would just walk around the projects and sing and harmonize. Three o’clock in the morning we’d be singing, and people would come up and and sit out. After that I had some kids that wanted to do something… but, like I said, man, I was just young, dumb, just doing crazy stuff, doing crazy stuff.

Other than that, as I grew older, I had two opportunities to record for Stax in Memphis, Tennessee. I passed the audition to record… I never went back! So I missed my boat twice. I didn’t even go back because I was young and doing stupid stuff. Music rules my love, but I had a hard time coming up trying to make money and stuff. It just wasn’t in my focus to do it [to play music professionally], which it should have been. It just never worked out. I guess I was 23, 24 years old. I just left music alone. When music came back to me it was in Alaska, and I was 50 years old.

You didn’t sing in between?

Nope, nope, didn’t do a thang. I wouldn’t even think about no music. I got back into it in Alaska because I met a guy, he run the club up there. I was talking about how I used to sing and stuff, and he’d tell me: “come on over, man! We got a club and can sing karaoke”. I didn’t even know what karaoke was [laughs]. I said: “Man, I don’t remember any words…”. “Well, the words are on the screen with the music, all you got to do is come and sing them. So I night I decided to go up there to see what karaoke was. “I can do that! I don’t have to worry about trying to remember any words.” After I did that I blew the club daily, so the cat that ran the club he said: “Man, you need to be singing, you need to be singing! I’m gonna put a show together for you.” I said: “Man, you ain’t gonna put a show. I ain’t sang in 25 years.” He said: “I’m gonna put the show, all you gotta do is put some good music.” “Ok, we’ll see what happens…” So I got a guy who dubbed me some tracks with some cover tunes on it. Came time for the show, I didn’t know what was gonna happen. At the time I was working for Anchorage’s School District –I was a janitor there–, and when we put the show, the club was full. “Oh, the club full tonight!” I walked in, all I see is all my coworkers, all the people, friends that I had met… He had them all up. It was jam packed.

So I got up and did my thing off of those tracks, people went crazy. And after that he said: “Man, you really need to go into singing!” Then I met another cat who, God rest his soul, has passed away now. His name is Big Mitch Tubman. He had me perform in Alaska for quite some time, so I used to go hang out with him. Before I knew him, I guy told me about this big white guy who can sing. I’m like: “oh, ain’t no big white guy can sing…” He said: “Yeah, he sings over there at Whaler every Sunday night”. So one night I thought I would go there, and see what it’s all about. Walked in the door, I’m hearing this voice, I’m saying: “mmm, y’all sound pretty good!” So I saw the big white guy onstage and was blown away. In fact he was singing one of my favorite song, I think it was “Rainy Night in Georgia”. So we sit down, he was singing, and I just started singing along with him. All of the sudden he was: “Wait a minute, stop the music, stop the music!” He said: “I heard somebody out there singing with me. Don’t nobody sing while Big Mitch is singing!” But he pointed at me and said: “You sound good! Come on here.” He called me up onstage and I blew him away, and we became friends from that day. He just passed about three years ago. He had a keyboard player and did all the music off of tracks. But he wanted to get out of there, and teach kids vocals. So Tom, his keyboard player, wanted to keep playing music and he asked me: “Man, if I put a band together, would you be the frontman?” I said: “Man, I don’t know, Tom. You sure you wanna do it?” He said: “Yeah, man, you gonna blows that!” So I said: “Man, let’s go for it.”

So he put the band together and we went into the blues club in Alaska. It was called Chef’s Inn at the time. A few years down the line they changed the name to Blues Central. We went in there on a Monday night, nobody came out. But a couple of weeks after, people heard about me, and I filled the club up every Monday night. And I went from Monday night to Tuesday night, Wednesday night, Thursday night… I worked all the weak nights, and then I had my weekend nights. Sunday, and the jam night. Those guys played with me for about 6 or 7 years.

So you lived a music revival in Alaska… You must have learnt a lot before to be ready for that… Did someone in your family play?

Nope. It was a gift. I always could sing. I never took no lessons, none of that. Never did any of that. Just a gift, you know. I could do it! I just searched for different artists that I loved and I listened to their music. But I didn’t get any training or anything like that.

“I came up around musicians: Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, Isaac Hayes… I used to live with one of the old, old blues singers. Her name was Ma Rainey” (Photo: J.P., May 6, 2016)

How musical was Memphis? We think of blues, rock ‘n’ roll, soul… How would you describe it? 

