Creative Loafing - Tampa
CL Interview: Pop/R&B legend Boz Scaggs
June 22nd, 2009 by Eric Snider
To casual music fans, Boz Scaggs is that smooth dude from the ’70s with those disco-ey hits “Lowdown” and “Lido Shuffle.” They might even know about his 1976 smash album Silk Degrees, which included those tunes as well as “Georgia,” “What Can I Say” and “Harbor Lights.”
Although Scaggs’ days as a major hitmaker ended in the early 1980s — in large part because he took a self-imposed hiatus for most of the decade — he has made estimable music in the 1990s and, especially, this decade. And he’s done so by turning to a familiar riff for recovering rock stars: singing old standards.
That news might cause eyes to roll — especially if you think Rod Stewart — but it would absolutely not apply in the case of Boz Scaggs. His But Beautiful (2003) and last year’s Speak Low are among the best examples of a veteran pop star delving into such old chestnuts as “What’s New?” “Sophisticated Lady,” “Easy Living,” “I’ll Remember April” and “Speak Low.”
He sings the material in a supple, torchy style, burrowing into the lyrics, caressing phrases with his round, throaty tenor. Scaggs has a natural knack for seducing you into these literate, urbane numbers culled from the legendary writers of the American Songbook. But Beautiful debuted at No. 1 on the jazz charts, but Scaggs, 65, does not consider himself a jazz singer. You won’t hear any scatting or bold deconstructions from him. Instead, he hews to the gorgeous melodies, adding slight curves and punctuations.
The singer did not enter into the world of standards lightly. He started toying with the tunes about 10 years ago, after making friends with a cluster of jazz musicians in his adopted hometown of San Francisco. The vocalist quickly discovered that the material “is much harder than more modern pop songs,” he said in a phone interview.
“I had to study. There were a few songs that fell a little more naturally into my style of singing, the ones in a bluesier vein. The rest of it, I had to work hard, study a lot, do a lot of practicing, searching, finding my own way with the songs. I’ve learned a lot, and it’s served me in other [musical] forms.”
That’s important. Scaggs hasn’t forgotten his past associations with pop/R&B, blues and rock. In fact, one of the most overlooked albums of the decade has been Dig, a program of sensual blue-eyed soul that could be regarded as “Silk Degrees II.” Big problem: Dig was released on Sept. 11, 2001. Into the tank it went.
These days, Scaggs’ concerts run the gamut of his wide-ranging musical palette, incorporating the Gershwin/Ellington/Weill milieu with originals from his own book. It’s significant to note that Scaggs does not try to standard-ize everything. Many of his hits retain the spunk and bounce of their original versions. “Some things have to stay within a certain arrangement — they don’t work out of context,” he explains. “‘Breakdown Dead Ahead’ doesn’t work without that tempo and aggressive guitar style. ‘Low Down,’ on the other hand, I’ve done in a number of different ways. It’s pretty malleable.”
Malleable is a good adjective for Scaggs’ career. He grew up near Dallas and started out as a preteen singing in his friend Steve Miller’s blues band, then scuffled around the London blues scene before settling in the hub of hippiedom, San Francisco, during the Summer of Love, 1967.
Reuniting with Miller, he appeared on the Steve Miller Band’s first two albums, then scored a solo deal on Atlantic. His self-titled debut, a gritty blues-rock effort recorded at Muscle Shoals and featuring lead guitar by Duane Allman, garnered only a lukewarm commercial reception.
Scaggs switched to Columbia and by 1974’s Slow Dancer had moved in a slicker pop-soul direction. He then joined forces with a cadre of studio musicians who would later form the band Toto and concocted Silk Degrees. Songs from the LP dominated the airwaves and also found their way into the clubs.
Although not categorically a disco record, it rode the wave that washed over American pop culture. Scaggs gently rejects the notion that Silk Degrees is among the best disco albums ever. “I never related what I did to the trendy scenes around me,” he says. “The style was more derived from people like the Isley Brothers, a lot of songs that came out of Philly and other urban R&B. The only things with contemporary dance beats were ‘What Can I Say,’ ‘Low Down’ and ‘It’s Over.’”
Videos from that era capture Scaggs dressed in suits and big-collar shirts, tentatively dancing in front of large ensembles. They show a recalcitrant performer, a reluctant superstar. After 1980’s Top 10 Middle Man spawned the hits “JoJo” and “Breakdown Dead Ahead,” Scaggs simply left the biz.
He owned and operated the San Francisco nightclub Slim’s and performed there on rare occasions. “I just took off,” he explains, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. “I had family matters to attend to, two young children to raise. I just didn’t have any music in me at the time. Because I’d had a great deal of success, I was able to step away from it. Retire, if you like.”
He returned to the shelves with 1988’s Other Roads, which peaked at No. 47 on the Billboard 200 and yielded the middling Adult Contemporary hit “Heart of Mine.” It was his last taste of chart success.
Although it’s improbable that Scaggs will remotely approach his former commercial perch, he sounds perfectly sanguine about walking away while his career was in high gear. “I needed those years to let the music come back into me,” he says. “I don’t think I would be as interested or involved in it as I am today if I wasn’t able to take that time off.”