Lowdown on the Big Boz Man
R&B and soul have been at the heart of much of the music Boz Scaggs has made over his 45-year recording career.
Some of his biggest hits — “Lowdown,” “Lido Shuffle” and “Dinah Flo” — have been influenced strongly by those styles. And as a vocalist, nearly anything he touches is going to be informed by soul and rhythm and blues.
So for Scaggs to make an album called “Memphis” — the city most closely identified with soul and R&B and the home to such legendary soul labels as Stax and Hi Records — would seem like the kind of album Scaggs was destined to make.
Except “Memphis,” in some ways, isn’t at all the album that one might expect from Scaggs, given its title and his musical roots.
Most notably, “Memphis” isn’t so much an album about the music that came out of that city. You won’t see covers of songs from Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave or any of the legendary artists that recorded for Stax (although he does cover “So Good to Be Here,” a tune from Al Green, the biggest name on the Hi Records roster).
In fact, some songs on “Memphis” come from artists not at all identified with Memphis or its soul history. There’s an early Steely Dan song (“Pearl of the Quarter”), a tune by New Wave pop rocker Moon Martin called “Cadillac Walk” and the blues standard “Corrina Corrina.”
But there are other obvious reasons Scaggs called his latest album “Memphis.”
It was recorded in Memphis — at Royal Studio, the place where many Hi Records acts did their most famous work. Some of the players on “Memphis” — including Willie Weeks, Charles Hodges and Ray Parker Jr. — are among the city’s best and most storied musicians.
And yes, the CD is strongly rooted in soul and R&B — and is perhaps as flavored by those styles as any album Scaggs has made in a career that dates back to 1965 and includes a run of four albums from 1974 to 1980 that went gold or platinum, including his 1976 quintuple-platinum blockbuster, “Silk Degrees.”
“Memphis” was also one of the most effortless albums Scaggs has made. Working with producer Steve Jordan, it took all of three days to cut the album.
“I really love this record,” Scaggs said in a recent phone interview. “It really came from a very natural place. I love working with Steve Jordan and these musicians.
“It just seemed that any song was going to work. Anything that we wanted to do was going to work. There was just that kind of magic in the place and the players.
“It was very fun to do.”
Cover to cover
Scaggs has good reason to like what he hears in “Memphis.”
It features a strong selection of cover tunes, including:
Willy DeVille’s “Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl,” which gets an easygoing R&B treatment with a bit of a roll and tumble to its rhythm.
“Love on a Two-way Street,” a terrific, sleek soul song that was a big hit for Sylvia and Joe in 1970.
“Pearl of the Quarter,” which gets more of a soulful slant than the original Steely Dan version.
And “Cadillac Walk,” which Scaggs turns into a snakey bit of grooving R&B.
Topping things off are two excellent originals —“Gone Baby Gone,” a smooth R&B tune that could have fit on “Silk Degrees,” and a soulful piano ballad, “Sunny Gone.”
Scaggs went into “Memphis” without any theme in mind. In fact, he approached it much like he does any of his albums.
“As a matter of routine for myself, I do demos of not only my original stuff, but of songs that I’ve kind of been thinking about for the last few years to do an album,” Scaggs said. “So when Steve Jordan and I decided to work together, I sent him a collection of things that I thought might have some chemistry between us.
“I’ve known Steve for quite some time, and I like to work with him in a certain genre of music. So he heard that, and the idea began to take form between the two of us as to what we might do.
“Then it was just a matter of deciding where to do this and what musicians to call,” he said. “I think actually it was uncanny, we were so much on the same page about what to do.
“We had a five-minute conversation in which it was about, ‘Let’s go to Memphis.’ We both know that particular studio in Memphis and love it. That studio just seemed like the right place to do it, and the musicians we were talking about using were just the ones that we have both experience with over the years and are our favorites to do this kind of material.
“So it really just kind of defined itself.”
Dabbling in the Dukes
The choice of songs wasn’t driven by the city where the “Memphis” CD was going to be recorded. Scaggs said he just wanted to do songs he likes singing that he thought his fans might like to hear.
He just found himself drawn, for the most part, to R&B and soul.
“I’ve been liking a lot of these R&B songs for various reasons,” he said. “First of all, it’s my first love.
“This is the kind of music that I’ve always listened to. This is where I draw all of my influences. This is where I live as a musician.
“Secondly, perhaps it has something to do with working with the Dukes of September.”
The Dukes is a touring group that is fronted by Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen and Michael McDonald and Scaggs. The trio did tours in 2010 and 2012, and while there were some wild cards in their set lists (a Grateful Dead medley, for one), the shows had a distinct soul/R&B flavor to them.
“Among Mike McDonald and Donald Fagen and myself, we’ve looked at a lot of songs, like hundreds of songs, over the last two years as we looked for repertoire for the Dukes to do,” Scaggs said. “So I just had a lot of material around that I’ve been thinking about and really considering, giving a lot of consideration to.”
Fans can expect to hear a few songs from “Memphis” in Scaggs’ his current live show. But he said his sets will vary from night to night, depending on the type of venue and audience he encounters.
“There are a number of performing arts centers in the mix,” Scaggs said. “So in a situation like that, I like to take the first part of the program and do some, well I call them acoustic numbers, but sort of light stuff, upright bass and maybe a little jazzier and progressive stuff. And I can work in a couple of new songs from my record that are kind of slower and more acoustic, more atmospheric.
“Then there will be other places where it’s more — they want more of a kind of a mainline rock show. Sometimes I can do more blues and more up-tempo material. Some places seem like they want a few more hits from my back days, so I can do that.
“But I’ve got a (versatile) band and enough material that I can do a wide variety of material, so we’ll tailor it to the night.”
Posted: Saturday 8 February 2014