Mojo Magazine - Boz Scaggs Interview
When Boz Scaggs made his first tentative steps back into the music industry that he had abandoned for most of the 80's, he found his prolonged absence was a much bigger deal for others than it was for himself. Time after time, old fans would ask what he'd been doing and, faced with his apparent lack of career concern, subside into perplexity.
"Some people are genuinely confused, almost angry in a way, at my nonchalance at saying I had other things to do," he says, mildly baffled in turn. "They say, how do you just walk off and do something else? I have a hard time explaining to them that I have a personal life and other interests, and I don't feel compelled to make a record every two years to go feed this beast."
Indeed, for most of the 80's he was feeding a multitude of beasts, as co-owner of Slim's, a restaurant and club in San Francisco, the place he's called home ever since Steve Miller sent him an airplane ticket to return from Europe - where he was hitch-hiking - and join his new band. That was in 1967. Miller was a friend of long standing, who'd taught the young Boz to play guitar, back when they were teenage. Texan blueshounds, raised on T-Bone Walker and Bobby Bland and, especially, Jimmy Reed.
"In the beginning it was Jimmy Reed, because everyone can play that," he recalls fondly. "It's the first thing you can learn on a guitar, because its so simple - you could buy a Jimmy Reed album and play every song on it in ten minutes, because it's all exactly the same, either in the key of A or the key of E, and you just fall into that groove."
Boz spent the 80's raising his family, divorcing his wife, and travelling - Nepal, Thailand, Sri Lanka, New Zealand, Mexico, South America, British Columbia - with music relegated to an occasional sit-in with musicians at Slim's. He gradually took up the guitar again, after years of leaving that side of things to experts. "I wouldn't dare take out my guitar," he says. "I didn't play guitar on those records I made in LA, because they were songs I'd co-written with some pretty high-powered players, with complex changes, and I didn't really play that kind of thing. All I do is play blues guitar." Sensing shared interests, he also became involved with Donald Fagen's New York Rock & Soul Revue, a kind of Soulmen's Anonymous for reclusive singers in whose easy, informal atmosphere, Scaggs flourished.
Thus encouraged, he slowly put together demos and signed to Virgin, enlisting ex-Beach Boys and Bonnie Raitt drummer Ricky Fataar as co-producer. Continuing the relaxed approach, they set about polishing up the tracks which would become the recent "Some Change" album, already a cert for discerning year's-best lists.
"We weren't trying to create the latest blockbuster," he explains. "The challenge was to keep it simple and know when it was finished - not having 75 guitar solos on one song. It was a matter of saying: that original take we did eight months ago sounds okay, lets use that. We put in a lot of hours, in a very relaxed way, in our own studio, which is the only studio I've ever been in which has a rocking chair. We spent as much time lying on the floor as anything else.
"That was different from what I'd done before, which was to come to LA and hire the top guns and get myself into a high-pressure situation, slug my way out of it. Some of the tracks on this record are the actual demos. We tried to dress them up, but they didn't sound as good as as the originals, done on little toy tape machines, so we left them." The result, a diverse and endlessly rewarding sequence of songs which links Scaggs' blues roots with the soul flavours of his most successful period, manages the difficult feat of blending urbane sophistication and back-porch ease.
Not uncoincidentally, those qualities are shared by Scaggs himself, the result of a life in which lengthy sabbaticals take equal importance to career furtherance. His first such sojourn came in the mid-60's, when he hitched around Europe, India and Nepal with a guitar and a knapsack. He made an album in Sweden, long since lost, and was hanging out in Stockholm with Jorma Kaukonen's brother when the call came from Miller. For a naturally laidback type with beatnik leanings, the move brought a severe culture shock.
"I moved to San Francisco after the summer of love in 1967, when it was turning into the winter of mild discontent." he remembers. "There were still all the trappings though. It was like children, in some ways - people of my age dressing up in costumes and acting out these incredible fantasies. I had seen my own version of this so-called enlightened revolution, in London, where I had lived at the time, but coming to San Francisco was like coming to a strange carnival. It took me a while to adjust."
Luckily for Boz, his new apartment was across the street from that of Jann Wenner, editor of the flourishing new counter-culture bible Rolling Stone, and when - after two splendid albums with The Steve Miller Band - Scaggs embarked on his solo career, Wenner was instrumental in landing him a deal and producing his first albums.
"At that time he was being courted by a lot of key people in the industry who saw the emergence of Rolling Stone as very important," recalls Boz. "He was meeting the likes of Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun and Clive Davis - and at some point he took a tape of my work to Jerry and Jerry liked it." Recognising Scaggs' southern roots, Wexler suggested he check out the studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where he had recorded some of his best work. "We decided to do the album at Muscle Shoals, with Barry Beckett, Roger Hawkins, David Hood, Eddie Hinton, Pete Carr and Duanne Allman."
