Taste Of History

Boz Scaggs brings back classic hits while growing as a vintage vintner

By Tony Sauro - July 16, 2009 - Stockton Record Staff Writer

Boz Scaggs knows a thing or two about vintages. He's revisited classic 20th-century tunes from the American songbook on his two latest - very classy - albums.

On June 8, the Bay Area pop-soul singer, songwriter, guitar player and vocal interpreter turned 65.

"I don't know how mature I've gotten," Scaggs said with a chuckle. "But I'm past 65 and I worked more last year than at any time in my career. I enjoy it."

Then there's the vintage vintner thing.

Scaggs will feel right at home Saturday night when he and fellow pop-soul singer-songwriter Michael McDonald co-headline the opening show of an eight-concert summer series at Ironstone Vineyards in Murphys. (Scaggs and McDonald, 57, once lead singer and keyboardist in the Doobie Brothers, play separate sets.) Scaggs, also co-owner of Slim's, a 21-year-old San Francisco music club, grows grapes for his own wine - "Scaggs Vineyard at scaggsvineyard.com," he said with pride - north of Oakville in the Napa Valley, where he and his wife, Dominique, have lived since 1996.

He got to sample Ironstone's vintages last year, when he shared a show there with Stockton-born Chris Isaak.

"I was given some to take home," Scaggs said. "I like it, yeah."

The Scaggses grow organic varietal grapes (syrah, mourvedre and grenache) that originated in France's Southern Rhone Valley.

"It was a quite unexpected - but very seductive - process," said Scaggs, recalling that, while planting olive trees, he and Dominique were given some cast-off grape vines to plant. "We're no big growers. Just a couple of acres. We're really proud of our vines. We're just kind of getting up and rolling. It's been about nine years."

The music that's suited Scaggs' taste recently has been fermenting a lot longer than that.

The songs on "But Beautiful" (2003) and "Speak Low" (2008) are classic American pop and jazz standards from 1920s, '30s and '40s by Johnny Mercer, Duke Ellington, Chet Baker, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, Hoagy Carmichael and Harold Arlen, among others.

"The music really pretty much stands on its own," Scaggs said during a recent telephone conversation from a tour stop in Denver. "That was a real important era. It hasn't happened since and probably never will happen again."

Scaggs, however, isn't able to do those vintage songs during live shows.

"It doesn't fit in stylistically with what I'm doing," he said. "It's all hits, blues, R&B, just a variety of things, we do. That material doesn't really come off with this lineup."

A native of Canton, Ohio, William Royce Scaggs has been a big hitter in a variety of lineups for most of a 50-year musical career.

That dates back to when he was 15 and sang in boyhood friend Steve Miller's band (the Marksmen) at St. Mark's School of Texas in Dallas, where Scaggs' family had moved.

The rock 'n' roll era, which produced self-contained artists and eclipsed many of the Tin Pan Alley songwriters he now venerates, was dawning.

"I was a teenager in the '50s," he said. "It was just the greatest thing that ever happened to the people around me. Some people in church might have thought it was the devil's music. I didn't go to that church. It brought a lot of people together and started a movement for a whole generation."

Scaggs and Miller also played together in blues bands at the University of Wisconsin until Scaggs took off for London and Sweden. He recorded a solo album ("Boz") in 1965. It didn't get much of a reception.

So he moved to San Francisco in 1967, when the city's wide-open vibes were re-inventing - or at least re-invigorating - the rock 'n' roll wheel.

He played on the Steve Miller Band's first two albums and struggled through several solo missteps before collaborating with the guys who later would become Toto.

The result: "Silk Degrees," released in 1976, produced two top-20 classic-rock standards ("Lowdown" and "Lido Shuffle"). It rose to No. 2 nationally (and stayed on Billboard magazine's chart for 53 weeks) and was one of Scaggs' three straight platinum albums (1 million copies sold) between 1976-80.

He hasn't achieved the same commercial recording success since. However, Slim's, a converted South of Market restaurant (the Warehouse), has been a San Francisco success since it opened on Sept. 16, 1988.

"Again, it was another kind of accident," said Scaggs, referring to his grape-vine serendipity. "It seemed it was meant to be. It's been a good thing. It's been a great experience. I have very little to do with the operation, though I do keep a hand in it. The people of San Francisco really have taken to it and I'm quite proud to be associated with it."

Scaggs and his partners purchased San Francisco's ornate Great American Music Hall last year.

"I keep up with contemporary music mostly through the club," he said of his 600- and 500-capacity venues. "I have a little studio office near (Slim's). So I see the bands come and go. I put my head in the door from time to time."

The clubs - Slim's has more of a bar vibe and the Great American is a 102-year-old gem with a Barbary Coast-era richness of detail - are increasingly popular.

"More people than ever are coming out," said Scaggs, whose son, Austin, is a Rolling Stone magazine columnist. "People are just a little more curious and adventurous about music. The worst time was during the '80s and '90s, when people mostly were getting their music from MTV and prefab radio.

"Now, it's just a wide-open game. The Internet and word-of-mouth are playing a big part. People are more curious and there's more music available. It's great. It's a healthy trend. They love music. It's about the music. Not the music industry."

So is Scaggs.

"I'll probably continue to do it as long as I can," he said of his archival interpretations, which have found a smaller but always appreciative audience. "I really loved working with that material. It will continue when I'm off the road and have time.

"It'll be great to get back into the American songbook and put together different musical ensembles. It's really very challenging. It's good. It keeps me on my toes."

Who knows? Maybe someday he'll even get to book himself for a show at his own winery.

>HOME >INTERVIEWS >2000 Interviews >2009 - Stockton Record