Boz Scaggs: Three days to record Memphis, a lifetime to prepare

By Howard Pousner

For his new R&B-steeped album, his first in five years, Boz Scaggs sought a keep-it-simple retro vibe. So he booked Memphis’ analog-embracing Royal Studio, where Al Green harvested his early hits, for only 10 days.

Amazingly in an era when recording artists take up residence for months on end in studios tricked out with an endless array of digital toys, Scaggs, producer Steve Jordan and the simpatico band they assembled took only three days to lay down the basic tracks of his soulful new album “Memphis.” On the fourth day, he said, they did overdubs and then celebrated the session’s completion by eating barbecue.

Critics, such as’s Tom Jurek, who called the CD “a stunner,” place “Memphis” as one of Scaggs’ strongest releases since 1976’s multi-platinum breakthrough “Silk Degrees,” the disco ball-kissed release that chilled for 115 weeks on the charts.

Songs from both albums, which Scaggs argues have more in common than you might think, should be well represented when the 69-year-old singer-songwriter and his band play a sold-out concert Friday night at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. We spoke to him from the road.

Q: What drew you to record in Memphis?

A: There’s a sound that’s inherent in some of the classic studios when record companies used to have their own private rhythm sections. And there’s a quality in those rooms that makes them a little special in terms of their sound. They dialed in their electronics and their equipment for a particular sound.

In other days that could have happened at, for instance, the old Stax Studios (in Memphis), in Muscle Shoals, Ala. (where Scaggs cut his gritty debut album in 1969), Criteria in Miami, Philadelphia. But to my knowledge the only one left that has preserved that quality is Royal Studio.

Besides the fact that we both just love being in Memphis and we’ve really come to love the people who run that studio and get that sound.

Q: “Memphis” doesn’t seem overly fussed with.

A: I’m happy you got that impression because that’s pretty much what it was. Sometimes I have to censor myself, edit myself, because if I have six months to make a record, I’ll take seven. But in this case I had 10 days and we got the heart of the record in three.

It felt so complete with just the rhythm section (producer Jordan on drums, Willie Weeks on bass, Spooner Oldham on keyboards, Ray Parker Jr. on guitars) that it wasn’t hard for me to back off and not go for more filler and more perfection.

Q: Fans who got into your music with “Silk Degrees” may not realize how much R&B and soul were there at the beginning of your career. Do you feel you’re coming full circle with the songs on “Memphis?”

A: Well, to some degree. It was just down the road in Muscle Shoals where I made my first solo record for Atlantic.

But I would (question) a little of what you say there. There was a certain soulfulness that went into “Silk Degrees.” It was a different approach … certainly “slick” is a word that I’ve seen. It was refined compared to some of the work done before — and not as slick as some of the work I did after.

But yeah, I’m not gonna try to argue, it was full circle in terms of going back to some pretty raw beginnings.

Q: Did all the digging into the American songbook for covers that you and Michael McDonald and Donald Fagen did for the Dukes of September tours influence your song selection here?

A: In order to explore some of those hundreds of songs we looked through, I made demos for myself, just to see how my voice, my approach, works, and to try out different feels, different keys, different rhythmic approaches. So, yes, I had some things at hand.

Q: Do you hope to tour again with those guys?

A: We recorded a live video before we signed off last year’s shows. That’s in the can and it’s being talked about as a television special, and that would bring us together to do some dates. The three of us have a real good time, and I think we all look forward to reconvening.

Q: I read recently that in retrospect you attribute the success of “Silk Degrees” to it hitting at the right time and place, when mainstream music lovers were connecting with urban R&B. Nearly four decades later, does “Memphis” feel right time, right place to you?

A: It certainly does. I have been thinking about what kind of record I might have made for some time, and it occurred to me that it took three days to make but it took a lifetime to get to this one.

These are days and times when it doesn’t really help anybody to talk about having a big record. We don’t even know what a big record is anymore. But we made a record we wanted to make. And I’m finding that audiences are loving what we did.

I think this record is going to live with me for a long time.

Posted: Thursday 18 July 2013


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