Their album - along with Robert Cray's new Midnight Stroll, which tempers the blues with soul and rhythm-and-blues - shows how soul survives as a powerful ingredient in today's music hybrids.
King has a theory on why soul swings eternal.
"Black music always gets caught up in fads," he says. "Now I like rap, but I go to church, and I'm hearing youngsters singing soul, getting down. When those kids start falling in love, they won't want 'boom-boom-boom' in their ears, but . . . ," he launches into "My Girl" by the Temptations in a sweet falsetto: "I've got sunshine. . . .' "
In today's marketplace, soul is categorized among other rootsy specialty genres such as blues, bluegrass and zydeco. In the old days, gritty soul records from acts such as Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding made Atlantic Records one of the hottest labels in America. Today, King and Evans record for Rounder, a smaller independent label that caters to connoisseurs.
Cray is an exception to the rule. He was signed to a mainstream label, Mercury Records, on the strength of his reputation as a combustible blues guitarist who'd earned the respect of superstar players such as Eric Clapton. Yet even his music has much in common with Southern soul.
"I don't know where to draw the line between soul and R&B," concedes Cray. "Blues are easier. When I look at a blues artist, it all depends on the kind of song that he's doing. Not all the songs Muddy Waters sang were blues. How can it be a blues if he's singing about a pretty woman? I guess I don't think there is any such thing as a happy blues song."
Press Cray on the difference between soul and R&B, and you get a long pause. "Questions like these make me scratch my head," he says with a laugh. ''The best thing is to just call it music."
To be sure, soul and R&B are heavily influenced by gospel and blues. But there are other factors. Few musicians are more soulful than Ray Charles, yet jazz, country and popular standards can be counted among his inspirations. His cosmopolitan mix of styles suggests the epitome of urbane R&B.
Otis Redding, on the other hand, mixed blues, R&B and a dash of country to create a style that seemed rooted far from center city. There's the ache of a rural soul in Redding's pleading voice, and an intensity to his backup musicians that suggests a country roadhouse.
Still, while distinctions can be drawn, it's a fact that an R&B singer without soul is not much of a singer. Maybe that's the point King and Evans were trying to make when they called their album Rhythm, Blues, Soul & Grooves.
King and Evans have been Ry Cooder's favorite singers since the mid-'70s, and have appeared with the guitarist both live and on record. King has had a couple of solo recording deals, and has tried on all sorts of styles, but nothing has fit like soul. So to help pay the rent he does a lot of backup singing (including a spot on Bruce Springsteen's next album), and he picks up extra cash as a dental technician.
Evans has had a moonlighting gig for the last quarter-century as a member of the Coasters. Or, more accurately, one of a number of groups called the Coasters. The original group spun off a string of witty R&B singles in the late '50s ("Charlie Brown," "Poison Ivy," "Yakety Yak"). Subsequently, it seems, anyone who was ever a Coaster has taken to the road leading a group through the old hits.
The singers themselves produced Rhythm, Blues, Soul & Grooves, a collection recorded with a full band in hopes of attracting radio airplay. Ry Cooder plays guitar on most of the tracks, but, as King says, where the pair's first album, Live and Let Live!, produced by Cooder, "was rock-and-roll R&B, this one is soulful R&B."
"A duo comes out of how you relate as singers and friends," says Evans, in his booming voice. King's slick tenor moves with confidence between pleading mid-range cries and fetching falsetto flourishes. Together, they're like a tag team that has given up the wrestling ring for the concert stage.
Most of the songs King and Evans wrote for Rhythm, Blues, Soul & Grooves are patterned after familiar models. King's "You and Me," for example, is a ballad that might have appealed to Otis Redding, and on Evans' bluesy "I Fancy You," Cooder nicks a guitar lick from Freddie King's "Hideaway."
The best song, though, is Jorge Calderon's "One Way Ticket to Memphis," in which the duo conjures a trip to one of the traditional homes of soul. Overall, while their performances are top-notch, the material doesn't have the snap of the songs written by Isaac Hayes and David Porter for Evans and King's most obvious role models, Sam & Dave. That's asking a lot, of course, but voices like these deserve the best.
On Midnight Stroll (Mercury), Cray underscores the soulful nature of his songwriting by adding Jimmy Pugh's keyboards and the Memphis Horns to his sturdy band. The Horns are two players, Wayne Jackson (trumpet and trombone) and Andrew Love (tenor sax), who don't echo the sound of Stax/Volt soul classics by accident: They played on most of the landmarks of Southern soul.
The expanded band suits Cray. "When I'm doing a vocal," he says, "it allows me to lay back a bit, and with the guitar, you can get into some call and response. You don't have to play as much, and you can make your notes say a whole lot more."
That subtle eloquence is precisely what makes Midnight Stroll Cray's best album since 1985's False Accusations. Whether it's a ballad such as "My Problem," or a swinging blues like "Labor of Love," the arrangements are as tight as the skin on a snare drum.
Whether Midnight Stroll is blues, soul or R&B is fodder for endless debate. Given Cray's notion that sad songs make the blues, a tune like "The Forecast (Calls for Pain)" certainly qualifies. But with the Memphis Horns on board, Midnight Stroll also smacks of soul.
Whatever you want to call them, however, Midnight Stroll and Rhythm, Blues, Soul & Grooves belong in the continuum that was celebrated in Arthur Conley's late-'60s hit, "Sweet Soul Music." "Do you like good music," go the words to the song penned by Sam Cooke, "that sweet soul music?"
To that question, Cray, King and Evans would answer an enthusiastic yes.