Well, back at that time… Beale Street was a little different than it is now. They had different clubs around town where guys played. I came up around with… –you probably never heard of them– they called them The Bar-Kays.

Yes!

Oh, you do?

Yeah!

Well, we grew up together, we went to school together. We were kind of rivals in the school with their little group and my little group. At school they used to have talent shows and stuff like that, and we were kind of rivals. The original Bar-Kays just passed away last year, the trumpet player, Ben Cauley. The only one that’s living now is James Alexander, the bass player. He’s been with the new Bark-Keys for quite some time. The sax player, Phalon Jones, he was one of the guys that got killed with Otis Redding. We used to be real good friends together. We just used to hang out. I knew what they were going to do, their group and stuff, but I was just doing dumb stuff. My mind wasn’t on it.

What was it on? Streetlife?

Yeah… I just call it dumb stuff [laughs].

How was your neighborhood like in relation to music?

I just came up around musicians. I came up around Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas… They lived right through the graveyard from us, from my mom’s. Isaac Hayes stayed around the corner from us. You probably never heard… I used to live with one of the old, old blues singers. Her name was Ma Rainey.

Ma Rainey? Really?

Mmm, mmm…! I used to live with Ma Rainey for about 7 or 8 months.

She recorded in the 1920s. How was that?

Yeah, way back then. Oh, it was fine. She was just a nice person. As a matter of fact, I met Ma because Ma lived in the projects at that point. And while we were up and down the street she would always be out there in the porch. She knew a lot of the kids around. I used to mess with her all the time, “hey Ma!”, so she learnt who I was from somebody and I used to go to talk with her. We joked around, she’d take me upstairs and cooked… She could cook a tail out! Yeah, just chill around. She teased and talked with me, telling me stories and stuff. She said: “Why won’t you just come out and we’ll hang out with me sometime?” And so I go up there –not staying with her all the time, you know. I probably stayed there for two or three days. But yeah, off and on for about 6 or 7 months.

You said Beale Street was real different.

It’s just a tourist trap now. That’s all it is now. All the clubs that’s there now, none of that was there. It was just a few clubs around there.  All downtown was mostly black, and there were movie theaters, pool halls, and guys hung on crazy stuff –I ain’t gonna say a word of the crazy stuff–, girls walking… all of that. It was different, much different than it is now.

Who did you audition for?

Stax [Records]. His name was David Porter. Homer Banks was the writer there. I did the audition and passed but just never went back, never went back.

David Porter from Sam & Dave?

Yeah!

They recorded the song “I’m a Soul Man”, and I was wondering where did you get your nickname from.

Well, we are different soul men, now. That soul man was Sam & Dave. My soul man came… I guy gave me this name in Alaska. He said: “You’re a soul man!” And it just stucked so I just used it. That’s what people knew me by. My name is Sam, they just added the soul man on it. That’s what I’ve been going by for 18 years now. I’ve been doing this [performing music] for 18 years, and I did some great things. I performed with a lot of great people, opened up for big time artists and stuff, but through it all, all this time, I never recorded a CD [laughs].

Are you thinking about recording now?

Yeah, but I’m not a writer. I’m good at making up stuff while I’m singing. My wife used to write a lot of stuff down I used to tell her, but she lost it all. I don’t remember. So I’m just not a writer. I probably could, but something is just not with me to sit down and write.

But you sometimes seem to make up lyrics on the spot, like a blues improvisation. I remember one night you were like: “Birdlegg is here, and Hosea Hargrove…”

Yeah! Well, that’s introduction to let people know who’s in the building.

“I had two opportunities to record for Stax. I passed the audition [but] I never went back! So I missed my boat twice. I didn’t even go back because I was young, dumb and doing crazy stuff” (Photo: Paul Safford, 2017)

What kind of musicians did you open up for in Alaska?

I opened up for Gladys Knight, James Brown, Ike Turner, Koko Taylor, Jim Belushi… I played together, did a show together, with Phil Guy. That’s Buddy Guy’s brother. Did shows with Eddie The Chief Clearwater, Big Bill Morganfield –that’s Muddy Waters son–, and John Lee Hooker Jr. –John Lee Hooker’s son–. I did a show for the actress Morgan Fairchirld. It’s a lot of math, trying to keep with all the names. A lot of those cats, when they came up there, they normally did their gigs and they were gone. They’ll go to catch ‘em a girl and go to the hotel, you know. Only but one, that was Phil Guy. We were real close before he passed. He was a real cool cat. He was smoother than his brother, he was cooler than his brother, and I liked him better than his brother.

