Scaggs Makes Music His Way
[By Charles Perry - Oakland. Calif. KFS. January 1977.]
Just as Boz Scaggs finished his second encore number, the grand art deco stage of the Paramount Theater was flooded with New Year's Eve: a recording of Big Ben chiming 12. The sounds of Times Square, sacks of balloons dropped on the audience. Several young women leaped onto the stage to hand the singer bouquets. One crowned him with a top hat.
There aren't many New Year's traditions in rock & roll. Boz Scaggs practically has the field to himself. For the last three years the vocalist/guitarist, once a mainstay of the Steve Miller Band in the '60s, has put on a series of shows at the Paramount and made them a tradition of the most stylish sort.
This year the backup musicians included not only a 20-piece string section to accompany Boz's Philly-soulish ballads, but also a 13-man swing era horn section. It wasn't too long ago that Boz could not have afforded this kind of luxury. In fact, not too long ago he was scarcely known outside the San Francisco area where it's as if he has always been a star. But his "Silk Degrees" album was one of the top-selling records last year, with three singles that made the charts. One of them, "Lowdown," was Top Five simultaneously on the pop and soul lists in September and became a staple in discos.
The 32-year-old Texan and his wife live in a San Francisco building that once served as a foreign consulate. The place is cluttered with stereo equipment and the debris of an energetic remodeling job. One day recently, he was sitting in his living room (converted from a basement), trying to trace the development that led from the Filimore Auditorium to the Paramount Theater.
"I've been pretty true to my musical interests as they have developed." he said in a thoughtful, tentative tone. "For my first album on my own that I recorded on Atlantic in 1969, we went down to Muscle Shoals. Ala., which at the time was not a very common thing for white artists to do." Through over-dubbing he created the sound of a female chorus on that album which he says, "was kind of unusual then. I've never had any second thoughts about using any instrumentation. There have been various taboos over the years, like you don't use strings and so on, but I've never felt inhibited by them.
"I came to San Francisco in 1967 as a complete outsider. I had come just to work with my friends in the Steve Miller Band, and I consider them bright, broadminded, progressive intellects. We took a giant step by recording this first album in London. And we wouldn't have hesitated to use an orchestra." Soon after leaving Miller in 1969, Boz's path veered more and more in the direction of his dramatic soul ballads.
"At that lime, I was known primarily in the West, not nationally, I thought it was important to be successful; for the sake of finances, prestige among my peers, and record company support. Not that Columbia wasn't supportive, but I felt I had to deserve their support."
For his fourth album. "My Time." he asked for Roy Bailee, co-producer of Simon and Garfunkel's "Bookends" album, which Boz still considers a model of production.
"He taught me that there was another way to record. Not just get together a band, but . . . there are studio musicians who already realize what I'm trying to do. On "Slow Dancer" I used all studio musicians." Recorded in 1974, that album saw Boz taking another step toward soul with Motown vocalist Johnny Bristol as his producer.
"With soul music you can't have lyrics that rely on subtle shadings or interpretations. It's gotta be something you can deliver to a live audience. I'd bring in lyrics, and Johnny'd shake his head and say. 'I don't understand this. It doesn't work.' I'd have to take it back and rewrite.
"All my albums are experiments in some way. For "Silk Degrees" I took Joe Wissert for a producer. He produced Helen Reddy and a lot of people, and he's going to do my next album too.
"That album was a concerted effort. We had a conception, like if we wanted a bright upbeat song at this piace on the album. I'd write one. Then we toured extensively behind it last summer.
Everything was put into it to make it a success." Somewhere outside the sun was going down, probably like the sunset on the cover of Boz's second album. "Moments." It was getting chilly in the room, but Boz was just warming up. "Now the best musicians in the world are available to me; this vast selection to accomplish the music I want. I'm like a kid in a toy shop. Or maybe a bull in a China Shop.