Record Collector 305 - Boz Scaggs Interview
Success can come when you least expect it. And, having bailed out of the Steve Miller Band in 1968 after their landmark psychedelic sound album, "Sailor", it must have been galling for Boz Scaggs to see his former boss hitting the top of the U.S. charts with "The Joker" while he remained a critics' darling, unable to translate great reviews into sales.
Then came "Silk Degrees", an album that swept all before it in 1976. Just as The Bee Gees and Hall & Oates surfed the disco/dance wave to success with a brand of 'blue-eyed soul' (if that term isn't politically incorrect), so Scaggs found himself with a multi-platinum classic on his hands. With future AOR supergroup Toto playing together as Boz's backing band, only the might of Stevie Wonder could keep.... "Degrees" off the top of the U.S. chart. Little wonder four tracks from Scaggs' new "Greatest Hits Live" CD and DVD were first heard on that album.
The story has continued, with many a twist and turn - not least an eight-year break from music due to domestic problems and custody battles. But Scaggs, 60 this year, credits that enforced hiatus with saving his voice and ensuring that his enthusiasm stayed high. Talking from his San Francisco home, he looks back on a 36-year solo career that's yielded some memorable musical moments.
MH: If someone who had never heard your music before asked what type of music you played, what would your answer be?
Boz: I'd say I'm still trying to play the music I first heard on the radio many years ago. Hearing Chuck Berry's "Maybelline" was a life-changing experience for me, and the first time I heard Ray Charles live I began to see my life unfold before me. American black music, the music that originated out of New Orleans, is the music that I define myself with, from rhythm and blues and early jazz and all the various forms... my life has followed that music and its progression.
MH: How do you look back on the Steve Miller Band era?
Boz: I can't help but say that Steve was an important part of my formative years. He was someone I looked up to and admired as a musician and as a band-leader, he showed me a lot of what became the path that I took. Having been in the studio with him for the first couple of records of his long and illustrious career, working with Glyn Johns and getting my first 'hands on the knobs' in the studio through being with him, was a great experience for me and sent me on my way.
MH: After Steve Miller, what did you set out to do?
Boz: All I wanted to do was try my hand at the studio again. I got a little house in San Francisco and started writing songs. It was the first time I'd given myself over to just that, I didn't know where it was leading. At that time I was introduced to Atlantic, and the first album I made ("Boz Scaggs", 1969) was cut at Muscle Shoals, Alabama. So it was just one step after another, I didn't really have anything designed.
MH: With the exception of "Loan Me A Dime" and live favourite "Runnin Blue", early albums like "Boz Scaggs", "Moments" (1970) and "Boz Scaggs and Band" (1971) aren't represented on the new CD/DVD - do you nevertheless look back on them with affection?
Boz: Working with the musicians at Muscle Shoals was an unforgettable experience. We happened to have with us on that session by special request Duane Allman, who was a particular inspiration. I relive those experiences every time I hear that first record, especially "Loan Me A Dime".
MH: You used Rita Coolidge as a backing singer on your early albums - and she had a hit with a cover of "We're All Alone" from "Silk Degrees".
Boz: I was very pleased that Rita had a huge success with it. She gave the song stature and her version is more in the spirit in which is was written than anyone else's.
MH: You recorded 1974's "Slow Dancer" with soul producer/singer Johnny Bristol and it bears all his trade-marks. Did you put yourself in his hands and say 'do what you will'?
Boz: It was very much that way! I talked it over with my record company and they knew that R&B was the way I wanted to go, so they hooked me up with Johnny. I was used to taking a hands-on role up to that point, but with Johnny we spent some time putting the material together and writing, then it was out of my hands. He called the players, the sessions went on and I was just sitting in the studio watching: for the first time in my life I felt the outsider.
As a result of that experience I have made a point to firstly find musicians I can hand-pick for the kind of material I was writing and secondly give myself the freedom to be hands-on in the studio. "Silk Degrees" was the follow-up, and a lot of the energy that went into that was frustration from the record before.
MH: It's surprising that "Silk Degrees" lead track, "What Can I Say", wasn't selected for "Greatest Hits Live" as it was your biggest UK single (No. 10 in early 1977).
Boz: I didn't know that! It did only minimally well here. I haven't performed that song since those days - like several songs from that album. I might just take it out and try it on for size one of these days.
MH: "What Do You Want The Girl To Do" was a rare cover on that album.
Boz: Allen Toussaint had been one of my favourite writers from the beginning. The album that song was on was "Southern Nights", which is one of my favourite records. I didn't realise at the time but several other people had recorded that song, like Bonnie Raitt. We changed the style and approach to it, made it into a shuffle, but its really a tribute to Allen... a beautiful song.
MH: "Silk Degrees" saw you backed by Toto - what part did they play in its success?
