Boz Scaggs Interview - Creem Magazine
Shuffling Down To Lido With Boz Scaggs
[By Patrick Goldstein - November 1977]
One of rock n roll's most enduring myths has grown out of the peculiar courtship ritual between youthful white musicians and the siren-like call of black American rhythms. Most of today's British rock elite - the Stones, Zeppelin, the Who, Clapton and Jeff Beck - were weaned on something borrowed and something blue, namely scratched copies of Muddy Waters or Little Richard records. (Surely you remember the old Animals album sleeves, where Eric Burdon boasted that his favourite singer was Ray Charles and his biggest thrill - invariably - was touring with Sonny Boy Williamson what'd he do to those skinny little limey runts anyway, feed 'em pigs feet ?)
Now many American rock musicians - preferring quiche lorraine to black-eyed peas - have attempted to either disguise or dismiss their ties with this tradition. A promising young singer like Tom Petty, for example, claims to have discovered Slim Harpo and other such blues legends listening to The Rolling Stones Now.
Boz Scaggs has made a career - out of interpreting black music for predominantly white audiences. "Silk Degrees", Boz's first gold record in six tries, owes much of its stunning box office appeal to a fortuitous marriage of a distinctive white pop vocal style and an evocative mélange of black, Philly soul rhythms.
Boz's born-again conversion to 70's black music came about in much the same way as his original affair with 50's R&B - he was seduced by a transistor radio. "About five years ago," he explained, lounging in a comfortable hotel suite several hours before a Boston Music Hall gig, "It dawned on me that the most innovative music was coming from the Gamble & Huff / Thom Bell Philly studios.
"This was before disco happened," he added. "I wanted to try to work with the new rhythms and the great black session players."
Scaggs visited with Thom Bell and the MSFB rhythm section in Philly, but purely on a social level. Rumour has it that Boz approached G&H too, but they reputedly turned him down, assuming that without their usual musical prescience that he would never sell enough records to make it worth their while. So Boz's first stab at Philly soul came with Johnny Bristol, a former Motown producer.
"As a Motown arranger, Johnny was accustomed to doing all the work," Boz said of their much neglected "Slow Dancer" collaboration. "He would knock off three or four rhythm tracks in a four hour session. It just went by too fast. I'd write a rough cassette version of a song and suddenly it would come back arranged with sheet music."
With Joe Wissert, Boz found a rarity, a soul producer who encouraged the growth of his artist's personality. "He's a man of the street." Boz says with obvious fondness. "The guy's not looking for someone to fill the blanks for him."
Wearing tight white beltless trousers and an open neck polished cotton shirt, Boz often assumes the stylized pose of a Sinatra-style crooner. He ignores most of his early repertoire, preferring to emphasise the material his new fans have heard on the radio. "Primarily," he confesses with a grin, "I'm dealing with an audience that think "Silk Degrees" is my first album.."
Actually Boz, who looks almost as much of a rock matinee idol off-stage as on, dates his fascination with R&B back to his high school days in North Texas, when a crumpled fake ID and two dollars won admission to Dallas-area dives like LuAnn's.
"Dallas was a major pit-stop on the R&B circuit," Boz says. "Interestingly enough, there was a general acceptance of racially mixed audiences - at least in the black areas of town. We often went to black clubs to hear Bobby Bland or B.B. King, but no one thought it adventurous, as if we were haunting the wrong side of the tracks."
Later Boz would play genuinely treacherous joints, where chicken wire stretched across the stage and the crash of a spilled tray of dishes sent the band scurrying behind their amps. One always assumed unexpected noise was gunfire until proven otherwise.
Boz met Steve Miller in high school and they played together in several area bands until Miller, a year older, departed for the University of Wisconsin. Boz joined him there a year later, where the now legendary Ardells were hatched.
"Actually, the Ardells were our winter frat band." Boz recalls. "During the summer we called ourselves the Night-trains 'cause we had these silk outfits with black vests that said NT on them. We played resorts around Northern Illinois, four or five sets a night and then often we'd do afternoon mitzvah parties wearing madras jackets."
On off weekends, Boz and Steve drifted down to Chicago, where they'd jam with black bluesmen and Charlie Musselwhite, who was fronting the first of what was to become a wave of white blues outfits. At the end of 1965, Scaggs quit school and left for Europe, where he spent the better part of a year working with bands in Scandinavia before briefly rejoining the newly formed Steve Miller Blues Band in San Francisco.
"Paul Butterfield was probably responsible for the exodus West." Boz says. "He had this great gig at the Whiskey on the Strip and it went over so well everyone followed him to the Coast.
"I really wasn't part of the San Francisco scene," he says reluctantly. "I never lived in their communal house; I was over in Korean town. I was the last guy to join the band too, jut like filling a position. I hung out as long as I did just as a favour to Steve."
After some time off, Scaggs began a solo career, abetted by Jann Wenner, who had recently launched Rolling Stone . Atlantic Records signed him and suggested that he record with the Muscle Shoals rhythm section, then cutting sessions with Atlantic soul artists like Aretha, Wilson Pickett and Clarence Carter.
"To check out the studio cats," Boz says, "I went down there posing as a Rolling Stone reporter, obviously an act of desperation, huh? figuring everyone would be more willing to talk about the studio."
Though the sessions produced a promising debut record, Scaggs quickly switched labels and formed the San Francisco-based group that graced his first four Columbia albums. Though the group paid lip service to Boz's R&B roots (their first quasi-hit "We Wee Always Sweethearts," borrowed its opening riff from Archie Bell and the Drells "Tighten Up), for the most part they preferred a denser, layered sound, concentrating on undulating rhythm tracks and staccato, New Orleans-textured horn charts.
Scaggs quickly earned the dubious distinction of being a critical favourite but a commercial flop. Managing the group himself also proved too big a burden. "I was killing myself," he admits. "There came a time where the momentum was all gone, when I decided if I'm going to devote so much time to a musical idea, I would want some financial security too."
"Silk Degrees" sales slips have accomplished that. Boz is now recognized as a major solo artist by critics and consumers alike - a waitress interrupted our dinner to joke, "Haven't I seen you on an album cover somewhere ?" Boz's biggest career challenge will now be to avoid the stagnating sheen of predictability that often accompanies even the most innovative performer's commercial acclaim.
Boz is apparently aware of the dangers of this built-in musical obsolescence; "I walk the line," he admits. "It's really an insecure position, working with mass public tastes. I just hope people take it on its own merits. But then again, I've never been a big believer in hope."
Boz, like a whole new generation of rock consumers entranced by his peculiarly hypnotic soul rhythms, is a big believer in Boz Scaggs.