Boz Scaggs Sounds Like Memphis

Interview by Ron Bennington - June 4 2013

Audio for this Interview

Musician, singer and songwriter Boz Scaggs is known for his blue eyed soul sound. His long string of hit songs include “Lido Shuffle”, “Lowdown”, and “Breakdown Dead Ahead.” and his album “Silk Degrees” went platinum five times. He stopped by the SiriusXM studios this week to talk about his new album, “Memphis” which is already getting great reviews. Excerpts of the interview appear below.

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Ron Bennington: Congratulations on the new album, man. I just love it.

Boz Scaggs: Thank you.

Ron Bennington: You did this album in Memphis. At the old Royal Studios? Was that the first time you recorded in Memphis?

Boz Scaggs: No, I was in Royal Studios back in the late ’90s, I did a record, and I had Willie Mitchell do some horn tracks, and I did a few original tracks with them. I didn’t use the tracks but I used some of the horn tracks that Willie did.

Ron Bennington: And the folks that played on this record, a lot of them based out of that studio for years.

Boz Scaggs: The horn players, yes.

Ron Bennington: It’s always great, I think, that a studio can hold on to something, over the years.

Boz Scaggs: It’s actually quite rare. I mean, I guess the concept in doing it was, if there were still a Muscle Shoals that was of those original players, or the days when record companies had their own studio session guys are gone, as far as I know. But that particular studio in Memphis has not changed. The equipment doesn’t change, the microphones are the same. So, I just don’t know of any other studio that has exact – has literally remained the same. Ron Bennington: And that sense of history, kind of, you can hear on this album. I mean, of course you just recorded the album. But if someone said, “Hey, I just dusted this thing off from, you know, 1964,” you could imagine, - Yeah, where has this thing been? - It does have that timeless feel about it.

Boz Scaggs: It was really a surprise to me. After we had recorded – and we were talking about overdubs and mixing – I had actually suggested that we come to San Francisco, where I live, to mix, or New York – the producer Steve Jordan has a favorite studio. And he really insisted that we go back to Memphis to that room, and quite frankly there were some technical difficulties. Pre-amps would go out, and there was one engineer who works there who was Willie Mitchell’s grandson, actually. Who could (bangs the table) hit the side of a console and make that whole section come back on.

Ron Bennington: That’s amazing. Yeah. (laughs)

Boz Scaggs: And if he wasn’t around, it was not coming back on. And in critical situations when you’ve got a mix to do and you’re into it you just can’t afford some of the technical mistakes and dropouts. Well, Steve just insisted that that’s where the sound is. We don’t have to go looking for a sound, it’s already there. That console, there were actually marks on the console that Willie Mitchell had made with a pencil, and scratched in, and we realized several days in that if you put that knob on that scratch mark that Willie Mitchell made, you’re going to get a sound that’s perfect. Everything hums when it’s in tune. So, he was right.

Ron Bennington: Well, Steve Jordan is one of my favorite people in the world, and I think a big part of that is that his first thing is for music and for sound all the time, in every little part of his life. And then whatever happens with that happens, that’s great, but he’s after that experience.

Boz Scaggs: That’s exactly right. He trusts something in a parallel universe that works. He’ll go with it, whatever it is.

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Boz Talks About His Love of Soul Music

Ron Bennington: The soul and R&B thing has been with you for a long, long time. You’ve gone in different directions, but it always seems like your voice was perfect to sing this type of music.

Boz Scaggs: Well, thank you. I mean, I’ve said it many times, and I’ll say it again. The black music of America is one of the great treasures of – one of the great offerings of the 20th century, and that’s where my musical heritage is. Why, I don’t know, but I feel fortunate. I grew up in a part the country where I had lots of access to that side of the radio dial.

Ron Bennington: Well, and it did used to be different sides of the radio.

