2008 - Rochester Democrat & Chronicle

Even with his big hits, the artist still searches for perfection

Jeff Spevak • Staff music critic • June 18, 2008

Boz Scaggs runs much deeper than that hit-overloaded album that made him a star in 1976, Silk Degrees, when "Lowdown" and "Lido Shuffle" were oozing out of every car radio in this hemisphere. Lots of people had faith in him. His boyhood buddy Steve Miller for one, who recruited Scaggs for the first two Steve Miller Band albums — really good late-'60s psychedelic blues rockers, on which Scaggs sang and played guitar. And Rolling Stone magazine publisher Jann Wenner, who backed Scaggs' move to a solo career, helping him land a contract with Atlantic Records.

In the years since, Scaggs has shown he can sing virtually anything. Rock, blues, R&B, soul, country and jazz. "I'm still all over the map," he says of his upcoming performance Thursday at the Eastman Theatre, promising "a combination of mostly my hit radio music, some blues, R&B."

There was really only one voice doubt concerning his singing all of those years: Boz Scaggs himself.

"I can't stand my voice," Scaggs says. "We're all self-critical. But to listen to Silk Degrees, it is impossible for me to hear my voice."

Yet Atlantic had such faith in Scaggs when it signed him that he got the best studio musicians a singer could ask for in the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, the folks who regularly backed the likes of Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett. On that self-titled 1969 record, Scaggs effortlessly shifts from country to blues to R&B to soul to great songs like Jimmie Rodgers' "Waiting For a Train" and the 11-minute "Loan Me a Dime," with Duane Allman going crazy on guitar.

"The music is fantastic, the rhythms are exciting, I love the horns," Scaggs says. "It must be selling; I still get royalty checks. But I can't stand it. It's not false modesty."

It is self-doubt.

Born in Ohio but raised in Oklahoma and Texas, Scaggs left the Steve Miller sound behind him and constructed his own sound, while recording with the Muscle Shoals musicians.

"They had been listening to the same part of the radio dial that I had been listening to," Scaggs says. "We were all learning from that R&B/blues thing that was happening. That urban Philly and Detroit R&B music, with the chord changes, the complex harmonics. That was the new, creative American music. It wasn't the sorta soul thing that came out of Stax Records and the South, and a lot of the music I was exposed to growing up in Texas. It was the new synergy of the black expression, really."

Like many white musicians - blue-eyed soul is how they are often referred to by the musicologists - Scaggs found that black sound to be a good fit.

"That's my culture, as much as Hank Williams is my culture," he insists. "It's an interesting subject that can be exposed. Rock and roll came out of New Orleans, went up the river and through the Delta. A whole lot of what we do is based on that. It gets adulterated in some ways, gets enhanced in other ways. We all owe something to it, and take something from it."

He struggled for years with it, a critics' favorite, until he became a fans' favorite as well with Silk Degrees. But then, in 1980, he seemed to have disappeared.

"I went on hiatus," Scaggs says. "I was working pretty much constantly for pretty much 10 years. I'd made a number of records, the last few years rising to a crest as big as the Silk Degrees album. But I was tired; I just wanted to take time off. I had two young sons to take care of on the home front.

"Six months turned into a year, and it became other things. I needed to get away from it all. I wasn't feeling entirely successful in certain areas. I had a lot to take care of in my personal life.

"I felt guilty about it for a while, but I got over it. I've always had a heavy work ethic, and that was always directed toward my music career. Now I wasn't thinking about recording and touring first. And it was a big change going from 100 to 0 in a short time."

The well-known story is that Scaggs was running a San Francisco nightclub called Slims. The lesser-known story is, "I couldn't go in there," Scaggs says. "I was everybody's best friend, and I'm actually a pretty private person. For the price of a beer, you're kind of on the spot. That was a hell of an enterprise for me, and an unsuccessful one, because I couldn't participate."

He never turned his back on music, and he's never quite overcome his feelings of inadequacy. But is there really anything wrong with trying to make everything perfect?

"It's a bad thing," Scaggs says. "It's very limiting, really anti-creative. It's really stifling and smothering and claustrophobic to live like that. I still have to go through a dance with myself to get something I can hang my hat on.

"We call it 'Chasing the demo.' They just don't feel as good as the demo. It's a very real thing. Sometimes you just replay things too much. Insecurities and consciousness really compound in certain ways."

But by 1988 he was back, releasing albums, moving forward on all of those insecurities. Including the voice that he - and pretty much only he - felt wasn't up to the job. "Only in the last 10 years can I listen to my voice," Scaggs says. He's recorded new versions of songs like "Lowdown," ones he can listen to, and has an album of jazz standards coming out this fall. Slim's didn't prove to be the outlet, or the distraction, that he had hoped. He's found others.

"I'm happier now than I've ever been," Scaggs says. "My wife and I bought some property in Napa Hills and put in a couple of acres of grape vines. We're going to make wine."

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