Melody Maker - Boz Scaggs Interview
Significant? I think not. The only certain fact is that both have made fine albums - Millers "Fly Like An Eagle" and Scaggs "Silk Degrees" - from which several potential hit singles for the States could be drawn. The remarkable thing is that both artists should finally gain a broader acceptance in Britain; for Miller there is a precedent, but Scaggs?
"I'm very pleased that it's gotten here. I don't understand exactly what - it seems like a very very strange song. What the appeal of it is baffles me but I'm glad that it's getting around," says William Royce Scaggs.
He wrote "Lowdown" with David Paich, a fast rising star on the California session circuit, who co-wrote several of the tunes on "Silk Degrees" with Scaggs. Paich and Boz had worked together on Les Dudek's solo album; Dudek being a Scaggs band alumni.
Paich had written many songs for his own upcoming solo album and played them to Boz. One particular two chord riff from a suite stuck in Boz's mind. After they'd decided to write together "for hours and hours I tried to get him to remember this one little passage, this one little piece which really struck me."
Then: "One day he was fooling around in the studio" (Scaggs strikes imaginary piano chords) "and I ran out and said 'That's it! That's it!' And since it was just a little incidental piece in one of his longer pieces he didn't mind giving up that little riff. So we worked on it one night, just started playing around with it."
The result was "Lowdown, a gently building, smooth-flowing cut with Boz's high slightly throaty, utterly believable tenor vocal coasting stylishly. "I'd been walking around singing it in my head for weeks and the musicians were walking around for the rest of our sessions kinda just (snaps fingers) doin' that" to the "Lowdown" groove. "It just fell into place."
It was, he says, just about the easiest thing he and Paich had put together and was the closest track to R & B, their collective love. They thought it to be the obvious single. It was, in the event, the second single off "Silk Degrees." Indeed, it was only insistent airplay on R & B stations throughout the States which finally convinced CBS to rush out "Lowdown" as a 45.
Boz Scaggs was in town last week for "business talks," having, one presumes, exploratory discussions about a Scaggs' 1977 tour. In the meantime he has a new album to record, again with Joe Wissert, who produced "Silk Degrees," and a series of American dates to play. There are, he explained, vast areas of the States which he has yet to touch.
Settled in a sofa in his Park Lane hotel suite, Scaggs talked for some 75 minutes about his career, his relationship with the producers he's used, his co-writers, composing alone, the difficulty of self-management; a situation he was in for many years during his earliest days in Plano, Texas, and the recent upsurge of his career.
It was, I suggested, due to a change of attitude from a sort of laid back feel to a more assertive feel which could be traced back to "Slow Dancer," his fourth album for CBS, the one before last.
He'd matched the shift in emphasis on record with a similarly subtle, thoroughly successful alteration in his on-stage persona, which has given him a much better defined "image" for want of a better word. Also, he has, as usual, a spanking fine band.
We started with the gentle change in recording style, Scaggs says the only reason people expected him to be "laid back," we both baulked at the cliche, was because he caught the tail end of the San Francisco scene and that he "relied pretty much on my Southern rock, blues background."
"I think if anything changed my approach to music it was about the time I made my second album for Columbia Records, which was called 'Boz Scaggs And Band.' I recorded it here in London and it was a very difficult album for me to come to grips with.
"I wasn't entirely satisfied with the way it came out. I had a very specific idea, image, in mind when I started the album. It was using the band that I toured with and being a part of more of a communal effort. It didn't work out entirely, for me. I found myself very alone, finishing the album myself and working very hard just to complete the album."
He followed "Boz Scaggs And Band," which I thought an excellent record, with "My Time," its equal. "I found myself more and more the leader or the director of the whole vehicle. I worked for several months on the album with Roy Halee, the engineer-producer." Halee is perhaps best known lately for his perfectionist work with Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel.
"I felt that we weren't getting anywhere. I was not accomplishing what had to be done musically, the ideas were not flowing freely."
Boz wasn't happy with the quality of the musicians in the studio so he stopped the project half-way through and went out to Muscle Shoals, the scene of his first album "Boz Scaggs," which he'd cut for Atlantic.