Why is that?

He was a very down to earth guy. What you see is what you got. He was a cool cat. I really liked him.

Did you go to Alaska because you had family?

Yeah, my brother lived there for 35 years. I went up because of him. His wife had a mess, and he wanted me to come up. It was hard for him to work and see after him, ‘cause she had to be moved around in a wheel chair. So he wanted to come up and help him with her, and I got stucked up there for 20, 30 years [laughs].

Did you have other jobs besides music?

Well before the music started… I went there when I was 39, I think I got hired at 40, I worked at the School District for 9 years, and right after that I went to work for Parma, Alaska, Parma PD, Police Department, in the maintenance department for two years. After that I was going to leave Alaska. That was in 2000. I left and thought I was gonna be gone. I wasn’t gone but a few weeks, right back up there.

People identify you with different styles of music such as soul, blues, R&B, funk, smooth jazz… What’s your take on all these genres?

Well, I’m just a music lover. I like soul –I come from soul music. My home is soul and blues. R&B I used to listen to it all the time. Jazz not a lot, but I like it. And not a whole lot of funk, just certain tunes I like. Tryin’ to sing ‘em, when I really could sing.

How similar or different are those genres? Do you take a different approach? 

Oh yeah, it’s all different. It depends on how you use it. A lot of people use it in different ways. With me, I see soul and R&B, it’s a movement genre as far as the music goes. You got to be moving and grooving. I can’t see nobody sitting stagnant just singing R&B or soul music. Blues is a different thing, but then again you got some good guitar players and they’d be moving. That’s why I like the blues. And besides, I don’t play anything so I can move all I want. Jazz really comes down to easy, mellow, sit-down-on-the-stool kind of music. I like doing that, just really sing. Oh yeah, I like doing that.

As a vocalist you gotta go inside the tunes and relate with them, get the people engaged. What are those kind of stories about, the ones you choose to sing?

It’s the feeling, man. When people hear music… People just feel me when I sing because I sing from here, I sing from my heart. I give it all I got. I guess my energy overflows into the audience. The feed off what they’re getting from me. That’s how I feel about it, man. You just got to have a certain… the thing, you know, that certain thing. That’s how I try to put it out there to the people. I give them what I have with soul.

You are a very well respected singer in Austin, everybody says you got a special talent and that you’re the real deal. How do you feel about that recognition?

You know, it’s nice to hear. But it’s nothing that I grab a hold to. I’m just enjoying what I do because it’s all I can do. My eyesight is all… I can’t really see. I’m glad this came to me, not knowing that I was going to be legally blind. I’m having fun with it, I’m enjoying it. I enjoy making people happy, you know. People enjoy what I do, they appreciate, and it’s a nice feeling to know that people like what you do, even though you’re doing other people’s music.

May I ask about your eyesight?

I have glaucoma. I’ve had three surgeries. I’ve had two laser surgeries in the past month and a half. They gave me a little more light. I think they took a catarat out of this one. But I can’t actually focus in on anything. You know, right here, I know where I am. I might trip over, but I’ve been in here so long.

Since when have you had that?

5, 10, shit almost 14 years.

What other places did you perform at before coming to Austin?

Well, we was in Santa Fe. I came from Alaska to Santa Fe, New Mexico. My wife was in Memphis and I was supposed to be going to Memphis. But she got tired of waiting on me because I had some more obligations up there. So she packed up the house, got on the highway, took a nursing contract, and when I called her she was on the highway to Arizona. So She drove all the way up to Show Low, Arizona. So I came up from Alaska and stayed there for a month, then went back. After her contract is up there, she went down to [another] part of New Mexico. So when I came back from Alaska I came to New Mexico. The contract was gonna be up soon where we were, so we went up to Albuquerque looking around. As a matter of fact, her son was living in Albuquerque at the time. So we drove there one day, you know.