Boz Scaggs: It was, and it wasn’t all integrated. It is now. It’s -

Ron Bennington: Who were some of the first artists that you used to listen to? Boz Scaggs: Well, I grew up in that generation of mid ’50s right when American pop music made the changeover, it went to youth. So, I grew up with Fats Domino, and Elvis, and Chuck Berry, and Little Richard, and Bill Haley – that first wave of pop, that were on the top 40 stations. But I lived in an area of the country – a small town in north Texas – where I could get New Orleans radio, and Dallas had a couple of soul stations. WLS in Chicago came on at midnight. You could dial that in, and get Ahmad Jamal, and WLAC, Nashville

Ron Bennington: Right, because they were allowed to amp up after midnight. So you suddenly were able to hear them on the other side of the country. And those songs, as they came in, it was almost a calling for you, Boz? Did you start to think, “This is something I’m going to follow,” or, did it not -

Boz Scaggs: Not really, no. It was just – it was something that you share with a few others. We used to get together at lunchtime in the 6th grade and bring in 45s, and I got turned on to just a group – bonded to a few people who were kind of going that way, as one finds oneself in the music, and comes to be defined, in some way, by the music that they choose. But if there was a galvanizing moment, I didn’t know it at the time, but I went to see Ray Charles live in 1958 or ’59 and I had only been to a few live music concerts, and I must have been 14 years old. But, that night in that concert hall in Dallas with Ray Charles at the peak of his powers changed my life. It was like a junkie gets his first hit and you spend the rest of your life chasing that first high – that first hit down. And I’ve been chasing that electrifying experience down for the rest of my life.

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Boz Scaggs Talks About Collaborating With Other Musicians

Ron Bennington: I think that’s the cool thing that’s happening with that generation of musicians, that they’re back to jamming, in a lot of ways.

Boz Scaggs: Well, there comes a time, and – there’s a lot of cynicism, I think, among people who’ve followed music – who think everything is done for money, and for – to get an edge up in the industry. It’s really all about, in the end, people who really love music, and the collaboration part of it is all too rare. But, as you say, it just comes around more, these kind of, these collaborations.

Ron Bennington: I think if you give the musicians that chance to do what comes to them on a cellular level, you’re going to find those real peaks that everyone’s going to remember. A lot more than you will some professional show with a set list, with the lights tied into it properly. Boz Scaggs: I was just, as you’re talking I’m thinking about a show I went to see last night. On stage was Nora Jones… (pauses) My poor old brain. Perry Farrell, Jacob Dylan, and a host of young musicians doing Rolling Stone covers. The audience went nuts. At the Bowery Ballroom in the loosest, most wonderful collaboration. The most surprising – I think a lot of what is happening with – some of what is happening with the Dukes of September, as you’re talking – that collaboration last night, the Daryl Hall thing. There’s a generation of kids out there right now, ’20s and ’30s, who love live music. They’re going out again like my generation went out to live music. So the festivals are alive again, the clubs are full. These kids love live music, and it’s like sustained – a lot of them are finding that the music that they love is derivative of the ’60s and ’70s. And, well, I think it’s really healthy for musicians, for the music business for music lovers. And live is back, and it’s a good thing.

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Boz Talks About Working with Steve Jordan

Ron Bennington: There’s something about the way Steve Jordan handles music, that there’s a spiritual element to it, that it is good for your soul.

Boz Scaggs: Mmm-hmm.

Ron Bennington: These songs that you were playing in Memphis, you wrote a couple and some you went in and found. “Love on a Two Way Street,” the way you do that song is just… slayed me, first time. Boz Scaggs: Thank you.

Ron Bennington: Is that a song that you had listened to for a long time and thought, “I’ll go for,” or is that just something that comes up again?

Boz Scaggs: Steve just pitched that song while we were recording. … After we’d done a couple of songs, we just had the sense with that section that any number could win and we just started pitching songs out of – pulling songs out of the air. We had gone in with a short list of material to do, and we had charts. But, the players and the vibe, the environment was such that we felt like, try anything, and Steve said, “What about that song?” And thats the way Love on a Two Way Street came about.

Ron Bennington: Well, that’s weird. Because you have three days to do it, and yet you don’t -

Boz Scaggs: We had lots of time to do it, but it – after three days we did everything we had to do - on the fourth day we brought in the horn section and the string section, and went home the fifth day.

Ron Bennington: (laughs) Went out for barbecue, and that’s it.

Boz Scaggs: That was about it.

Ron Bennington: That's the beauty of some of that. A lot of times you can get – if they give you six months to do an album, you'll take six months. But, if you have the right players and the right songs – I mean, all you guys know what you're doing?

