The Wizardry of Boz
By MARC MYERS - The Wall Street Journal
Smooth, aged soul has always come naturally to Boz Scaggs. Growing up in Plano, Texas, the singer-songwriter and guitarist spent hours twisting the radio dial in search of blues, R&B, jazz and rock 'n' roll. Over time, he came to merge an encyclopedic knowledge of American song with a yearning vocal style, softened by a tender twang.
MATTER OF DEGREES: Fans still call for 'Lowdown' from 1976's 'Silk Degrees.'
For "Memphis"—his 17th studio album, due Tuesday—Mr. Scaggs assembled a varied mix of nearly forgotten blues, soul and rock favorites ranging from Jimmy Reed's "You Got Me Cryin'" to Willie DeVille's "Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl." Uniting many of the tracks are beats and arrangements that rekindle Al Green's '70s swirling sound for Hi Records.
Recorded last year during a brief break from touring with the Dukes of September Rhythm Revue—a supergroup co-led by Mr. Scaggs, Donald Fagen and Michael McDonald—"Memphis" includes legendary R&B musicians. The list includes Motown guitarist Eddie Willis and Charles Hodges, who played organ on Mr. Green's hits. Mr. Scaggs, 68, recently talked about how he selects songs, his painful writer's block and the weight of "Silk Degrees"—his hit album from 1976. Edited from an interview.
"Memphis" is your first album in five years. Why the delay?
I've been touring constantly with the Dukes of September and on my own. I think I've performed more in the last five years than in my entire career. When I'm with the Dukes, it's nice not to be the only front guy on stage. It gives me a chance to lay back a little and suss out audience reactions to songs.
Ever worry about over-touring with a cover band?
I don't really consider the Dukes a cover band. We do repertoire and creative renditions and interpretations of songs we consider important. I think it's an elevated effort. We get to be something more than we are as individuals. I'm also able to reach larger audiences than I would on my own. This kind of natural collaboration doesn't come around often for me. I'm not really a band guy. My personality is such that I don't usually collaborate well with other people who want to form a band.
Why did you record the new album in Memphis?
When [drummer-producer] Steve Jordan and I began talking about songs we liked and where we wanted to record them, it was frightening. Even though we had worked together only once before [on "Dig" in 2001], we both had Royal Studios in Memphis in mind and the same musicians.
Al Green recorded at Royal in the '70s. Were you shooting for that sound?
Yes. The music created by Al Green and Willie Mitchell [Royal Studios' late owner and producer] is one of the most iconic and informative sounds of my learning experience. Steve [Jordan] is highly trained and really got the sound. He has an abiding respect and love for that studio and knows the real mechanics of the Mitchell-Green flavor. It was a thrill for me to stand at the mike in that space with those guys.
What's your formula for finding songs that suit you?
I have a certain way of experimenting. I record demos of myself singing the songs I love using a drum machine and playing different guitars. Or I might have musicians come to my home studio in California. Demos let me feel the songs and hear if my voice wraps tightly around them. Demos also let me get the song in my key and adjust the tempo or change the arrangement. Sometimes I do five or six versions of a song. When I find one that works with my voice, I store it away in my computer. For this album, I sent Steve more than 15 songs from the 35 I had in my folio. He brought a few to the party, too.
Is that how you figured out that Steely Dan's "Pearl of the Quarter" would work with the Green sound?
I had a feeling that any number could win with the guys we had in that studio. I had heard the song played at a club the weekend before I went down to Memphis. When I got there I pitched it to Steve with full confidence that we would get it right, and we did. Then Steve pitched me the Moments' "Love on a Two-Way Street" and it also worked. Everybody knew what to do, and it felt good.
What attracted you to Willie DeVille's "Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl" and "Cadillac Walk?"
Those rhythms. I never really knew much about Willie. I just liked his records. I always assumed he was from New York and had come out of a doo-wop, street tradition. I came to find out that he was some of that—and a great deal more. It's his voice, mainly, and what I imagine to be the deep New York experience—the Drifters' sound and the Spanish Harlem aspect of those two songs. I like a little mystery in lyrics, and Willie's delivery is edgy. There's a minor key aspect to them—a darkness that appeals to me.
Any apprehension about recording "Rainy Night in Georgia"—given that Brook Benton aced it in 1970?
Yes—and I voiced that concern to Steve. To my ear, I didn't take that song anywhere else. But in Steve's mind, he was hearing the song renovated and new. He insisted I leave the vocal completely intact and that we record it at 2 a.m.— after a long day of work. I said to myself, "It's kind of late, but whatever." There was a mood to it that seemed to stop time. It's a remarkable song to play and see the structure and balance of it.
Any personal hurt associated with the two blues—"Dry Spell" and "You Got Me Cryin'?"
Not specifically. The blues were my first musical attachment growing up in Texas with a guitar. It's what I heard on the radio. Jimmy Reed and T-Bone Walker—they had a guitar style that was an easy place for me to start. Whatever I developed as a vocalist or guitar player goes back to the form I bought into back then.
You included only two originals on the album. Why?
The simple fact is I haven't been writing. I've been touring and playing out. I only included two songs I thought would apply to the album, and I slaved over them. I spent more time finishing those songs than I should have. I just haven't been writing these last 10 years. I've been facing kind of a block. But I'm at a point where my pockets are full of bits of paper with ideas scribbled on them. I think these two moved the rock and reminded me it's a joy to finish a song.
Is "Silk Degrees" your Headless Horseman—constantly there, overshadowing you?
It's always there for a couple of reasons. For better or worse, the album wound up defining me. In some ways it's a millstone. I've gone on to evolve and change, yet people still identify me with that material. I wish every artist could have the kind of success I had with "Silk Degrees." I was lucky and it singly sustained me through many years. But it's dated—my voice on there doesn't sound the way I hear myself now. After 37 years, I'd like to think I've moved on. But fans still want to hear "Lowdown." So we play it.