Soul Man Sam featured on the upcoming Eastside Kings Festival, September 2019

Walking through the parks, they had a little music. So we asked the people we were the clubs at. He said: “Right down the street there.” So we walked down the street and we heard this music coming out of this club. We went in and it’s a bunch of old cats, 70, 80 and 90 years old, playing. I said: “they’re good!” They played every Saturday there. So my old lady went to the bar to get a drink and the guy who owned the bar he’s a Greek. We didn’t know anyone there. So when she got the drink she pulled out a credit card, and the guy is like: “We don’t take no fucking credit cards in here!” She said: “Well, I guess we’ll have some water”. “No, we don’t sell water in here!” She looked back at me and the people at the end of the bar were just laughing now, ‘cause they knew how he was, but we didn’t. He was: “There’s an ATM right down the street there!” He was one of the federal judges there in Santa Fe. Then, in some kind of way she managed to say that I could sing. I told her when we went in: “Don’t be telling nobody about I singing or nothing”. Next thing I know I’m standing at the door and: “There’s a cat in town, Soul Man Sam. He can sing! We gonna see what he can do.”

So I went all in and sang a song, and the guy that owned the place, Nick, the song looked like dollar signs just lit up in his eyeballs. People heard me and said: “Uh, Lord, you gotta be living here, you need to stay here…” But we were leaving town the next day, and so we got ready to leave but my old lady left the hotel and said: “I’ll be back.” So I’m sitting around waiting on her, so finally she comes in. I said: “Where have you been?” She said: “I got good news and bad news.” I said: “Uhhhh, Lord, what is it?” “Good news. You know what? I just went over to the hospital, put in an application, and they hired me on the spot.” I said: “Well, what’s the bad news?” “Well, they want me by next Monday and we got a week to get from where we were back down here.” We don’t know nobody down in New Mexico… She said: “Let’s go back to that bar where we went and just celebrate with a drink.” So we went to Nick’s place. She said: “Guess what, I just got a job here. We don’t nobody and we need to hire a place.” He said: “Oh!”, and called a friend [laughs]. He called his friend right there on the phone, he said: “talk to these people, they need one of them places you got over there.” This cat was in California, his name was in Carlos. So she talked to him and he said they had a place we could move right in. He ain’t said nothing about no money, you can just move right in. We went and looked at the place. It was nice, two bedroom. It was all we needed. So we took the place and, hell, we didn’t see him for three, four months before we gave him a dime.

After we did, we go back down to that little bar. Nick would tell me: “There’s some guys around, they heard about you. It’s musicians and whatever. There’s a guy named Tom now coming down to see you.” He’d come in to talk: “Oh man, you need a band? You need a band?” [laughs]. So me and him got together with a couple of guys and put a band together. That was history for 5 years. I killed Santa Fe. Yeah, I killed Santa Fe.

So how did you end up coming to Austin?

The job that she had, she got transferred down here. They paid for all the moving and everything. That’s how we got here. Wasn’t here a week before I met some cats. I went downtown to Maggie Mae’s to jam and sit in there and sang a song. After that I hear everybody in town: “there’s a musician!” They’re trying to find me, do a band or whatever. A lot of them just heard, the phone started ringing and shit. I said: “Uh, Lord…” [laughs]. I was here two weeks and I was playing. It wasn’t the band I got now but yeah. That was 5 years ago. It’s all been good. I met some cool people, man. It’s been real nice. I got no faults about it.

How different is Austin from the other places you’ve been at?

Oh… it’s different [laughs]. It’s different, man. For one, it’s too damn hot when it gets hot. But I’m not bothered about that ‘cause I don’t come outdoors in the daytime. Shit, especially in the heat. I’m with the air conditioning. When we first got here and I’ve seen the scene as far as the music is concerned, it wasn’t what I thought it was. Because people always talking about 6th street, 6th street… Shit, 6th street is nothing but a bunch of kids and a lot of hard-rockers and folkster guys trying to play the blues.  After that I said: “Shit, there ain’t nothing I wanna do on 6th street.” Nothing. I haven’t did it, ain’t gonna do it. I would just go there to see Birdlegg sometimes after I met him on a Wednesday, and on Mondays to see Michael Milligan. Too much on there, parking and all that.

So you didn’t believe that of the “Live Music Capital of the World”?

No. Well, it’s live music, not blues. Just music. When I heard “live music capital of the world” I said: “Oh, shit, there’s gonna be plenty of good blues down here.” One thing about in Austin:  when a baby is born in Austin, Texas, they get a guitar! [laughs]. They get something to play: a bass, a guitar, or a remote guitar.

How do you like the other areas and venues you’ve looked for?

Well, I did Antone’s [5th street], that’s well-known, you know. That’s a well-known spot so I am playing there. I got some guys in the band crying about it and stuff. But all that, and the Continental Club, C-Boys, all of them landmarks around here. I’m good with that.

