Boz Scaggs Shuffles Into R.I.

By Rick Massimo - Journal Pop Music Writer
Providence Journal - June 8, 2008

Most singers who have a few hits and then fall off the charts are described as being out of the game. Usually, what we really mean by that is that their time has passed, that they put out some more albums that no one liked and no one bought. In Boz Scaggs case, though, he really dropped out. And he says it was the best thing he could have done.

By 1980, Scaggs had lent his distinctive, soulful drawl to four consecutive platinum albums, had won Grammy awards and still had enough juice to get two hit singles off his latest album. But he had gotten to the point where not only did he want to walk away, but he had to.

Now Scaggs, who turns 64 today and comes to Newport this week, is happy and in charge of his own career, and says, “If I hadn’t taken that time away, I don’t really think I’d be where I am now.”

Scaggs had been a solid journeyman rock and R&B singer, a former band mate of Steve Miller (they met as boys in Texas) who had been making albums every couple of years and seeing them sell respectably. The monster 1976 hit Silk Degrees changed everything, and that was a mixed blessing.

Silk Degrees sold more than 5 million copies; it went to No. 2 on the album charts and spawned the hit singles “Lowdown” (which won that year’s Grammy for best R&B song), “Lido Shuffle,” and the now-chestnut “We’re All Alone” (which Scaggs wrote), as well as five other songs that could have been hits. It was a — well, silky — mix of R&B and smooth ’70s pop that no one was ever quite able to duplicate.

Scaggs had been hinting at that kind of direction with his previous record, 1974’s Slow Dancer; the raw R&B and the Jimmie Rodgers covers and the extended Duane Allman guitar solos of his earlier albums (dating back to 1966) had been fading from his oeuvre. But Silk Degrees was sleek and unique. Rolling Stone called it “a new kind of hybrid — Southern blues sensibilities mixed with city soul.”

“You’re working with studio musicians; that’s the biggest difference,” Scaggs says of that sound now. (The band on Silk Degrees was basically Toto, who were first-call guys in the Los Angeles studio scene before and while branching out on their own. As a group, their singing and song writing was hit-or-miss, but their playing was always impeccable, particularly the stellar drummer, the late Jeff Porcaro).

The sudden success and the studio scene posed new challenges, though.

“You get the feeling, after you’ve discovered this vein, that you can go in any direction you want. They can make everything sound good, if you know what I mean. So that world is a sort of a strange potion. It can take you to great heights and help you realize very progressive ambitions. On the other hand, you can get lulled into a sense of complacency.”

The next year’s Down Two Then Left reached No. 11, but had no Top-40 hits. In 1980, Scaggs released a greatest-hits record and Middle Man, which had the hits “Jojo” and “Breakdown Dead Ahead.” But by then, Scaggs says, something had to change. In the blues/R&B world, time between albums was no big deal; the accelerated schedule of a pop star left him feeling that “frankly, there wasn’t much music left in me.”

“I was just automatically going into the studio and going through a knee-jerk process of throwing stuff down. And normally, songs inhabit me a different way. They haunt me until I can purge myself of them. And it’s a long process — I carry things around with me for years, and eventually they take shape. I don’t write, and I don’t produce stuff, automatically. Some people just constantly write and constantly have creative ideas. I don’t. I let them accumulate. And I got into a point where I was just making stuff up, and not in the greatest way sometimes. It wasn’t there, and I don’t mind admitting it.

“I’ve been doing what I do for a long time, and I react on certain instincts. And when those instincts disappear, I walk away from it.”

So he did. For six months. Which became a year. Which became another year. Scaggs says his old work ethic made him feel guilty about taking time off at first, but the more time he took, the easier it got. He hung around his hometown of San Francisco, he says, taking care of personal business, buying a restaurant/nightclub and reconnecting with life.

In 1988, he released the album Other Roads, and charted with “Heart of Mine,” but he now calls the disc “a strange attempt, and that’s the way it goes sometimes. But it did get me back to a process.”

And working with Donald Fagen’s Rock and Soul Revue in the early ’90s (with Phoebe Snow, Michael McDonald and others) saw Scaggs singing classic soul and R&B and getting back into a working rhythm, he says. “It was a lot of fun and put me in touch with the fun aspect of it. … It was fun and the music started taking shape again. And the music became fun and interesting again.”

He had parted ways with his long-time label, Columbia, and signed with Epic for the solid comeback Some Change in 1994. The year 1997 saw the R&B cover collection Come On Home, and 1999 saw the release of Fade Into Light, which included some songs Scaggs had written for the score of a Japanese film, acoustic reworkings of hits such as “Lowdown” and “We’re All Alone” and new songs such as the gorgeous “Just Go.”

In 2003, Scaggs released But Beautiful on his own Gray Cat label, a collection of standards that he calls “very challenging. There’s a lot more pressure on the individuals in the [band]; you’re just hanging out in space with those guys, and technical stuff is much more demanding.

“You start out sounding like Mel Torme or Frank Sinatra or Nat Cole or Mose Allison, and you eventually work your way into your own style.” He’s proud to point out that But Beautiful topped “the real jazz charts on Billboard, not the smooth jazz, and says, “I was very gratified by the reception I got from the real jazz community.”

Now he seems to have the best of both worlds — he has his own label (a new album is planned for later this year); he records at his own pace and his own expense and gives the finished records to a distributor, who puts them in stores.

And he says he owes this freedom to the decision he made in 1980 to walk away for a while. A few years ago, Scaggs sat down to remaster Silk Degrees, a “technical exercise” to spruce up the general sound and eliminate some tape noise. “You’re just trying to breathe some life into the tapes before they disintegrate.” He didn’t make any remixing decisions, though he says he was tempted. “I would love to get my hands on it. I would love to re-sing most of it, really. It’s tough.”

Hard to imagine that, but if you listen to the version of “Lowdown” on his 2004 live album, you can hear a blues-styled maturity in his voice that he says comes from repetition. “You get to practice. The funny thing about recordings is, most of the time you hardly know the song. You’re singing it for the first or second time ever, and that’s the way it’ll be heard forever.”

Talking to Scaggs, you get the impression he’s figured out the game. He basically managed to sit out the old-hat years of a pop star’s career — the gap between when you’re new and when you’re classic, where you can either rehash yourself or try desperately to stay current.

“I do regret not having toured more over those years, because that’s a hard thing to rebuild. I like to play. But when you stop doing it, it’s hard to rebuild your momentum sometimes. And fans you had at that time will drift off when you stop giving them music.”

He’s making up for that now.

He’s getting ready for the longest tour he’s been on in four or five years, running through mid-September. He says he usually plays about five weeks a year in the United States and two or three weeks elsewhere.

“I’m very much looking forward to it,” he says. “I have a great band, and it seems in the past, we get started, and as soon as we get in a good groove, it’s time to end the tour.”

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