Boz Scaggs Interview - Rolling Stone 528
Remember Boz Scaggs ? The blue-eyed-soul man from San Francisco who sang Top Forty-radio classics like "Lowdown", "Lido Shuffle" and "Breakdown Dead Ahead". That oh-so-hip dude who looked and dressed like a GQ cover boy and sported a smooth, seductive voice to match ? His albums "Silk Degrees", "Down Two Then Left" and "Middle Man" - sold millions; his concerts were sellouts. In 1980 alone, he scored four Top Twenty hits.
And then Boz Scaggs dropped out. Off the charts, away from the record business, out of sight. As the years passed, there were occasional Boz sightings: A performer for San Quentin inmates, jam sessions with a blues band at a small North Beach dive, society column items and even the odd interview in 1984 to promote his chic new restaurant, The Blue Light Cafe.
For eight long years, Scaggs didn't release an album of new material, didn't tour the U.S. As his fame began to tarnish and his name lost some of its superstar glow.
This past January, Boz began showing up at the kind of high-profile events that signal Major Career Move. First he performed a smoking set of lowdown blues and steamy rock & roll at Carlos Santana's Blues for Salvador benefit. Then he joined Huey Lewis for a set of classic oldies at a radio programmers' convention. Both appearances found Scaggs, as stylish as ever, tearing into blues guitar solos and delivering potent vocal turns on rockers like "Nadine." Time had not eroded his considerable talents in the least.
But what of those lost years ? Back-stage at the Blues for Salvador concert, Scaggs was polite but distant. Asking why he hadn't released a new record in eight years, he sidestepped the question, saying in his soft Texas drawl that it wasn't the time or place to talk about such things. And with a nod of the head and a thin smile, he was across the room, mixing with the backstage crowd.
THE BLUE LIGHT CAFE is an upscale Union Street hangout for San Francisco serving food Boz learned to love as a kid growing up near Dallas. Exhausted from an all-nighter at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and a missed plane connection, a slightly rumpled Boz Scaggs leads the way to a table at the rear of the restaurant.
His comeback is in full swing. The long-awaited new album 'Other Roads', which mixes the expected ballads and dance-floor romps with some new rock moves, is in the record stores; the first single, "Heart of Mine", a classic Boz ballad, is all over the radio. Now Boz, 44, is ready to talk.
He sips from a glass of Beck's, lights a cigarette and, in one of several attempts to describe his motivation for temporarily dropping out of the music business, quotes from Bob Dylan's "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues"; "Up on Housing Project Hill / Its either fortune or fame." Taking a drag from his Marlboro he adds, "Fortune and fame aren't what they appear to be. The demands that are created by a career on that level were more than I wanted at that time. I wanted to step outside it."
Boz rarely drops his guard. When it's suggested that his time off allowed him to be a real father to his two pre-teen sons, he says firmly, "I really don't want to go into my personal life in terms of raising my children and all that stuff. I did spend a lot of time with my kids, but I really don't want to get into that aspect of things."
That is understandable. His eight year marriage to Carmella Storniola ended in 1980; the split was followed by a bitter 3 1/2 year custody battle over their kids. "It all came to a head." Scaggs told GQ magazine. "I had to deal with the realities of the divorce and the emotional changes."
Certainly those personal difficulties figured in his absence. Poet Jim Carroll, who contributed lyrics to three songs on the new album, says that when he and Boz got together in 1986, he could sense this "edge of sadness that walks around with him. I think he was carrying a certain weight with him, but I don't know what it was."
There were other reasons for a break from the recording-touring rat race. As Boz tells it, at the end of 1980 - after a decade-and-a-half-long struggle that took him from the Bay Area bar-band circuit to international stardom - he needed a one-year "hiatus" from the music business, some time to catch his breath and reevaluate his life. One year stretched to four. "It took longer to recharge my batteries," he says with a wry smile.
BORN WILLIAM ROYCE SCAGGS IN OHIO in 1944, Boz grew up in Plano, Texas, a small suburb of Dallas. His father, who had flown for the air force in World War II, worked as a travelling salesman. It wasn't until Boz met Steve Miller while attending St Mark's Preparatory School, a private high school in Dallas, that his interest in music was ignited; Miller taught Scaggs how to play the guitar. During the mid-sixties, Boz travelled as a street singer in Europe, even recording a solo album, "Boz", in Stockholm. Later, Miller sent Scaggs a post card in which he asked him to join the Steve Miller Blues Band, one of the first groups from San Francisco's psychedelic era to land a major label record deal.
