Joe Evans' career began in Pensacola, FL, where he took sax lessons -- tutored by Ray Shep -- as an alternative to the hard labor done by the city's men folk. He soon mastered the alto sax and gigged with local bands before getting a break via his cousin, jazz trumpeter Buddy Johnson, who had relocated to New York, NY. Only 23 years old, Evans left for the Big Apple and found employment with the Erskine Hawkins band in 1939 before switching to the Cam Williams Band that same year, replacing legend Charlie Parker. Talented players could call their own shots, and Evans changed bands frequently, later playing with the Hot Lips Page Orchestra and Jay McShann in 1942, alongside Birdman. Other stops include Sil Austin, Paul Williams, Lionel Hampton, and Louis Armstrong.
A staunch jazzman, Evans got into R&B by working in the house band that backed acts at the Apollo Theater. He learned the independent record business game from Jack Rags and formed Cee Jay Records with the trombonist. His first attempt at entrepreneurship didn't produce any blockbusters. Their artists' roster consisted of Jay Dee Bryant, Mike & the Utopians, Jimmy Spruill, and the Four Kings. A subsidiary blues-based label, Revival, cut records for Eddie Moore and Betty James. James' "A Little Mixed Up" was the company's only real seller, Chess Records plucked it for national distribution, but Evans and Rags didn't see much money out the deal.
Still touring, Evans got a job promoting records for Ray Charles' Tangerine label. People traveling from town to town were invaluable to small recording companies. They could drop records at radio stations and set up bookings and hops for artists. The liaison with Charles' didn't last long, Evans took him a copy of "Every Beat of My Heart" by Gladys Knight & the Pips on Huntom Records that was selling well in the Atlanta, GA, area, but Charles didn't want to put it out nationally. Bobby Robinson had no such reservations and re-recorded the song and got his Fury label a hit, as did Vee Jay Records, who reissued the same version Evans tried to get Charles to bite on and scored an even bigger hit. After Charles refused to act on another hot acetate, Evans ended the deal. Around the same time, Rags pulled out of Cee Jay, ending the entity.
Evans busied himself touring with the Choker Campbell Band (Motown's road band) a bit. He rekindled Cee Jay's spirit with Paul Williams renaming the company Carnival Records and still operating out of New York (the company relocated to Newark, NJ, in 1963). The label debuted with a female group called the Tren-Teens in 1962; the last Carnival single was by the House of Joy (1983). Carnival had two subsidiary labels during this period: Chadwick and Sahara that released a combined three singles.
Carnival dumped 63 singles and two albums on the streets; the two albums were by the Manhattans, the label's most successful act. The group built their reputation on Carnival with R&B hits like "I Wanna Be," "Follow Your Heart," "Searching for My Baby," "I'm the One Love Forget," "I Call It Love," "Can I," "When We Are Made As One," and "Baby I Need You." They scored two R&B hits with Lee Williams & the Cymbals: "I Love You More" and "Peeping Through the Windows" and cuts that should have been on the Lovettes, the Symphonies, Three Reasons, the Topics, the Metrics, and others. Evans gave it one final shot with the Pretenders, a three-guy, one-gal group who cut some marvelous records with shimmering harmonies that never ventured far from the Jersey, Philly, and New York City areas.
The Manhattans left Carnival around 1969 for Deluxe, then CBS Records, where they hit the mother lode with new lead singer Gerald Alston. Evans lost the spirit to run the company. He felt betrayed; he had groomed the Manhattans from raggedy singers in ragged clothes loitering around the Apollo into a highly respected male vocal group, then they leave when he needs them the most. On the verge of a hookup with a major label, the Manhattans were the key; their leaving ended all hope. Carnival always ran on a shoestring and never could promote its artists and the only mystery in the Manhattan's leaving was why it took so long. The company only had three employees, Evans, his wife, and a lady who did secretarial work and odd jobs like labeling and packing records. Though Carnival's last release dropped in 1983, the company essentially ended full-time operations around 1974.
Evans left the business, relocated to the Hampton, VA, area and earned a college degree very late in life. The Carnival recordings are available on various compilations. England's Kent Records put out a marvelous series of three separate CDs that include informative booklets and many rare, previously unseen photos of some Carnival artists. In the States, Collectables Records issued a series that is fine sound wise, with picturesque front covers, but no info whatsoever, not even songwriting credits.