Here's The Lowdown - Boz Scaggs Interview
By Bob Ruggiero
From his earliest records and concerts to his most recent discs and tours with buddies Michael McDonald and Donald Fagen as the Dukes of September, Boz Scaggs has always shown a reverence for music history. That's especially true for the old blues and R&B tunes he'd hear wafting over the airwaves from faraway and seemingly exotic radio stations while growing up in Texas. "We had radio coming out of New Orleans and as far away as Nashville and Chicago," the 68-year-old Scaggs reflects today from his Napa Valley home and vineyard "I listened to a lot of hardcore R&B late at night. And there was an extraordinary station out of Dallas that was practically like a master class in roots music, specializing in Delta blues.
"And at school we'd get together in a vacant classroom at lunch and listen to 45s," he adds. "That's where I heard people like Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Elvis, and the doo-wop groups."
Many of those influences were on Scaggs' mind during the recording of Memphis (429 Records), his first studio record in five years (released today). Consisting mostly of covers of classics like "Corinna, Corinna," "Rainy Night in Georgia," "Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl" and "Love on a Two Way Street," it was recorded at Royal Studios in Memphis, where producer Willie Mitchell produced so many of Al Green's records.
With a crack core band that includes producer/drummer Steve Jordan, guitarist Ray Parker Jr., and bassist Willie Weeks--along with guests like Spooner Oldham, Charlie Musselwhite, Rick Vito, and Keb' Mo--Scaggs' own vocal and guitar have never sounded so relaxed and fit before. "I had been thinking about putting out a record similar to Come on Home [a previous covers project] that involved going back to the past and finding songs that matched my style and voice," he says. From a short list of 30-35 candidates, Scaggs and Jordan winnowed down to the ten covers and two originals that made up the final product.
"I just wanted to sing the songs, to be the vocalist primarily," says Scaggs. "After all these years, after all the projects, there is nothing more satisfying than finding all the elements that go into a good song and putting them together and having them work out in a balanced way. When your love of the music and your voice can match up, it's like... flying.
"It's the closest things to transcendence, a glimpse of something perfect."
Scaggs' own musical journey has winded through decades, beginning when he began busking around Europe and Scandinavia in the mid-'60s, where he found out people there (especially in England) often appreciated American music more than Americans.
"Blues and R&B were huge there which surprised me," he says. "I thought we had some exclusivity on that stuff. But they were more avid than we were, these bands incorporating T-Bone Walker and Lightnin' Hopkins and Bobby 'Blue' Bland into their covers and originals.
"In those days, I saw a lot of musicians in the pubs and clubs who would later go on to be really famous just working things out," he adds. "But for me, those days were more of a travel odyssey than a musical quest."
Summoned to San Francisco by school friend Steve Miller to join his band on a couple of albums, Scaggs set out on his own with 1969's Boz Scaggs, produced by Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner. It set the template for subsequent efforts like Moments, My Time and Slow Dancer. Record sales and concert audiences started to grow.
But the doors blew open on Scaggs's career with the 1976 release of the multiplatinum Silk Degrees. The right album at the right time -- and still his best known work -- its mixture of a smoother-sounding R&B produced hits like "Lowdown," "Lido Shuffle," "What Can I Say" and "We're All Alone" (which was also a hit for Rita Coolidge).
However, Scaggs says he was happy to bide his time till that moment.
"If I had had that success with my first record, it would have been a lot different, but I was selling enough records to keep going," he says. "But I worked very hard. I didn't have a manager and I was doing it all myself -- the travel, keeping the band together and dealing with the record company.
"But at the same time, I was learning how to be a writer and gaining more experience in the studio," adds Scaggs. "And at the time of Silk Degrees, I was listening to a lot of contemporary R&B. So it was an incremental process of success. And it gave me an opportunity to sort of step things up with larger audiences, better equipment and more work with the record company."
Albums Down Two Then Left and Middle Man produced more hits with "Hollywood," "Breakdown Dead Ahead" and "Jojo." His contribution to the Urban Cowboy soundtrack, "Look What You've Done to Me," was also a massive success.
Then, in the early '80s, Scaggs did something unusual: He stepped away from it all. A scheduled six-month hiatus took years as he dealt with both personal issues and a feeling that he'd come to a creative dead end. His recorded output trickled to almost nothing.
But in the mid-'90s, he came back with his own projects as well as stints with the collaborative New York Rock 'n Soul Revue. In 2001 he released Dig, one of his finest records ever (and reminiscent of Silk Degrees), but it unfortunately had a release date of September 11 of that year and -- like a lot of other music -- sank.
And while seemingly every classic rocker of a certain age was taking a stab at the Great American Songbook, Scaggs's two albums of jazz standards, But Beautiful and Speak Low, were lush, gorgeous, and perfectly suited to his voice and delivery. It was a step outside of his comfort zone, and they are the releases that he is in fact most proud of today.
So with Memphis, things have come full circle for Boz Scaggs, who is also embarking on an extensive U.S. tour that will hit the Arena Theatre in Houston on April 27 and is sure to combine material from that record, his big hits and deeper album tracks.
"The way this record came together was kind of perfect, and we did all the tracks for this record in three days, and it felt easy and good," Scaggs sums up. "More than performing or playing guitar, I just love singing. That's what I wanted to do more than anything on this record, and that's how it turned out."