Boz Scaggs Loves to Sing What He Knows
By Marcus Crowder
In 1973, Boz Scaggs’ career was reaching a crossroads.
A lover of blues, rhythm and blues, and American roots music, Scaggs had channeled soulful, romantic songwriting and his silky, expressive voice into four moderately acclaimed major-label albums, though none had cracked the top 100. In Northern California, his adopted home, he was a star, but nationally he was much less of a commodity.
Then in 1976 Scaggs released the career-defining pop-soul album “Silk Degrees,” which became a platinum-selling record five times over.
This spring Scaggs released “Memphis,” his first album in five years. He takes on R&B classics such as “Rainy Night in Georgia,” “Corinna Corinna” and “Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl,” and includes a few originals.
In a telephone interview from the road, an introspective Scaggs said he was singing and playing what he knew.
“Most of what I played on my early albums I learned from R&B music and listening to the radio and loving the blues and listening to the blues,” said Scaggs, who turned 69 last month. Growing up near Dallas, Scaggs listened to radio stations from as far away as Chicago and Nashville. He immersed himself in a range of styles – Top 40, jazz and Delta blues.
“There were more black radio stations, more soul stations and more artists coming through. That was my education.”
Scaggs’ first records reflected his background and the times, but the young artist was still developing his sound.
“The band I put together to tour after my album ‘Moments’ (1971) was a horn band, a road band emulating Paul Butterfield or B.B. King’s band.” Scaggs recorded two more records with the group.
“As I grew, I grew out of my band. … I was writing songs that were going beyond what I was able to accomplish in the studio with my band.”
In 1973 Scaggs went to Los Angeles and began working with producer Johnny Bristol, who was part of the Motown migration.
The lush, buoyant “Slow Dancer” was released in 1974 and went to No. 81. The lilting soul of the title track and songs such as “Sail On White Moon” and “Let It Happen” would become Scaggs hallmarks. His concerts became more stylish affairs.
Musically Scaggs felt as confident as ever. He also felt more comfortable in the studio as he began his next record, which would become “Silk Degrees.”
“I was moving forward, and I found more freedom as an artist and more sustenance in the LA studio musicians,” Scaggs said.
But despite the success, the recording industry was taking a toll.
“I was really disillusioned by the whole business and what I was doing there,” he said. “I practically felt doomed by the time I finished (“Silk Degrees”). … When the album did come out, it was a slow starter.”
“The record company put it out, and they put a single out, and the single would hang out for a while and then just disappear. It was many, many months later that an R&B station in Cleveland picked up ‘Lowdown’ and it started climbing the R&B charts, and it finally ignited into the pop charts.”
“Lowdown” made No. 3 on the Billboard Pop Singles chart. It was certified gold for sales of 1 million copies and won a Grammy Award for best R&B song of 1976.
“It was the most unlikely song on the record to us musicians to be a single and gain acceptance,” Scaggs said. “It was our favorite, but it was a complete surprise that radio would pick it up because as common as that groove sounds right now, it was very uncommon for a pop song in 1975.”
Sparked by “Lowdown,” the album peaked at No. 2 and spent 115 weeks on the Billboard 200. Two other singles from the record – “It’s Over” and “Lido Shuffle” – also made the Top 40.
“When it really caught on fire, we were just so busy; all of sudden there was no time to think about it. We didn’t think of it as gratification, we thought of it as, ‘We’re musicians and we’re really happy and lucky to be working.’ ”
His next two albums – “Down Two Then Left” (1977) and “Middle Man” (1980) – would also be platinum sellers. A 1980 greatest-hits compilation would go gold.
Scaggs was ready to take a break. “I forget what it was now, if I wanted to take six weeks or six months off, but anyway it turned into a decade.”
With pop stardom out of the way, Scaggs has returned to music with a measured approach to the business and his art. He makes records when he wants to, and they reflect his tastes, interests and background. “Fade Into Light” (1996) revisited songs from his halcyon days with a more reserved emotional approach, slower tempos and leaner arrangements focusing on the depth of his vocal interpretations.
“Speak Low” (2008) is low-key with finely rendered small-group orchestrations of standards and art songs.
Scaggs looks for music now that he can truly express himself through.
“I listen to my voice from back in the ’70s. It’s very painful. I think I’ve gotten to be a better singer. I hit notes better, I have a style that’s more developed,” Scaggs said.
“That’s my primary instrument, my primary thing more than a songwriter, more than a guitar player, more than anything else, I love singing. That’s what guided, carried me through my life.”
Posted: Thursday 11 July 2013