Guitarist Magazine - Boz Scaggs Dig Interview
Blues and R&B legend Boz Scaggs talks to Guitarist about his Steve Miller Band days and the release his long-awaited new album
Sometimes Boz Scaggs must feel as though he's seen it all. Although best known for his 1976 album Silk Degrees, which gave him several indecently successful hit records like Lowdown and Lido Shuffle, Boz's first taste of fame arrived some years earlier when he played rhythm guitar with the Steve Miller Band.
Although the band's first two albums Children Of The Future and Sailor pay lip service to the stoned hippie haze hanging over San Francisco, the Steve Miller Band's brand of high energy Texas R&B hit town like a tornado. The band quickly became the biggest thing on the West Coast since Crew Cuts, and along the way secured a previously unheard of huge advance from Capital Records. But just when things were looking considerably better than good, Boz Scaggs left the band and announced his intention to pursue a solo career.
Although he's had a few failures, three decades later it's probably fair to say that Boz has managed to produce some of the most successful albums by a white artist that have leant, for their inspiration, on the latest trends in black R&B.
His new album, Dig, once again looks towards black Soul and R&B, fusing a heady mix of samples and drum loops with material written during seven years lying low in Los Angeles.
We haven't heard much from Boz Scaggs recently?
No, that's true. Although I've been writing songs for the last few years, this album only came together last August when I just set myself a date to start work. It's been seven years since my last album and the way things were going it might have been 14 until my next!
Most people probably know you through the incredible success of the Silk Degrees album, but your career kick-started with the Steve Miller Band when they were just starting to hit the big time.
That's right. Although I've always seen myself as being primarily a singer and someone who interprets other people's songs, my role with Steve was a kind of back up guy on rhythm guitar and backing vocals. I suppose that I never really had any option other than to go solo, although it might have been seen as a strange move at the time.
The Steve Miller band were probably the first band to come out of Texas with that tradition of playing hard and taking no prisoners. But although you and Steve met up there, you weren't originally from Texas were you?
I was born in Ohio. My father came from Texas but was away in WWII, so when my mother was expecting me, with my father still away, she decided to give birth at home. At the end of the war we moved to a small town called Stockholm which was near Dallas.
Steve and I first met up when we were both about 12 years old and attending the same Prep school. We were both already crazy about music, and when Steve started a band I got him to show me some basic stuff on the guitar so that I could play rhythm. Even at that time we were both really into rhythm and blues and the majority of the material we played were songs by people like Jimmy Reed, T Bone Walker, The Clovers, Hank Ballad and the Midnighters. Like a lot of other people I first began to realise that maybe there was some future in the music business when I heard the English bands like the Rolling Stones; they were covering the same kind of songs that we'd already been out there playing for a few years.
So in about 1965 I actually moved to London with two friends to see if we could get a band working in England. I was able to see some great music - The Yardbirds, Georgie Fame, John Mayall and Long John Baldry - but the guy we had as our manager, who was supposed to be getting us our work permits, sadly turned out to be pretty useless. As a result the other two guys went back to the States and I decided to take some time off and become a busker!
Actually I had a great time, travelled throughout most of Europe and spent a year or so in Sweden. I was living in Stockholm when I received a message from Steve asking me if I'd like to go back to the States and join what he then called the Steve Miller Blues Band. He'd just lost his rhythm guitarist and wanted me to play rhythm guitar and do some singing. I was actually quite dubious, but he sent me over some money and a round trip return ticket so I knew that I had nothing to lose.
Was his band a lot tougher in sound than you had anticipated?
Steve, by this time, had already spent some time up in Chicago playing and, by hanging out with people like Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters, had become a very powerful player. When I got over to San Francisco I couldn't help but be knocked out by Steve's band. Soon after I joined we recorded the first two Steve Miller albums in England with Glyn Johns producing; something that was an incredible experience because we all felt that, at the time, England was the creative place to be.
The first Steve Miller Band albums were cleverly produced and way ahead of their time, but with numbers like The Gangster Of Love and Key To The Highway, there's still that blues influence going on. Did you put these songs in as filler or were they a representation of what the band was about?
Well Steve always had two sides to him. On the one hand he was this great blues player, but he also had this ambition to succeed as a 'pop' artist.
