Boz Scaggs Interview - New Musical Express
Yes, this is one for the, err, cognoscenti. It's Boz Scaggs man - but coming on strong like Bryan Ferry's wardrobe. Admirer Max Bell talks to the new image.
Every time William Royce Scaggs walks past a mirror he has a quick look to see if it really is him in there. Better known as Boz (after Boswell, a nick-name Steve Miller pinned on him at high school). Scaggs is currently America's number one hot white vocal property with a single and album hovering around the first place.
This time last year things were different. After five well received solo albums, a stint with the Steve Miller Band during what was arguably its most fruitful period (rhythm guitar and compositions on "Children Of The Future" and "Sailor"), Scaggs, had only got as far as winning a loyal, largish batch of fans ready to testify that his talent was being unfairly neglected and not much else.
Until "Silk Degrees" happened in a big way for the man the standard response in the States was "Boz who?"
Just why Scaggs has raised his game from the level of good rhythm and blues and a lot of soul but middling sales to Saturday Night Specials and holidays in Hawaii is something of a mystery to anyone browsing the charts for new sensations.
Truth of the matter is that "Silk Degrees" owes its success to full acceptance on the disco circuit. While other albums fell neatly into the spectrum of his cult following, the recent move to production from Johnny Bristol on "Slow Dancer and now Joe Wissert (credits with Earth, Wind and Fire, Flo and Eddie and Helen Reddy) has served to place Boz's distinctive delivery on the dance floor. In concert he satisfies the black clientele who come along to move, the white kids who want to rock out, and the oldies who always loved him.
Ironically, any profound changes in Scaggs image are purely superficial. He's simply cleaned up his act in terms of appearance - his dress sense these days being somewhere right by Bryan Ferry - so presumably he could have made it big with any of his previous output.
Now, at 32, Scaggs eloquent grasp of class rock and roll, smooth operating and muscular flames of love vocals have transported him from enigma to star.
Never one for behaving unruly in the public eye he's relied on a distinctive style to carry him through, along with the kind of approach which slots him into any bracket you care to mention.
When the heat rises Boz is there stoking up the coals but overall he prefers to cook up soul entertainment somewhere between Van Morrison and Al Green though not really equatable with either.
His is that rare talent that gains popular acclaim and deserves it without striking any of the premeditated poses of the opportunist.
Part of an almost reclusive nature is his disaffection for interviews. Even before this year he was never one for explaining the music. Meeting Scaggs is like keeping an appointment with a V.I.P. and if he don't like the questions he don't answer them, particularly if they are about Steve Miller (that's a curtain in his life).
Looking well groomed and oozing self assurance, he belies his reputation for being pathologically shy, but underneath the polite veneer are traces of the hard bitten stubbornness which is a necessary ingredient for impressing the customers. The man is cool but you just know that he doesn't intend to be pushed around. What might seen like anti-social conceit is actually tough protection for the future, an insurance policy against over exposure.
The Packaging for "Silk Degrees" is an approximation of Scaggs' emphasis on sophistication, all loner, cool and sensual restraint. Now that he's lying back and taking time some people find the new Scaggs too intent on playing it safe, an allegation he refutes:
"I'm very surprised it's happened this way but I don't agree that my approach is much different. The ratio of ballad to heavy rock is no greater than before. "Silk Degrees" has my most subtle song so far in "Harbour Lights" but it also has my heaviest rocker in "Jump Street".
"The only change now is that I represent a broader spectrum of music which covers a number of people's interests. Each of my records has satisfied me for different reasons."
Reaction to the Scaggs "sound", while instantly definable, has always depended upon the degree of production. Earlier albums which long time fans tend to prefer are rougher. The transition between upfront rock and recent bedrock style rests on "My Time" which combines all his talents most fully.
"Slow Dancer" is as much a Johnny Bristol creation as his and doesn't come over as a comfortable compromise - one that rightly put off devotees of his Atlantic classic, cut at Muscle Shoals alongside the Muscle Shoals rhythm section and Duane Allman, and his early Columbia ventures.
Anyone who's seen Scaggs play live this year will agree that the grit is back. Wissert is far more in time with the essence of Scaggs that Bristol's Philadelphia blandness ever was... so much pissing in the wind and an excess of girly singers to boot.
Understandably Scaggs is full of admiration for ole Joe:
"Where his responsibilities let up, mine begin. He's the first producer I've worked with who wasn't primarily an engineer. He's on top from an artistic level in that he makes songs stronger, defines melodies per se. He's aware of contemporary styles and after that he's personable, a gentleman."
Yep, Boz places great store by those qualities, refined to a tee: "Sophisticated... hmmm... a big word. I think Ry Cooder and the Stones are sophisticated too..."
"Moving away from the club and long tours environment hasn't cramped my style. I'm glad that I'm not a band member anymore. I prefer a solo position. There's more freedom, more responsibility to get material and performance perfect. I'm setting the tone for an organization around me - arranger, musical director... it's all part of the role of solo artists."
Like his one time boss Steve Miller, Boz doesn't go much on maintaining a permanent band. He prefers the flexibility of a changing line-up, though there are those who insist he's had damn near tailor-made ensembles and let them go:
"The perfect band doesn't stay with me. Each musician has new roads to follow. It's difficult and expensive to keep a good group - and only someone like Elton John can afford to retain them. The advantage with not doing it is that I'm continually looking for new talent, and that keeps the material fresher."
The point is borne out by examining his recent acquisitions. Will Lee and Chris Parker from the Brecker Brothers, guitar maestro Elliot Randall; the hottest L.A. horns money can buy; not to mention Jeff Porcaro, one of the most rates rock drummers in the States.
Apart from possessing an exemplary and super-honed set of vocal chords, Boz is no slouch as a guitarist himself. On stage he plays full-lock power slide rhythm strings with an urgency and venom that give the lie to his photographically nurtured clean-cut image.
He may have a college education and talk proper but he aint about to croon the pants off his audience with any acoustic bullshit.
What can be arranged for the record can also be torn up alive - so while he's content to let men of Randall's caliber do their stuff in the studio he enjoys taking hell out of an amp when the focus singles him out.
Now there's the pressure of having a jackpot single and an album spinning all the way to his bank manager's heart - if you can call heaps of dough and red carpet treatment pressures. But you could get next to those kind of problems yourself...
"Well, I'm delighted and encouraged by the acceptance. It's something I've been striving to win for a long time. Fortunately I've worked hard on personal appearances and I haven't got into any pop star routines."
In the days when he was a frustrated rocker Boz was famous for going on long drinking bouts and getting into bar room brawls. Such moments of indiscretion are behind him. No more loan-me-a-dime-mister and no more rapping about the old days with Steve Miller. Boring says Boz.
And if he looks well heeled and important now instead of disheveled and boozy, that's how he wants it... living up to his middle name... should have been Rolls Royce Scaggs. His time has finally come.