Boz Scaggs brings classics and new work to Roanoke

Boz Scaggs brings classics and new work to Roanoke

In what would seem like an ancient past, the pop music world allowed artists to develop. Boz Scaggs is a prime example.

It wasn’t until his fifth release on the Columbia label, his seventh overall, that he had a hit. The album was “Silk Degrees,” and it produced a couple of numbers that became part of the mid-1970s soundtrack to life — the disco-gritty “Lowdown” and the hard-swinging “Lido Shuffle.”

Those numbers, and later hits “Breakdown Dead Ahead,” “JoJo” and “Look What You’ve Done to Me” established Scaggs as a major hit maker.

Scaggs brings those songs — and others from a long career that still finds him making compelling music — to Berglund Performing Arts Theatre on Sunday. In a phone call last month, Scaggs said he and co-writer David Paich had no idea what might happen after they finished writing and recording “Lowdown” and “Lido Shuffle.”

“If it had been my first record, perhaps I would have had some feeling about it being special, because I wouldn’t have known better,” Scaggs said. “But ... I had been through the experience of getting excited about [an album], only to find that it didn’t have the hits that I thought it might have deserved.

“No, we just made the record. There were no false illusions about it being a big hit. It was special to us. I’ll say that. And we really had a good time making that record, and that probably has something to do with the longevity that it came to have.”

“Silk Degrees” has sold at least 5 million copies, and the two records that followed each sold at least a million. As careers do, his wound down in terms of commercial success. But he has continued to tour and record, and the three albums he has made since 2008 have been critical successes.

They have featured few original songs. Instead, he has taken to interpreting the work of other writers.

“Speak Low” features throwback standards from the likes of Duke Ellington, Hoagy Carmichael and the Rodgers/Hart team. “Memphis” mines soul territory from such acts as Al Green, Steely Dan, Tony Joe White and Moon Martin. His latest, “A Fool to Care,” features songs by Curtis Mayfield, Al Green, Huey P. Smith and members of The Band.

Each record features at least one Scaggs original, but by and large, it’s about using his voice to inhabit some favorites. Scaggs said he and producer Steve Jordan, who has helmed the past two albums, went over countless tunes to arrive at the ones they would eventually record. The idea is for Scaggs to use his voice to inhabit those songs.

“It’s a process,” he said. “I may love Ray Charles and Bobby Bland, but I can’t really handle a lot of the material that they covered, because I don’t have the voice and the approach for it. So I have to try on a song. By doing a demo and getting them in my key and playing around with the tempos or the feel a little bit, I can see if there’s a fit for me.” Scaggs made demos, sent them to Jordan, and the two discussed how effective they were. “We’ve got to inhabit it, as you say,” he said. “We like to think we take it to a new place and perhaps give it a little different reading, a little different meaning than it had before we took it on.”

During the years when his music was a fixture in the top 20, he recorded with such musicians as Paich, Jeff Porcaro and David Hungate, who would go on to form another pop-rock juggernaut, Toto. These days, he’s still hanging with the top of the session heap. The core of “A Fool to Care” was Jordan on drums, bassist Willie Weeks and guitarist Ray Parker Jr. Jordan — whose long career has included drumming and production gigs with Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, John Mayer, Buddy Guy and Robert Cray — was the glue, Scaggs said.

“Steve is to me and a handful of others a brother-in-arms,” Scaggs said. “We share a great deal of interest in the history of the music we play, the music that evolved out of New Orleans, that evolved out of the blues and early rock ‘n’ roll tradition, which we really love to be involved with.

“Steve’s an extremely intelligent, focused and inspired individual. He’s very important to me in the way that these records come together. ... The [rhythm] section that we came up with is what I would say is the embodiment of what we share in common. We’ve got the best of the best in terms of this material that we’ve chosen to focus on.”

It’s a similar story on the road, where quality musicians are concerned. The touring band includes ace guitarist Mike Miller and backing vocalist Monet Owens.

“They are very advanced musicians,” Scaggs said. “They can go anywhere between rock ‘n’ roll and Latin-jazz and full-on jazz and pop music. They’re extremely seasoned and well-rounded musicians to play my repertoire.

“And we have a good time. We live in close quarters, and we work hard every day we’re out there. It’s a pure pleasure. ... I let them have a fair amount of freedom in solos and spotlight playing, and people walk away really getting a sense of some heavy-hitting musicians.”

Posted: Friday 29 April 2016

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