"I was getting a lot of sophisticated help from top session players. They had been working with Paul Simon around that time. There was a sense of professionality going on in that studio. It was a lot less of a laid-back approach, if you like, this casual approach to making records, this San Francisco 'group' idea of making records."
They cut tracks very quickly, which Boz prefers, not liking to do more than three takes for a song. He took their work back to Halee who "was pleased and did what he can do best to the material that I brought back. The album just had a different character."
From that experience, Boz says, he bacame aware of a "more polished, sophisticated kind of music." From that moment, he says, his ideas were to be presented with a more attractive sheen. He later followed it through to live work. "It was about that time I did the 'Slow Dancer' album, I wanted to present the music in a very stylised context, with an orchestra the way it had been recorded - if you're speaking about the series of concerts I did with the black tie and tails and a very formal kind of atmosphere." Few took it as a gimmick he said. Most people accepted it as a "very real way for me to present my music. I felt very comfortable in doing it that way. I feel that image has carried itself up to this day."
Obviously, he can't use the 40-piece orchestra regularly but his 12-piece band does, he says, recreate the sound of his records pretty much to his satisfaction.
"Slow Dancer" was produced by ex-Motown producer Johnny Bristol, who joined CBS as a staff man at about the same time as Boz was going into the studios. Bristol had "only worked on one project at the time I met him and there was a problem around the A & R department as to how to use Johnny."
They were introduced, got on well, there was mutual admiration. Boz also wanted to use top session players and Bristol, though his Motown connection, had direct access to the likes of James Jameson and Ed Greene. "I was very much into the contemporary, soul, black, R & B whatever you wanna call it.
"At that time it was the O'Jays and the Spinners and productions by Tommy Bell and Gamble and Huff that really had me fascinated. Johnny seemed like the man to help me bridge that gap. It seemed like a good idea at the time."
To Boz, "Slow Dancer" now seems a strange album and, at the time, was a frustrating album because he wasn't involved musically on a day-to-day basis. Bristol took almost complete control of musicians from engineer to arranger. Boz contributed songs, some co-written with Bristol, and vocals.
He describes it in a very distanced way. He only became involved towards the very end by directing the back-up singers and suggesting things at the mixing sessions. "It left me feeling very uneasy. I was no longer involved in making my own albums. So in that respect it was somewhat unnerving."
On the other hand, says Boz, Bristol helped him sing. After working with the producer, Boz can listen to Bristol's other work on, say Gladys Knight or Diana Ross, and identify specifically which part of the vocal is Bristol inspired. "I can hear Johnny Bristol. I can hear exactly how he's telling them to inflect and how to project.
"He's used to working in an atmosphere where it's up to the producer to get the best performance out of an artist in terms of excitement, in terms of projection, in terms of hitting higher notes than they ever did before... and Johnny worked like that with me."
Bristol had been used to working with front singers; Scaggs explains that because he sang with a guitar slung around his neck the need to be dynamic in that way wasn't so critical. "I wouldn't know how to carry a particular song with the arrangement he'd been given because these are Motown arrangers, they're very direct and very specific and high energy."
In the studio, Bristol "would come out on the microphone and sing the song like I'd never heard it sung, like I'd never imagined it being sung." Boz would then go in and "duplicate his approach, his style. Not his inflections," he hastens to add, for they obviously have completely different voices.
"There were times when I would hit a note, I would be singing so hard and so high I'd never got before, I would suddenly become self-conscious and stop singing."
Bristol urged him to go right ahead and not be embarrassed. "He forced me onwards. I was very proud and very pleased with the performance that we got on some of the tunes. That's really the most positive thing that came out of that whole project."
Prior to "Slow Dancer," Boz's career had reached something of an impasse. He had come to Britain to discuss a new British-recorded album at Trident with Ken Scott producing. He had a clear idea of what it would be like, he says. It "would have been pretty similar to the 'Silk Degrees' album, I wanted to make 'Silk Degrees' three years ago here in London.
He'd arranged and got approval from CBS to negotiate finances for the album, flew to Britain, did so and phoned back to CBS to clear the final details. They didn't know what he was talking about. "No-one knew I was over here at all." In the short while he'd been in Britain CBS's then boss Clive Davis had been sacked and, of course, Boz has always worked very directly with Davis.
