The most underrated singer, songwriter and guitarist of his generation surely must be Boz Scaggs, though with his latest album Memphis he has produced such a prodigiously talented performance that he may finally receive his due. Not that the man has ever gone unnoticed: from Boz’s beginnings with the likes of Steve Miller and Ben Sidran (two others who, like Boz, who have received far more critical than public acclaim) he has displayed a range of talents that time after time have defied genre, and produced an enviable string of hits and top-selling albums.
Boz can sing as soulfully as Ray Charles; he can pick guitar like almost no one else on the scene; he could always sing the blues like no other young white guy around (listen to his “Loan Me A Dime” with Duane Allman and tell me if you can who else ever came close); he can rock it and he can write it. He can croon like no other rocker around. His 2003 album of standards entitled but beautiful puts Rod Stewart to shame. And don’t forget this is the guy who had the likes of TOTO backing him in his Silk Degrees days, one of his many perfect albums. Another? – check out Boz Scaggs and Band from the early 1970s and hear a young master at work. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he never succumbed to the vagaries of touring, fame, and the related excesses. He kept on churning one great album after another, including Some Change in 1994 and Dig in 2001. On every one of his albums you will hear more than one heart-stopping track, something that hits you, gets under your skin, and stays with you for years. It might be “Harbour Lights” from Silk Degrees, it might be “Running Blue” from Boz Scaggs and Band, or it might be “King of El Paso” from Dig. This much is certain: if this guy doesn’t get to you, you might as well give up listening to music altogether and take up something less, shall we say, rewarding.
Boz hasn’t lost anything of his vocal prowess. With a delicious lower register and a simply sensationally pure high end, he never hits a false note. Never. Not to mention he can emote as well or better than any popular singer alive today, and accomplish that in pop, standards, jazz, blues, and funk.
He’s as good, if not better, live than he is in the studio. His 2004 DVD of concerts entitled Greatest Hits Live at Great American Music Hall in San Francisco is one every music fan should own, and every musician/vocalist (I’m talking to you, Michael Bublé, and you, Rod Stewart) should study. And yet, and yet, nine times out of ten you’ll find music fans (even serious ones) relegating Boz to the classics heap. Well, Mr. Scaggs, it’s my pleasant self-assigned task to change a few minds, for your latest album is nothing short of a masterpiece. Featured players are Boz on acoustic and electric guitars, Steve Jordan on drums and percussion, Ray Parker Jr. on guitars, and Willie Weeks on upright and electric bass. The album was recorded at Royal Recording Studios in Memphis, hence the title.
A few words about these notable sidemen and the record production. Steve Jordan is arguably the most soulful drummer around, having got his start with Stevie Wonder and gone on to play with Keith Richards and the X-pensive Winos, as well as The John Mayer Trio. He has produced the likes of Robert Cray and Buddy Guy. Ray Parker Jr. is a funk guitarist supreme, having had his own fame as leader of Raydio, and also as backup for Barry White. And: he wrote and performed the theme to Ghostbusters. As for Willie Weeks, he backed up Eric Clapton in the Crossroads Festival House band, and has played on hundreds, and I mean hundreds, of great tracks, among them the finest works of Donny Hathaway, George Harrison, Isaac Hayes, Buddy Guy, Aretha and countless others. It’s been a long time since Boz had a band this good behind him, perhaps not since the days of TOTO.
Then there’s the production and mastering: even on a modest sound system the sonic qualities of this recording will satisfy the listener beyond description. Of particular note are the guitar and the drum tracks: natural, powerful, and evocative. Several of these songs left me breathless in admiration for their purity of sound and impact. This is perhaps the first rock/r & b recording made in years released in 180 gram vinyl that doesn’t require a half-speed mastered $40 edition and a $2000 Concept turntable to reveal its audiophile quality (though that would be some spectacular ear-bending).
The track getting the most early attention is “Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl”, and it’s a stunner, though it bears no relation to the relatively unknown and equally stunning song of the same name co-written by Leon Huff and recorded by Patty and The Emblems back in 1964. A great song title, and a great song written by Willy DeVille, perhaps the most memorable performance of this track was by Willy himself live back in 1994 at Montreux. Much of that, though, was due to the tour de force Spanish guitar solo, Willie’s grandiose appearance (a sophisticated seediness), and his John Lee Hooker/ Van Morrison -inspired vocal mannerisms. Boz plays it straight with this new version, and while revealing the true nuances of Willie’s splendid lyric, rocks it harder, and ultimately comes close to Willie’s matchless incantations. Boz’s take more than stands on its own, and if as well, his recording serves to illuminate and revive DeVille’s artistry, all the better.
Boz follows up “Shook Up Girl” with a song that has been recorded, played, and overplayed for decades: “Rainy Night in Georgia”. The original was by Brook Benton back in the 60s and is still a tear-jerker when heard on oldies stations. Whatever possessed Boz to attempt this hoary chestnut only he knows, but what this reviewer can tell you is that it has to be heard to be believed. There’s no song on the album as telling of his vocal talents as this rendition of “Georgia”, for he brings a dark and sombre soulfulness to the recording that redefines the lyrical depth of the composition.
Other standout tracks on the Memphis album include the early American folk/country standard “Corrina, Corrinna”, which dates back to 1928 and has been recorded hundreds of times by artists as diverse as Ray Peterson (an early Phil Spector-produced hit and a minor pop miracle) as well as Blind Lemon Jefferson, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Doc Watson, the last of whom adapted it as “Alberta, Let Your Hair Hang Low”. This song has never received a better reading than the present one by Boz. The acoustic guitar work is nothing less than magnificent, and Boz’s tenderness with the lyric is a revelation. The recording ranks at the very top of his catalogue. Of special merit is the keyboard work of Spooner Oldham, who also plays on several other tracks.
“Dry Spell” is a bluesy spellbinder, featuring Keb Mo’ on slide dobro, Oldham on Wurlitzer piano, and the irrepressible Charlie Musselwhite on harmonica. Musselwhite’s recent outing with Ben Harper on the album Get Up! showed him at the top of his form, and he remains so with his juicy, charged-up interludes and asides on this number. Worth the price of admission, this one is, and to be played as long and as loud as your neighbours can stand it.
I also loved the new approach Boz took with “Can I Change My Mind”, which was the first big hit for 60s r & b artist Tyrone Davis. When Tyrone performed the original he took an upbeat approach to the song, which completely contradicts (imho) the lyrical content. Boz slows it down, explores all the shades of meaning behind the words, and delivers, ultimately, the better performance of this soul classic.
The closing song, “Sunny Gone”, an original ballad written by Boz, expresses the grief of lost love, and it is beautifully sung. The depth of feeling behind his performance made me wonder if perhaps there were not another, less obvious, interpretation than that of romantic love gone wrong. More than fourteen years ago Boz lost his beloved son Oscar to a heroin overdose. In the Newsweek magazine of February 22, 1999, Boz made an eloquent statement (read it here) about his son’s life and addiction. Maybe I’m reading too much into this new song, which speaks so well of losing those we can’t bear to be parted from. Boz, though, is a sensitive and talented man with musical depth and breadth that evokes experience at every level and it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if “Sunny” was also meant to evoke “Sonny”.
In summary, Memphis is Boz Scagg’s most fully realized work, and it’s an album you should own. If you buy only one album this year, make it Memphis.
And one more thing: Boz, if you ever care to arrange a concert evening with your old musical pals Steve Miller and Ben Sidran, it would be ubercool for all concerned. I’d travel any distance to attend…
Posted: Saturday 13 April 2013