The Silk Road

The Silk Road

By Barry Divola

The Sydney Morning Herald

Boz Scaggs remembers the moment he realised he had truly arrived. It had nothing to do with winning a Grammy or his album Silk Degrees going platinum five times. It was August 1979, and he was in his dressing room after a concert at the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles. Someone was singing at the top of his lungs: ''Lido! Woah-oh-oh oh-oh-oh!'' The man came in, flashed his trademark grin and introduced himself, although Scaggs already knew his name.

''Having my song sung to me by Jack Nicholson?'' he says. ''I could have died right then and there.''

Boz Scaggs' timing was always a little off. Many people assume that Silk Degrees, the monster that ruled 1977 alongside Rumours, Hotel California and Songs in the Key of Life, was his debut. But it was his seventh solo album and none of the previous six had come within sniffing distance of the top 40. He had only once scraped into the Top 100, at No.81.

On the cover of his first record from 1965 he leans against a wall, playing an acoustic guitar and blowing into a harmonica - he couldn't look any more Neil Young if he tried.

He wandered from city to city, scene to scene, playing rhythm and blues in London, psychedelic rock in San Francisco. He joined his old school buddy Steve Miller on the first two Steve Miller Band albums, leaving before they broke big with The Joker.

By 1975 he was the wrong side of 30. ''I'd given up on the idea that I was ever going to be big,'' he says. But the stars were about to align. He had already started writing new songs when he met a trio of LA session musicians - keyboard player David Paich, bass player David Hungate and drummer Jeff Porcaro. A couple of years later they would form Toto, but back then they clicked with Scaggs in the studio, with Paich becoming co-writer on five tracks, including Lowdown, a song that has since been sampled at least a dozen times by hip-hop artists, most recently Snoop Dogg on 2011's Wonder What It Do.

''I thought Snoop's song was really good,'' Scaggs says. ''We've turned down a few requests to use the song because the rapper's lyrics were misogynist or crude or in bad taste but, of the ones I've approved, I think Lowdown has been used really creatively.''

When it was released in March, 1976, Silk Degrees was not an immediate hit. But here in Australia, the album had its champions at CBS Records, who pushed hard to get it heard. Peter Karpin, who was head of national promotions, had seen Scaggs perform in London at a company convention and was blown away. He came up with a slogan to put on ads, badges and stickers - BOZ IS THE BUZZ.

It worked and Boz did become the buzz. In 1977 Silk Degrees was No.1 in Australia for 18 weeks and hung around the Top 40 for almost two years. It got so entrenched in popular culture that comedian Norman Gunston named his album Nylon Degrees and parodied Scaggs on the front cover. The album eventually went five times platinum in the US, but Scaggs would never reach the same heights of popularity again. Is Silk Degrees a bit of an albatross for him?

''It is. I'm defined by it and it's what I'm known for. You come to terms with it. If I did my time again, of course I would choose the same thing to happen. Even if people don't know what I'm doing now, they still have some interest because of those songs.''

As for his favourite Boz Scaggs album, it's one that involves more bad timing. ''My favourite is Dig. It's the best writing I've done and my voice is better too. The bittersweet thing is it came out on September 11, 2001. It got completely lost in the events of the time.''

Posted: Saturday 29 March 2014

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