As any Ponderosa Stomp-goer knows, there are certain records that you need enlightened ears to appreciate. Evie Sands’ 1965 near-hit, “Take Me for a Little While,” isn’t one of those. No, this is one of the great romantic outpourings, a performance up there with most of the ’60s pop/soul landmarks you could name.
It’s not the only magical record that Sands made—the Northern soul gem “Picture Me Gone” comes to mind, as does her 1970 version of the country-pop standard “But You Know I Love You;” she’s also got a new EP, Shine For Me, that finds her powers intact. Nor was “Take Me for a Little While” the only time she narrowly missed becoming a household name. But in her view, becoming one was never the point anyway.
“That’s the lingering myth that I want to dispel, that I’m the most unlucky artist in the world. It’s not really fun, and it’s untrue,” she says from her Los Angeles home. “Making music to me is like breathing, and the idea of not doing it would literally be like dying; that’s how much a part of my life it is. So I always found a way to do it—some of it was high-profile, some of it was less in the spotlight. I like to think that I’m in the Alex Chilton world. There’s somebody I really admired, though I never got to meet him. The way he lived his life for the music, he never did it for the superficial reasons, to be popular or meet girls or get famous. He’d get onstage and even turn his back sometimes, but he was there because he loved playing. I like to think I’m the same way.”
She’s also loath to identify as a ’60s act, which is why she’s turned down the Ponderosa Stomp a couple of times. She’s since recognized music obsessive Dr. Ike Padnos as a kindred spirit, so her set will have a few vintage tracks—probably including the above-mentioned singles—that she wouldn’t normally dig up.
Sands came into music as a particularly determined Brooklyn pre-teen, entering a talent contest that she heard about on a New York radio station. “I came out as a finalist, and what I remember was that Sid Bernstein was there—the man who later brought the Beatles over. I’m not sure if he was a judge, but I remember him taking me aside and saying, ‘Don’t let it get you down that you didn’t win this thing.’ To me what he meant was, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain and just go for it.” After a couple of obscure singles—including a version of “Danny Boy” done in early-’60s girl-group style—she wound up at Leiber & Stoller’s Red Bird/Blue Cat label, home of the Shangri-Las and the Dixie Cups.
“Everybody knows about the Brill Building, but 1650 Broadway was where the young, current stuff was really happening. That was where Carole King and that group of writers, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil were. They had the pianos in their offices, all working on a follow-up to their last hit. And it’s where you could walk in and maybe get someone to listen to your song.” There she met musician Al Gorgoni and songwriter Chip Taylor, who’d be longtime career associates. But there was one notable figure she managed to avoid: “I never met Phil Spector, which I suppose is a good thing. I did have friends who worked with him—let’s say he was definitely an interesting guy.”
“Take Me for a Little While” was her Blue Cat debut. “When I heard it I said ‘Mmm, I love this,’ and we knew it was the one to record.” But just when it looked to be hit-bound, the Chess label rushed out a competing version by Jackie Ross; as a result neither version really hit. There were similar mishaps with two further, equally fine singles: “I Can’t Let Go” (covered by the Hollies) and “Angel of the Morning” (done more famously by Merrilee Rush). “I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t say it was a frustrating, disheartening experience. It’s like a football game where the receiver is about to catch this beautifully thrown pass, then the quarterback knocks the ball out. It wasn’t fun but I let that go, I’ve moved on and done a zillion things.”
She did ultimately have a hit of her own, 1969’s “Any Way That You Want Me”—search YouTube and you can find a beautiful period video that was shot in a French Quarter courtyard. But for Sands, the missed hits served as a cue to get into other corners of the music world. She did some productions, including an album for folksinger Holly Near, and turned to songwriting in earnest. One of her songs made it to a Barbra Streisand album in 1974 and another wound up, in all places, on the one album that Gregg Allman made with then-wife Cher.
Her own albums were less frequent—only two more in the ’70s and none in the ’80s—but worth hunting down: 1979’s Suspended Animation on RCA included a backing vocal from Dusty Springfield, the only time the two ever sang together. “Sadly it was. She instantly became one of my favorites the first time I heard ‘I Only Want to Be With You.’ When I found out at a certain point that she liked my work—that was just the best. We had so much fun doing that recording, and I seriously wish we had done more.”
Another part of the RCA experience proved less positive. “I produced that album myself, but if you look at the credits you’ll see there’s a co-producer listed. That’s because my attorney at the time told me it would never fly unless there was a guy involved—and when the label came to see me, they’d look past me and direct everything at the guy. It was like I was invisible.” Not coincidentally, this was her last go-round in the major-label world. “I would like my output to have been a million times more. But the opportunities that were presented to me were all ‘My way or the highway’. Or, ‘Yeah, we know you’ve had this success but we want you to work with this or that producer.’ It really seemed like Mad Men, the way the suits would hesitate to have a female at the helm of a recording session. So I went to some of the other things that I love, like writing and doing session work—and playing fewer shows than I would have liked, since there wasn’t any tour support.”
She returned to recording with the 1999 album Women in Prison, including a duet with another admirer, Lucinda Williams. The new EP will be followed by a full album next year, and the new songs keep coming. She’s also back on the road, playing East Coast dates for the first time in a while. “I’ve always set a really high standard for myself and if I can maintain that, great. It can be 10 people or 10,000 people in the audience; one way or another, we keep putting one foot in front of the other. I’m thrilled and excited as always.”