Rolling Stone - Boz Scaggs Interview
The unmistakable air of newness fills the small complex of rooms behind Slim's, the brick-built club that's been a central fixture in the upswinging South of Market section of San Francisco in recent years. On a rainy Bay day the smell of fresh paint and carpet, the boxes of just-bought fax machines and the wires still hanging loose from recording equipment just being installed all clearly bespeak something beginning.
And there's a new gleam in the eyes of Boz Scaggs, Slim's co-owner, who is setting up the facility as a base of operations. It is, more accurately, a renewed gleam, the visual equivalent of sounds heard on Scaggs new album, Some Change, his first in six years, only his second since 1980 and the first in even longer that he really had his heart in.
"The making of this record has been the most fun I've had since I got into this racket," says Scaggs, pulling a parka close around his shoulders and sinking contentedly into a plush chair. "I really enjoyed it. I"ve written more and been more involved every day in playing - and diggin' it. I feel more vital than I've ever felt, musically."
At 49, William Royce Scaggs (a high-school friend dubbed him Boz for reasons that still escape him) is too old for a midlife crisis and too young for a second childhood. There's no sense in his new ventures that he's attempting to relive the past glories (and with his 5 million selling 1976 album, Silk Degrees, a mile-stone of blue-eyed soul, he had major glory). Nor is he making a desperate stab at current trends.
Instead, Some Change, is a rediscovery of what drove him into music in the first place. For those with long memories, the album will likely bring to mind Scaggs' first major release, Boz Scaggs, a Southern bluesy effort recorded at the famed Muscle Shoals Studios in 1969 after the singer-guitarist left the Steve Miller Band, fronted by another high-school pal.
The new album's opener, "You Got My Letter," jumps and rocks like a lost juke-joint classic, while the accordian spiced "Fly Like A Bird" has a Tex-Mex-Cajun snap. Even such ballads as "I'll Be the One" have a crispness that links them more with Scaggs' early albums than the smooth urban soul rock of his Silk Degrees breakthrough numbers, "Lowdown" and "Lido Shuffle."
Silk Degrees, featuring the musicians who eventually became Toto, was a new kind of hybrid - Southern blues sensibilities mixed with city soul - and in its own way was a triumph, symbolised not just by sales but with "Lowdown" becoming a hit on soul stations and ultimately winning a Grammy in 1976 for Best R&B Song.
For the Ohio-born Scaggs, it was the culmination of a musical journey that started with Miller's high-school band and continued as both attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison and resumed when Scaggs rejoined his old friend in 1968 in San Francisco after Miller scored a record contract. Scaggs was an integral part of that group, writing and singing lead on several songs on the band's debut album, Children of the Future, and the subsequent Sailor before tiring of the backdrop role.
"It seemed to be one of the touch-stones of its time," Scaggs says of Silk Degrees, sounding proud but not arrogant. "It's still fresh for me, too. Good songs, great fun to make. I don't know how many people really have that sensation in their entire lives."
But somewhere after the Silk Degrees wave crested - he's not sure exactly when - Scaggs just kind of stopped caring. "I had all the trappings of a full-dress career going on," he says. "But I wasn't particularly interested or didn't really have time to give to my music. I lost what it was I loved about music. I still loved music, but it wasn't preoccupying me."
His interest in Slim's, though, with its mix of roots acts and contemporary rockers, kept him occupied, and the club proved a suitably low-key musical outlet for Scaggs; he rehoned his own roots chops by occasionally playing with a house band of local blues rockers.
Then in 1991, Scaggs was invited to be part of Donald Fagen's New York Rock and Soul Revue, joining the likes of Michael McDonald, Phoebe Snow and Charles Brown for a series of shows and a live album devoted in part to R&B classics. Through that, he found out that he still had fans.
Two notable admirers came forward: Jeff Ayeroff and Jordan Harris, then the co-chairman of Virgin Records, who approached Scaggs about signing with them and leaving Columbia, the label he had been with since his second solo album, 1971's Moments. It was just the boost Scaggs needed.
"I don't really do a whole lot, left to my own devices," Scaggs says. "I can waste more time and do more nothing than most people I know. But when someone comes in and starts poking me, I come alive."
Recently married and feeling firmly rooted in the Bay Area, Scaggs abandoned the modus operandi of his past recording experience, eschewing the studios, session players and fuss of Los Angeles, where he'd recorded exclusively since 1974. Instead Scaggs stayed close to home, setting up a homey, comfortable studio in a vacant TV soundstage. He recruited Ricky Fataar (a member of the early 70's Beach Boys and a frequent musical cohort of Bonnie Raitt's) as co-producer and primary musical partner. And together they played nearly all the music on the new album.
"We did what we wanted to," Scaggs says of the recording, which took about a year. "We weren't trying to re-create anything except the feel of the demos. We really tried to leave well enough alone, keep it as basic as we could."
So where does Boz Scaggs fit in the music world of 1994? "I have no idea," he says. "I expect it will appeal to the same people who came to see the Rock and Soul Revue... the same kind of people that come down to Slim's.
"A lot of musicians of my generation maintained careers through the 80's," he continues. "I didn't. I just sort of sat out the decade. But a good number of them had vital careers. After all, we're part of the single largest media demographic ever, and all the people of my age were listening to music like no generation in history. Their appetite was tremendous and still is."
In any case, Scaggs has certainly found a place where he fits in. "As you can see," he says, showing off his new studio, "this is where I'm going to be for the next years. I'm gonna make a permanent stand here. And I'm learning to become a writer. I've scratched the surface with this record. I'm learning how to become an artist."