In 1969, after leaving the Miller band, Boz went solo. His first U.S. album the classic "Boz Scaggs", was a far cry from the slick urban pop and disco that would bring him fame. A rootsy R&B album recorded at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, in Alabama, and co-produced by Rolling Stone editor and publisher Jann Wenner, it instantly established Scaggs as a gifted and soulful singer songwriter. But it wasn't until 1976, with the release of "Silk Degrees" (which went on to sell over 7 million copies worldwide), that Boz was able to attract a significant following outside the Bay Area and become a major star.
In addition to a smoother musical style, "Silk Degrees" cemented Boz's up-town image. Scaggs trades in his blue jeans and funky shirts for a designer wardrobe and a blow-dried look that made him a sex symbol the world over.
By the end of 1980, with his personal life coming apart, it was time for a change. Scaggs says he found himself "being this image, being this person that's created around your career. I was doing the same things over and over again. I was pleased with my work - I just wanted to step back from it. I could afford to get away from it for a while."
So Boz Scaggs went on leave. "It was like getting into another time warp," he says. "It's different when you don't have the daily pressures of a career to keep you up. I spent a lot of time doing flat nothing. I wasn't thinking of retiring; I wasn't thinking of quitting, I was used to feeding this beast, keeping up a career. After about three years, that pressure just sort of went away."
He made a few aborted attempts at another record. "I tested the waters a few times and didn't feel comfortable." he says. "I went to L.A. to start a project in 1983, but it didn't feel right. I ended up getting back in the car and running for the airport."
It wasn't until the spring of 1985, following a long dinner conversation with "Middle Man" producer Bill Schnee, that Boz finally decided to take the plunge. "I started to become very, very anxious," he says. "I thought, 'I've got to get a record out. Something very big is missing in my life'. How many times can people ask me, "When are you gonna come out with another record? What's going on?' It was important that I get in and make a record."
Recording "Other Roads" was a difficult and extremely frustrating process that ultimately stretched to nearly three years. Bill Schnee worked off and on with Boz for two years - completing a version of the album that Bobby Caldwell the hit songwriter who co-wrote two of the album's songs, including "Heart of Mine", describes as "Silk Degrees" 1988."
Serious problems began when that record was played for Columbia senior executives. They were unhappy with some of the record and wanted Boz to reenter the studio and re-record "Heart of Mine", which they felt had the potential to be a hit. "The reaction from the label was so far off what we had anticipated," says Caldwell. "They were so not pleased."
"They didn't feel that they had a strong hit single," Boz says diplomatically. The rejection sent him into a deep funk. "Obviously, Boz was not thrilled to death that we thought it needed to be re-worked," says Mickey Eichner, senior vice-president of A&R at Columbia.
"It was a very sad situation," says Schnee. "I don't think any artist of Boz's calibre, should be treated the way he was."
But Eichner, a key figure in Columbia's dealings with Boz, says that the label has treated him very well and claims that there has been "no friction" with either Boz or his management. "Boz Scaggs is an artist who we're totally and completely committed to," he says. "We wanted to be sure we had an absolute blockbuster record. No one put a gun to anyone's head."
According to a knowledgeable source, Irving Azoff, president of MCA Music Entertainment Group, who also oversees Front Line, Boz's management company, apparently tried unsuccessfully to gain Boz's release from Columbia so that the original version of the album could be released on MCA. Azoff, however, says that he never attempted to "purchase this album" but that he "told Boz that any time when he was [contractually] free - whether for this or for any other album - MCA would love to sign him."
Eventually the pragmatic star decided to heed Columbia's advice and return to the studio. Some songs were dropped entirely; Scaggs replaced them with a song coproduced and co-written by Michael Jackson guitarist David Williams and another produced by Stewart Levine (Simply Red, Boy George). A number of songs were also remixed; one key revision is the Levine-produced remake of "Heart of Mine."
Whatever the problems of making "Other Roads", Boz now says he loves it. "I enjoy listening to this album more than any other album I've made. Last night, I went back to my hotel and listened to the album 3 times and really enjoyed it. But it's not what people expect of a Boz Scaggs album."
Scaggs has no regrets about his hiatus. "I had no choice," he says. "I did what I had to do." Nonetheless, he's relieved to be back. "It's what I do," he says, finishing his beer. "In a way I feel a certain obligation. My father once said to me after a concert at the end of the seventies, 'You know, you really turned those people on. You really have something to give these people.' People really do enjoy it. Same way I got turned on when I saw Ray Charles for the first time or heard Al Green's voice. There are a lot of people out there who seem to miss my presence, and I miss being out there."
Scaggs glances toward the other side of the room, where some people are waiting for him. That is his way of indicating that the interview has come to a close. He's got just a little more business to attend to this evening, and then he's out of there. Fact is, he rarely spends any time at his restaurant. "I don't hang here much," he says. "I learned early in the restaurant game that people can ask all the questions they want for the price of a beer."