Any particular home of the blues here in Austin?

There’s no home of the blues here. Not that I know of. Club you mean?

Yeah, some people have claimed that. For instance, Antone’s.

Oh, they can claim. They probably have some good old blues players to come through there. They’ve had some of the big time guys.

If you had to give advice to someone, what does it take to be true or faithful to the blues?

The blues is just deep down, man. Deep down. The blues just comes from the… I call it country, we just come from people way back in the day, like people picking cotton, chopping cotton and whatever. A guy might have a guitar and started moaning something about their lives or whatever. The blues is really deep. Yeah, it’s really deep. I always liked it, but I was more into soul music than I was into blues. I would hear them, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, all those kind of cats, I would hear their music growing up. It was fun to listen at, but I liked soul music because I came up through that.

Soul music is very much associated to the Civil Rights Movement. How do you remember those times? A lot of things were going on.

Oh yeah, I went through all of that. Martin Luther King got killed, the riots and all that. I was there through all that shit. Yes, it was a hard time. Shit. Places you couldn’t go in, couldn’t use restrooms, couldn’t drink out of this water fountain, you had to go through the backdoor… Even if you worked at a hotel, you could never go in through the front door. I’ve been all in the cotton fields. I’ve chopped it, ploughed it, mule boil, water boil… I did it all in the cotton field. Still got some of those little [scars] on my hand now from all that shit.

You had to work for the day and whatever you picked up…

Yep. Be out there in the high sun, the burning sun all day, chopping cotton. You’re never in, you’re just chopping cotton all day. I used to do it, man.

Very hard work, and it was aligned with the Jim Crow racism. Sometimes you sing that song, “A Change is Gonna Come”.

Yes, that’s one of my favorites, Sam Cooke.

Do you think it came, the change he talked about?

Just a taste, a little bit. But it’s still far from being gone. Probably it will never go, it will never go. It’ll always be there. Through certain people’s eyesights and how they think and feel, you know. It’s actually certain kinds of people. Like I said, man, everybody is a person to me. I can get along with anybody. I ain’t gonna disrespect you if you don’t disrespect me. I’m gonna treat you like a man, treat me like a man. Other than that, I’m good to go. I’m good with anybody, it don’t matter to me. If you ask for a change, it’s been a whole lot of changes, and all kinds of shit. There’s changes some people hate to see, but the world changes every day. And it’s gonna keep on changing, but we might not get where we want to go. But it’s gonna stir the change.

Portrait of Soul Man Sam at C-Boys. The mural includes Lavelle White, Soul Man, Jimmie Vaughan and Mike Flanigin (Artwork by Niz Graphics, June 2019)

How do you feel about the blues appropriation and the development of white blues?

Well, they got all the blues from the black folk [laughs]. Shit, Muddy Waters and all that stuff. How do you think The Rolling Stones…? They heard him and started doing it. They get rich, Muddy Waters ain’t make shit. A whole bunch of them, man. All them promoters, they were just glad. The [blues musicians] had a record out and they’d give ‘em a Cadillac, a fine coat and all this shit. When all the shit went down, they ain’t got no money. They said: “well, we bought you a Cadillac!” Chuck Berry, shit, he kept all his money! [laughs]. He was a smart guy.

Should blues and soul still be considered black music or is it really not black music anymore?

Well, it’s everybody’s music. It’s everybody’s music but everybody can’t play it. Nope, everybody can’t play it. But it’s everybody’s music.  

You said you’re going back to Memphis?

Yes, I’m leaving home tomorrow. I haven’t been home in quite a while. I’m going to see my family, my brother and the kids. It is my home, that’s where I was born and raised.

I’ve been in quite a few places but I’m not trying to travel. I don’t really like to, these airplanes scare the shit out of me, falling off the sky.

But there’s been a lot of travelling and migration in the African-American community.

I’m good anywhere. With [Beverly] being a nurse, she can nurse anywhere. She’s always trying to find a spot where the music is pretty good so if I wanna do it I have something to do.

Any goals about the future?

I’m almost dead! [laughs]. I’m 70 years old, man. The future is still out there. I’m still alive and you never know what might happen. I’m having fun until my time, you know, I just wanna enjoy my life. I enjoy doing it. It’s my pleasure, Josep. Yeah, I got you down. I just got to think a minute.

This interview was conducted on May 6, 2016 at the Skylark Lounge in Austin, Texas.