At the time, Allman had been in Macon starting his own band, but Wenner lured the mercurial slide guitarist back for a week of sessions. "He turned out to be a key component of that album for us," acknowledges Scaggs. "He was a powerful guy in a low-key way, and he added a real spark to everything we did - on "Loan Me A Dime" his solo was a real catalyst. There's a real magic in those guys, a chemistry to the way they play. They leave room for just that one quality of the other player that fits, and they take that space knowing that the other guy's going to give way. Jann just directed traffic and called the big shots."
Though well received, Boz's first album failed to set the charts alight. It did, however, provide a firm base for a solo career. Moving to CBS, he made a string of R&B flavoured albums with Glyn Johns at the helm. Reaching a point where he was selling around 300,000 of each album, he decided to try an alternative route. Former Motown producer/arranger Johnny Bristol had recently joined CBS, and the A&R department put them together. The resultant album, a lush, white-soul extravaganza called "Slow Dancer", was again critically lauded without expanding on his sales, but it left Scaggs with a new perspective on production.
"We did things pretty much as Johnny Bristol had always done things: after choosing the material, he'd call up the usual guys - the likes of James Jamerson and the Motown players. It was a strange experience for me, because I wasn't participating in the process as much as I used to. Before, with the Steve Miller Band, we were just 5 guys who didn't know what they were doing, in with somebody who did, interacting, so when I got my own contract, they were my songs and I was an integral part of it. When it came to this album, I just stepped back and Johnny did it all: two days later you walk out with all the tracks under your arm and start the vocals.
"It was important for me to do that, because I was left with the feeling, after making the record, that I could see the process, I knew that there were these musicians at the other end of the phone, and the next step would be for me to go down there on my own and make a more personal contact with these musicians and facilities."
Accordingly, when the time came for his next album, he applied the lessons learnt from "Slow Dancer" and used a group of up-and-coming players - Jeff Porcaro, David Paich and David Hungay - who would later find fame as Toto. The resulting album, "Silk Degrees", proved his break-through, becoming a benchmark of sophisticated white soul, with huge singles success for Lowdown and Lido Shuffle. It was not, however, an instant success, despite the influence of his new manager Irving Azoff ("one powerful dude"), who had become a big player with acts like The Eagles and ensured that CBS didn't slack in their promotion of his artist. Then a soul station in Cleveland discovered Lowdown, hoisting it to the top of the local black-music charts, and it spread like wildfire, chart to chart, locale to locale, until CBS took notice and made it a pop hit. After his years of dues-paying, Boz wasn't about to be caught on the hop. "It wasn't like we were scrambling to put together a band to take this thing on the road," he says. "We were already running, and with Irving's guidance, it just built and built. We were on the charts for a couple of years."
As subsequent albums proved less successful, however, Scaggs found the lifestyle less rewarding. He took another sabbatical, opened Slim's, raised a family, and didn't record again until 1988. The Steve Levine-produced Other Roads, though, brought its own rude awakening.
"After I'd completed it in my usual way, I was told by the president of the company that he didn't hear any hits, and wanted me to go into the studio again," recalls Boz. "I was quite appalled and disorientated by that, and didn't know what to do, because I'd never really thought of my music as a commodity. I mean, I know where I am, I'm not still sitting in my bedroom plugging away at my guitar, I'm a professional musician with responsibilities, but it never occurred to me that anyone in the company could point his finger down from his throne and say he didn't hear any hits, please go do some more. So that was my last record for CBS."
The experience did little to relieve the disillusionment he'd felt for most of the decade, of which traces still linger despite the burgeoning success of "Some Change".
"I think the Eighties signalled the beginning of an inevitable but very unhealthy trend in music," believes Boz. "We became real commodities. It's the trend now: put together musicians with a company that can sell a whole lot of blue jeans, and the jeans will sell records as the records sell jeans, and everybody goes to the bank - everybody, that is, except the musicians.
"It's a struggle. We've seen our fellow musicians fall by the wayside all our lives - we've fought our way up, fought to keep our bands going, and along the way you take a hand-out here and there. Of course, once it reaches this corporate level, with millions of dollars, it's one thing, but on the other hand musicians slug it out for a long time while many of the people they grew up with opted for a more steady career, with insurance, and meanwhile you're 30, 40 years old and you've still got nothing, except your ability to play your guitar and sing. You're still looking for something steady, but you stay out there.