Boz Scaggs: It was a well chosen section, the place was right, and all of the elements really come together. It doesn’t always work that way, it rarely works that way. But when it does, a little magic comes through.

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Boz Scaggs Talks About the Early Days

Ron Bennington: We were talking about going on stage with different musicians, and just jamming and having fun. Is that that the way it was for you early in your career, especially when you went out to the Bay Area at first?

Boz Scaggs: Yeah, it really was, – something that, it was very much alive and happening in the Bay Area in those early days of ’67, ’68. They were just around, and any night it might happen. Jamming was very much on at those ballrooms and in the parks, and – so, yeah. Ron Bennington: Were you career-minded at that time, or did it just feel like it was an extension of that early fun, and were you thinking career?

Boz Scaggs: I was incredibly naive. I had, actually – music had always – or, my guitar playing and singing had been my passport to travel. I spent about three years traveling around the world. That, and washing dishes, and pushing a wheel barrow around would get me from place to place. I loved the music, I’d been playing in high school, I’d been playing in clubs in Stockholm, in Paris and London. It was just my way of getting someplace. I was more interested in sort of exploring other things. It was only after I had a couple of records under my belt that a light bulb went on and I realized that I’m a professional musician.

Ron Bennington: So, that was like in the 1970s where you started saying, “Okay, this is going to permanently stay this way.

Boz Scaggs: That’s right.

Ron Bennington: And then when Silk Degrees took off like it did, that was, I guess, totally unexpected.

Boz Scaggs: I had about five or six records under my belt. I had been on Atlantic Records, I was Columbia records, and obviously to stay in contract I had to be selling some records. So I was selling 2, 300 thousand records a pop. But in those days, the big spike would have – would be a million plus. So I had enough to keep my contract going and I was working with my band. And it happens I think to most of us, or all of us, when we’re making these records, we have visions of the public seizing upon or finding these things and our getting to be – getting hits on the radio and getting to do big tours. And for most everybody, 99% of the people who enter into that, there’s a lot of disappointment. And there’s a lot of records that go down that just are not picked up or are not discovered. Well, I had five or six of those under my belt, so by the time Silk Degrees was made and was coming out, I was somewhat enured from that vision of there being a big hit. I was around – I had encouraging, wonderful people working radio with me, selling records at Columbia Records. I knew them all, I worked with them and we were all looking for a breakthrough, as we do. But, Silk Degrees did not take off out of the box. It was very much like records I’d had before. We’d put a hit out, it’d get some play here, and we’d put another one out – I mean, I say a hit, we’d put a single out, another one… and it was only, it was just kind of percolating along, as records had done previously. And then black radio picked up “Lowdown,” and it started climbing the charts. It crossed over into the pop charts, and it hit, and it lit the rest of the record on fire. It stayed in the charts for two years and sold a lot of records, and it really catapulted my career.

Ron Bennington: I can't imagine anything that would feel better for a person that’s a singer to know that black radio had picked it out first.

Boz Scaggs: That was the best. That was the badge, that was the best.

Ron Bennington: Yeah. And that’s only happened to a handful of people in the history of recording music, where black radio would say, “We embrace this,” and pushed it so hard that the other side would pick it up and start playing it.

Boz Scaggs: That was very, very rewarding. It was, among the musicians who made that record "Lowdown"; that was the song we like the most, but we all knew – had a very strong feeling that it would never see the light of day. Because as common as it may sound today, and as common as that groove is today, it was not so common in 1975. In pop radio.

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Ron Bennington: Well, Boz, I can tell you with this record – and as I said, I’ve seen you a couple of times in the last couple of years – I can also say that the music that you fell in love with, you’re still carrying the torch for. Because the shows are better than ever. I don’t know how you’re doing it, but somehow you seem to be getting stronger tour after tour. Your voice sounds fantastic.

Boz Scaggs: Well, thank you, Ron. It feels good. I’m enjoying it more than ever. I’m reminded every day of just why I started this whole thing in the first place.

Ron Bennington: This is one of those albums that you can just put on and leave on, and it’s what I’ve done since I’ve picked it up. It will set that perfect groove. Thank you so much, my friend. I hope to see you next time coming through.

Boz Scaggs: Thanks a lot, enjoyed talking to you.

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