The Boz Is Back
The least driven man in rhythm and blues has somehow produced another album. Adam Sweeting gets the lowdown
By: Adam Sweeting - The Guardian - August 27, 2001
If Boz Scaggs worked in TV, he'd be Des Lynam. Throughout a career that has spanned three and a half decades, Scaggs has maintained an air of stylish relaxation - even during his days as singer and guitarist with the Steve Miller Band in 1960s San Francisco. Indeed, he's so mellow that Dig is his first new album for seven years.
"I'm not a full-time, get-up-and-write-songs-every-day guy," Scaggs says, with a rueful smile. "It takes me a while to really move into that mode of high concentration and recording. When I'm in the middle of it I want to continue, and I promise myself that as soon as this project's over I'll start the next one, but something comes along and I'm distracted."
Just the sound of Scaggs's voice, a relaxed baritone with a hint of Texas, seems to make time tick over at half speed. But Boz's leisurely work rate has produced impressive results. Dig seizes the listener firmly by the ear with the opening throb of Payday, then deftly leads on through a sequence of shifting but loosely connected moods - funky, bluesy, soulful, ominous. While a Scaggs album will never be less than sleek, time has added some welcome gruffness and grit to his voice.
"I don't mean to be pretentious, but I really am proud of this record," he says."I think we did a good job and I think it holds together."
Work on the disc began early last year when Scaggs began sending tapes of new musical ideas to writer, arranger and keyboard player David Paich. The pair first collaborated on Scaggs's 1976 bestseller Silk Degrees and co-wrote the hit single What Can I Say. Twenty-five years on, Silk Degrees now sounds like a slightly tacky disco album, but Dig is an altogether richer experience.
One of its strengths is the way Scaggs and his collaborators have tipped their hats to a variety of musical approaches without ever losing their grip on its overall shape. Drum loops and samples suggest a post-hip-hop edge, but there's a warm, live feel to the tracks. Dig sounds convincingly 21st century, but at heart it's the latest chapter in Scaggs's long-standing enthusiasm for rhythm and blues. Born in Ohio in 1944 but mostly brought up near Dallas, Texas, the young Boz soaked up as much music as he could find.
"I was able to hear an illegal station out of Mexico that played hardcore soul music and R&B, James Brown and Bobby Bland and that kind of thing, and we could get a Nashville station that played a lot of Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. We also got a jazz station out of Chicago, and New Orleans radio was right there, so I got exposed to a lot of that music from the south from early on."
He first met Steve Miller as a schoolboy in Dallas, when he was invited to join Miller's band The Marksmen as lead vocalist. When Miller left to attend the University of Wisconsin, Scaggs followed him. The pair ended up in the R&B covers band The Ardells.
But then Scaggs went to Europe. He didn't work with Miller again until the latter invited him to San Francisco in 1967. The two parted company the following year citing the proverbial "musical differences", but Scaggs appreciates the role that Miller played in his career.
"I was a kid from a small agricultural community and I was pretty unsophisticated, while Steve had had a band since he was 11," he explains. "He was already an accomplished musician and a cool guy, and I really looked up to him a lot. I began to think of myself as a professional musician as a result of watching Steve, because I don't think I was born with the same ambition he has."
After the split with Miller, Scaggs found a new champion in Jann Wenner, the founder of Rolling Stone magazine, who happened to live across the street in San Francisco. Wenner is, as he puts it, "a high-energy, let's-do-it, motivator kind of guy", and with head-spinning speed Scaggs found himself signed as a solo artist to Atlantic Records and cutting an album in Alabama with Wenner producing. The result, 1969's Boz Scaggs, is still revered among Boz-o-philes - not least because of the commanding presence of guitarist Duane Allman.
The album established the fact that Scaggs could hold his own in elevated musical company, but despite a streak of impressive albums including My Time and Slow Dancer, Scaggs didn't make his big commercial breakthrough until Silk Degrees in 1976. It sold 5m copies, and its success enabled follow-ups Down Two Then Left and Middle Man to surf up the charts. Then Scaggs vanished, not to be heard from again until 1988's Other Roads. A further six years elapsed before he made Some Change for Virgin.
Boz wanted to explore some alternatives to the punishing treadmill of the musician's life. His involvement in the San Francisco nightclub Slim's has proved successful; his attempt to open a restaurant rather less so. He learned painfully that a fondness for fine dining isn't the same thing as managing the business. "It turned out to be a tragic mistake," he says."One of the biggest I've ever made."
An expensive one? "Oh my!" he chuckles, wincing. "It's the gorilla that won't let go until he wants to." Maybe somebody up there was telling Scaggs not to quit making music just yet.
Dig is released on Virgin on September 10.
Copyright Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009