Boz: David Paich, Jeff Porcaro and David Hungate were with me for a while, but of course they weren't Toto then. That was a great collaboration: it certainly changed my career and my life hooking up with those guys. Although we didn't know each other, we were listening to the same things on the black side of the radio dial, so when we were introduced by a mutual friend they found they had someone they could play that stuff with - and I found a rhythm section that understood what I was trying to do.
It wasn't us chasing after some fad, it was just us playing the music that we were digging and it was the biggest hit of all to us to hear that song on the radio when we thought it would be the last song to be heard. Then to win a Grammy for Best R&B Song for "Lowdown" was really gratifying. It was an Isley Brothers/Al Green kind of groove that was a Top 5 hit on black radio before it even began to cross over; the record company would never have picked it as a single.
MH: "Silk Degrees" 1977 successor "Down Two Then Left" isn't represented on the new album - aren't there any songs you like on it?
Boz: We're keeping an eye towards radio hits in choosing this material, but I have performed a couple of the songs over the years: "Gimme The Goods" and the opening track, "Hard Times", which was released as a single.
MH: The US single "Look What You've Done To Me", which you've revisited in concert, has an unusual story behind it...
Boz: Yeah, it was written for a film called "Urban Cowboy" (1980) starring John Travolta. We were recording in an area of LA a couple of blocks from Paramount Studios and got a call saying could we come over and meet the director of this film that was being shot? David Foster, who wrote the song with me and was producing our album, and I went to Paramount to meet the director and producer. They described the setting and gave us the script, then and there in the office, so we said sure we'll take a shot at it. Then they said they were shooting the film tomorrow in Houston and we have a courier jet flying out at noon. If you could possibly write and record it tonight we could shoot the scene to your music. So we got up early, wrote the song, I did enough of the lyrics to give it a sketch vocal and we met the musicians in the studio at nine or ten o'clock. We had a rough mix to them in time to make the courier jet. I re-sang the vocal, but other than that it was a complete track. It was a big hit in the States.
MH: Carlos Santana guested in 1980's "Middle Man" - was he a close musical confederate?
Boz: No, but we'd been in proximity for some years, both being from San Francisco. He started much earlier than I did but I've always had the highest respect for Carlos. He did the solo on "You Can Have Me Any Time". I remember when I was making my first album in Muscle Shoals that Duane Allman was a part of. I got to know Duane somewhat during that time, over several months, and when we were talking musically the question came up as to what had inspired the Allman Brothers. He said 'Carlos Santana'.
MH: 1988's comeback album "Other Roads" saw you working with soul multi-instrumentalist Marcus Miller and 'punk poet' Jim Carroll on music and lyrics respectively. Unusual choices...
Boz: I had been away from the business for quite some years when I started putting that project together, so going back to LA and acquainting myself with the scene, I could pick players I hadn't worked with. I was hearing (Marucs') work producing and writing Luther Vandross, and he was also working with Miles Davis at the time, so I thought that would be progressive musically. The lyrics were just not coming to me, and Jim Carroll was my idea of the greatest living lyricist at that time. It could have been Bob Dylan, Donald Fagan or Walker Becker, but Jim Carroll seemed like he might be into it. When I contacted him he was, so that's how it came about.
MH: You used Booker 'T Jones in 1994's "Some Change" - a payback for you fronting the MG's?
Boz: I was asked to be their vocalist in a live radio session in New York. It came out of the blue. They said we have a 45-minute radio programme: here are some songs, what would you like to do? Being backed by Booker T and the MG's was an experience I would liken to being strapped on the nose of a guided missile - and I've done it a few times since!
MH: What's your association with Al Green's producer, Willie Mitchell?
Boz: I did an album of blues/R&B standards (1997's "Come On Home" ) and, as part of a process of looking for musicians and arrangers, we went to Willie Mitchell's compound in Memphis and worked for a few days. We tried Willie's hand at some horn arrangements and worked with Memphis' Hi rhythm section on a few things we ended up not using. But in the process we got to know Willie. I have the highest respect, not only for the hits he's had, but he's quite an accomplished jazz musician and arranger.
MH: A couple of tracks from that blues album, "It All Went Down The Drain" and "Ask Me 'Bout Nothing' (But The Blues)", are on the new CD/DVD.
Boz: Harry Duncan (executive producer) and I went through hundreds of songs. We listened to a number by Earl King, who I've heard at a New Orleans jazz festival and has played at a club in San Francisco I'm involved with. So I was aware of the breadth and body of his work, and "Down The Drain" made it onto that album. When I have horns and a couple of players who can pull that off I like to do that song. As far as "Ask Me "Bout Nothin" (But The Blues)" is concerned, whenever I work with an ensenble that includes horns that's one I reach for time and again. I just love that Bobby Bland song.
MH: Finally, what are your plans for the future?
Boz: In the course of performing the jazz vocal album (But Beautiful) last year, we needed some uptempo songs, some other rhythms to pick up the set because a set of all ballads quickly gets boring. So I adapted some of my material to that traditional quartet format and we did some other standards that were more uptempo, some Latin grooves and other things. We developed a lot of new material.