Boz Goes Back to Where He Began
By Aidin Vaziri
Boz Scaggs knows he has a reputation for being something of a perfectionist. Sitting in his meticulous office, located in the alleyway behind Slim's nightclub, the casually stylish singer-songwriter recalls the endless tinkering and expansive budgets that went into making his multiplatinum 1970s albums "Silk Degrees" and "Down Two Then Left."
"I'm not the most secure person in the world with what I do," he says in his soft Southern drawl. "It takes a lot for me to feel I've got it right, and I've done it all the way."
In the past, he has taken some five, six, sometimes even eight years between releases, polishing every note for maximum luster. That probably explains why after four-plus decades of sweating the details Scaggs, 68, takes such delight in talking about the quick clip at which he made his latest release, "Memphis" (out Tuesday), a lively return to his rhythm and blues roots.
"We had initially booked 10 days in the studio," he says. "By the end of the third day, we had all our tracks. We spent the fourth day overdubbing horns and strings. The fifth day, the engineers packed up stuff, we took some pictures and left."
Recorded with a team of veteran musicians at the late Willie Mitchell's famed Royal Studios, where Al Green made his string of classic 1970s recordings, "Memphis" finds Scaggs lending his rough and smooth voice to intimate covers of "Mixed Up Shook Up Girl," "Corinna Corinna" and "Rainy Night in Georgia." The album, his 17th, also features a pair of original compositions, "Gone Baby Gone" and "Sunny Gone."
He says he decided early on in the project to step aside and let drummer and producer Steve Jordan, who has worked with Bob Dylan and John Mayer, call the shots. Jordan encouraged Scaggs to overlook the details and embrace the moment.
"There are certain vocals on there that if it were up to me I would have fixed them," Scaggs says. "But Steve said leave it alone: 'It sounds like it was 3 o'clock in the morning when you sang that vocal, and it was 3 o'clock in the morning.' "
The album punctuates a particularly busy period for Scaggs, who spent the past decade on the road with everyone from a four-piece jazz group to the Dukes of September, his band with Donald Fagen and Michael McDonald. "In the past five years, I've toured more than I have at any other time in my career," he says.
Maturity sets in
After taking the 1980s off to deal with personal matters ("It was becoming really fast and chaotic - the wheels started coming off," he says) and spending most of the next decade in the studio, Scaggs started his comeback in earnest at the turn of the century. He says maturity finally set in. "Now I know what I have and what I'm doing," he says.
Born William Royce Scaggs in Ohio in 1944, Scaggs grew up in Plano, Texas, just outside of Dallas. He doesn't quite recall how he got the nickname Boz but remembers clearly that his father, a traveling salesman, was an avid record collector. Scaggs recalls the late nights scanning the radio dial, devouring all the new sounds in his universe - blues, folk, country and early rock 'n' roll.
"The kid across the street from me gave me a record called the 'Playboy Jazz All-Stars' in 1958," he says. "I can still hum the solos on that four-disc record."
All the elements would come together later in his music, after a brief stint in school friend Steve Miller's band. Scaggs still plays the big hits "Lowdown" and "Lido Shuffle" in his live sets, but it's not his most popular albums that he looks back fondly on. His favorite, he says, is an under-the-radar record called "Dig" that was released on Sept. 11, 2001. "It's the album I was waiting for all my life," he says.
Scaggs recorded it shortly after his 21-year-old son, Oscar, died of a heroin overdose. "It was the atom bomb for me," he says. "I can't explain the devastation. Going into each of those songs and finding a whole new set of emotions was very catalytic to me. It was completely raw emotion. From that point on, I'm a different person."
Exploring new styles
It also led him into a brief foray of recording a pair of standards albums, 2003's "But Beautiful" and his most recent recording, 2008's "Speak Low." He says he was determined to explore new ways of using his voice.
Five years later, he's back where he started - right after he left the Steve Miller Band and set off to Muscle Shoals, Ala., to record his bluesy 1969 self-titled debut. He kicks off another tour this month, including an already sold-out gig at Napa's Uptown Theatre on March 22.
"It's only later in my life that I've rediscovered why I started this in the first place - why at 13 years old I sat on the bed playing guitar and had this insatiable appetite for music," he says. "Tremendous energy goes into starting these things. Depending on how much energy you have determines if you're still around."
Aidin Vaziri is The San Francisco Chronicle's pop music critic.