That's why on those albums you do hear all those overlaid guitar tracks and multi-tracked effects; Steve just loved bringing all those different elements into what he was doing and, with Glyn Johns, he had the right guy for the job! Steve always had a clear vision of how he wanted things to sound, and the blues was just one part of that.
You parted company with the band just as they were starting to turn a few heads. Some people would have thought that your leaving was ill-timed.
When I was playing with Steve I didn't really have any clear picture of what it was that I really wanted to do; I was just a member of the band. But after we came to England and had worked with Glyn Johns somehow I got to a point where I realised that I would have to leave and follow my own direction.
Your first album, Boz Scaggs, was recorded at Muscle Shoals with their incredible rhythm section. It's an album that still stands the test of time, and has some fearsome playing by Duane Allman on Loan Me A Dime. How did you get the chance to team up with those guys and cut the album at Muscle Shoals, when at the time it was making a name for itself with all those Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin sessions?
I was friendly with Jan Wenner, who was my neighbour and at the time editor of Rolling Stone magazine. Jan introduced me to Jerry Wexler at Atlantic and when he heard I was looking to make a solo album, offered me the Atlantic deal with Jan as producer.
The first thing that Jerry suggested was that I checked out some of the studios in the South, and so I went on a kind of mini-tour; went to see Chips Moman in Memphis, down to Miami, but the place I really liked was Muscle Shoals. When I got there Rick Hall, the producer, was running a session and I immediately got a good feeling about the relaxed way they worked; the guys were all very unpretentious, soft spoken and really seemed very open to ideas.
The album has a very wide range of material on it, but the stand out track has to be your version of Loan Me A Dime. The song goes on for about 12 minutes and has just about the greatest solo Duane Allman ever played! What's the story behind that tune?
Well, when I went down to Muscle Shoals I had maybe six songs of my own that I definitely knew I wanted to record. But the guys in the studio were really good at coming up with ideas, and I think that it was the drummer Roger Hawkins who suggested that we cut the Jimmie Rogers song.
Loan Me A Dime was a song that I had heard Elvin Bishop and his band doing with a singer called Jo Baker; I didn't know who it was by or any of the words.
So I called Jo in San Francisco and she was able to give me some words, although as she didn't know them all and I had to add some of my own. As things turned out at the very end of the sessions we had a small amount of time left and everyone who'd been involved were all there. Now it was very difficult to get everyone in the studio at one time because Muscle Shoals wasn't very big. We had the horns out in the corridor, I was singing in the rest room next to the soda machine, and Duane was enclosed with his amplifier in a kind of broom closet in the middle.
We just started to run it through for one take to make sure that everyone knew where they were going, and then because time was running out, went for one final take. The energy that was in the room was just fantastic; Roger Hawkins on the drums really got into the thing, changing up the tempo several times, and the sax player just came up with this riff that the others fell into. And of course Duane's playing was just out of sight.
Your new album Dig uses a lot of modern hip hop influences, drum loops and samples; things a long way removed from those days in Muscle Shoals. Do you find it easy to come to terms with new studio technology?
Yes, I feel that when you are using new digital technology, the recording itself almost becomes an instrument.
We used Pro Tools in my own home studio and to be honest I found the whole procedure as spontaneous as anything that I've ever done. I was very lucky in having guys like Danny Kortchmar on guitar and David Paich on keyboards to work with because they're just so professional. On most of the cuts they played on, we recorded their parts on the first or second take; we didn't get into any extensive overdubbing scenario.
Another thing that helps the 'live' feel on the album is that you're playing a lot of guitar, something you haven't done since the Steve Miller days.
From the beginning I wanted my guitar playing to be an integral part of the recording. It isn't that I've ever stopped playing - I always have several guitars hanging around and can't remember a time when I haven't owned a Strat and Gibson 335.
I also love old amps and on the album I used this great little 15 watt thing called an Orotone; it was lent to me by a harmonica playing friend and looks like one of those things you would have bought from a Chicago store in 1962 - all silver sparkle with old radio-type knobs - but a great sound. In many ways it sums up what I'm about; a little bit of here and now, and a little bit of there and then.