Soul Searching Leads Scaggs to Memphis
By Andrew Dansby:
Boz Scaggs wanted to make a soul record, so naturally he headed to Memphis, a city with a rich soul heritage. More specifically, he went to the Royal Recordings Studio, where the great producer Willie Mitchell, who died in 2010, recorded acts including Al Green, Syl Johnson and O.V. Wright.
"I can put a place to a lot of the music I love," Scaggs, 68, says. "I associate a lot of the music I like with New Orleans and Memphis. I've recorded in Muscle Shoals (Ala.), and there's a distinctive feel about it. I think a lot of it came from the fact that there were these pocket studios with their own rhythm sections - one group of guys and gals in some cases - making music in a space that was very well defined. Those recordings have a real signature about them."
Scaggs chose Royal Recordings deliberately for that reason. "The place hasn't been touched," Scaggs says of Royal Recordings. "They make a point of leaving very much intact."
"Memphis" is a smooth and soulful recording, as Scaggs and a tight backing band along with the Royal Horns and Strings work through some originals, a few traditional tunes and several covers (Steely Dan, Tony Joe White). The mood is relaxed, and Scaggs is in fine voice, a presentation that unites a set of songs that, on the surface, seem dissimilar.
"It never felt like we were rushing," Scaggs says. "You could say we took a lifetime to arrive at that place, so once it arrived it came out so nice and easy. Things slowed one after another."
On the subject of being relaxed, Scaggs' output slowed in the aughts. "Memphis" is only his third album since 2002. But the two that came before - "But Beautiful" in 2003 and "Speak Low" in 2008 - were meticulously crafted recordings of songs Scaggs carefully curated from the Great American Songbook.
"It opened a whole new way of vocal expression for me," Scaggs says. "It treats the voice more like an instrument rather than as an expression of personality and style. It was very challenging coming from the pop world, or things in the R&B and blues vein, where the voice can be laid into a bed of music with a lot of support - background vocals, horns, strings or other instruments. The vocalist in a traditional jazz ensemble, the voice is very exposed. It's as much an instrument as a bass or saxophone or anything else. So a lot of control and style and range was required to pull it off. It taught me a lot."
Scaggs' 21st-century output has been an intriguing chapter in a career that stretches back to Texas in 1959, when he started singing with Steve Miller's band the Marksmen. The two collaborated through parts of the '60s, including the first two releases by the Steve Miller Band.
Scaggs left in 1968 to begin his own recording career. By the mid-'70s, his smooth R&B was producing hits such as "Lowdown" and "Lido Shuffle." He sees both advantages and disadvantages in the various styles he's applied to his recordings.
"When you're starting out, many times you're just emulating what you've heard," Scaggs says. "Then you start to listen to your own voice and shape that, and it turns into your own style, if you're lucky to have a career long enough. You start using that instrument to shape your sound and writing.
"I have a lot of interest in different kinds of music, and that's been a good and a bad thing. It's not necessarily helpful because people don't always know what they're getting when they pick up a Boz Scaggs record. So it's difficult to have a single kind of following.
"On the other hand, it gives me a great deal of freedom. And I've been fortunate to find people who like the variety of influences."
Posted: Thursday 25 April 2013