From Memphis to Marin for Boz Scaggs
By Paul Liberatore - Marin Independernt Journal
BOZ SCAGGS apologized for the lousy cellphone reception. He was calling from Scaggs Vineyard, his picturesque estate high on the Mayacamas Ridge between Napa and Sonoma. Scattered over the hillsides, his vines produce Rhone varietals: mourvedre, grenache, syrah, a small amount of counoise.
"We have 2½ acres," he said. "Just enough to get in trouble."
When he isn't on the road, touring behind his latest album, "Memphis," he spends most of his time there with his wife, Dominique, a former editor with North Point Press and Pantheon Books.
"In recent years, I've been touring a lot," he said. "I have a little apartment in town (San Francisco), and I spent more time there until I started touring again. Now, when I come off the road, I just want to go up to the country where it's quiet. I'm spending more time in the country than I ever have before. It's a pretty good balance."
At 69, the gentlemanly singer-songwriter-winemaker is launching his first tour of the new year in February. It will bring him to the Marin Veterans Memorial Auditorium on Feb. 11, his first major concert in Marin in who knows how long. He says more than 20 years, but others seem to think it was longer than that, since around the time of "Silk Degrees," the multi-platinum 1976 album that spawned four hit singles: "It's Over," "Lowdown," "What Can I Say" and "Lido Shuffle." He had been a big name since the '60s as a guitarist and sometime lead singer of the Steve Miller Band, but "Silk Degrees" made him a star, a blue-eyed soul singer who looked cool as the other side of the pillow when he appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone in 1977, wearing a young man's smile and a hip white suit.
Between "Slow Dancer" in 1974 and "Middle Man" in 1980, he scored two gold and three platinum albums powered by a string of hits that included "We're All Alone," "Breakdown Dead Ahead," "Jojo" and "Look What You've Done to Me."
In his concerts, he doesn't look down his nose at the nostalgic chord he strikes with his longtime fans, who have aged along with him. He and his six-piece band happily play revamped renditions of songs from each of the touring phases of his five-decade career, mixing them in with new tunes and some wild cards.
"People expect to hear things they remember you by from the radio, when they were of a certain age and that music was an important part of their lives," he said.
"Memphis" released in March as his first studio album in five years, but he had already been touring with Michael McDonald and Steely Dan's Donald Fagen in the supergroup the Dukes of September. While most rockers of his age are looking to get off the road, he's found new inspiration playing once again for concert audiences across the country.
"I'd been touring quite a lot the last four or five years, and I love it," he said. "I'd forgotten how much because I didn't tour that much before that. But I changed policy, saying I wanted to work more. It reminds me of why I started doing this in the first place. It's what I love to do."
Scaggs recorded the new album, a collection of impeccably tasteful covers of classic R&B songs, at the legendary Royal Studios in Memphis, Tenn., where Willie Mitchell created the sound that was so distinctive on all those Al Green hits in the 1970s.
"That place feels like you're walking into history," he said. "The family that owns it has made a point of keeping it the same. They won't fix a hole in the roof. It's a powerful place. It's magic."
The album includes a couple of tunes by the late Willie Deville, including the first single, "Mixed Up Shook Up Girl," an upbeat number with dark undertones. He turns in a soulful reading of "Rainy Night in Georgia," which he first sang at a friend's memorial service, and resurrects the rarely covered "Love on a Two-Way Street."
He gave himself 10 days to cut the tracks, but he was so comfortable in that famed studio that he and the band for the sessions — guitarist Ray Parker Jr., bassist Willie Weeks, Spooner Oldham on organ and keyboards, producer Steve Jordan on drums and the Memphis Horns — recorded 13 songs in three days, despite being continually interrupted by old friends and visitors stopping by to say hello.
"It was a little awkward the first day because we were trying to hit our recording stride, but every time we'd start a song the door would open and in would come some old friends and we'd stop everything, put the instruments down and take pictures and hang out," he said, chuckling. "Then we'd get back into it and two hours later in would come the next group. I was wondering how we were going to get through all the songs on our list, but lo and behold it just happened. We did three or four songs a day. Then we put on some horns and some strings, had some barbecue and left town the next day."
Even as he approaches 70, Scaggs hasn't lost the smooth tenor that made him one of his generation's most easily recognizable soul singers. Quite the contrary. And he's a man who seems more comfortable than ever in his own skin.
"This is the time of my life when I don't feel the pressure, or have the hormones, from when I was 20 or 30 or 40," he said. "And I'm a better musician than I ever was. Some people are fully formed early on. But I can do more with my voice now than I ever could. And it satisfies something in my core more than it ever has."