So, disappointed, he flew back to California. He was soon persuaded, however, that his future at the label wasn't in jeopardy from the company's point of view, his records always sold well, "but I must admit that I felt... it was a very cold feeling at the time, a number of people were so unsure of their positions or unsure of the future of the record company it makes it difficult.
"Recording people like myself are very insecure. We don't know, I don't know exactly how much I can depend on these people to believe in me and project my work."
For "Silk Degrees," Boz's market-busting album, he worked with Joe Wissert, who was one of the names suggested to him. They discussed the album, got to know each other well before deciding to go ahead and record. It also brought to fruition the growing partnership he's formed with David Paich.
How does his co-writing break down in terms of lyrics / music ideas? "With David it was all my lyrics, with Johnny we collaborated on, lets see, I think one song, we collaborated on the lyrics, it was a song he'd written a verse for and didn't have a chorus." Usually, however, all the lyrics are Boz's.
With Paich the musical ideas come with Paich sitting at the piano and Boz suggesting moves, singing the melody line and developing lyrics. "With Bristol I'd be on the instrument and he'd collaborate on the music and then I'd write the lyrics."
On "Boz Scaggs And Band" he co-wrote several tunes with Clive Arrowsmith, a famed English fashion photographer, whom Boz met while he was recording the album. An unlikely writing partner, I suggested. "Well, it would seem so" smiled Scaggs.
Arrowsmith, it seems, was a frustrated songwriter-musician despite his eminence as a photographer. A mutual friend who worked in a record shop introduced them - Boz had long been fascinated with photography and "I'd seen his work in America in English Vogue and French Vogue magazines. I admired his work and it turned out he'd been an admirer of mine since my first album on Atlantic with Duane Allman."
They met, became great friends, and it was at the time he was having trouble developing the "And Band" album: "All the burden seemed to be on me to develop this material. Clive and I were just hanging out every day, all day and he had terrific musical ideas and we ended up collaborating on the lyrics." They did three together: the excellent "Monkey Time," "Flames of Love" and "It's Up To You."
Nevertheless, says Boz, he prefers working alone but, musically, at this point he finds it easier working with somebody. Why had he said "at this point?" It indicated he had some sort of writing block. "I'm not playing as much as I used to. They'll play for me some changes or they'll help me develop."
Much of this stems from the fact he's no longer writing on guitar and hasn't done so since a couple of tunes on "Slow Dancer." Now he prefers to compose on piano, at which instrument he is not yet exceptionally proficient. "I don't know my way around the instrument that well. So I'm fooling around with the basic ideas but a keyboard player can come in and show me naturally where a certain chord pattern would go."
It wasn't an intentional move to piano but, he adds, "there's a great feel, a great sound on a piano" (he's spreading his fingers wide, palms down striking an imaginary keyboard) "there's a feedback, its loud and you're totally encompassed by loud sound and there's something to do with the tactile response of your fingers.
"In my case, since I'm not proficient, if I go to a chord that's a mistake then it awakens trains of thought: 'pop,' something opens up; whereas with a guitar I don't, I know what all the natural progressions are. I don't make mistakes. "The guitar was an instrument of discovery, for me, when I first started developing in music. The interest in piano now is 'cos it's a much fuller expression."
Boz first started writing songs in 1966 when he was living in Scandinavia when he was playing acoustic guitar. Beforehand he'd been, primarily, an electric guitar player, working in school bands with Steve Miller (the Marksmen) around Texas and, later, the Mid-West. He journeyed to Britain in 1965, then on to Scandinavia where, apart from starting to write his own tunes, he played sessions for the Merry Men, a top Swedish band of the time, and also cut a legendary Polydor album in Stockholm which was issued in Sweden and Denmark only.
He didn't put any of his tunes on that album but "it was then that I started developing my own patterns and singing to myself. There was no particular reason. I think I was just encouraged by the fact that other friends of mine were writing their own material and the whole era of the Beatles and young contemporary musicians like myself were developing their own ideas."
From Scandinavia, Boz answered Steve Miller's urgent summons to San Francisco, two Steve Miller Band albums and one year's work. Then he split and started on his own career. He was able to contribute songs to both Miller albums: "Those were actually the first songs that I put down that could be called "My First Songs."
When he left Miller's band he talked with Jan Wenner, Rolling Stone editor, who helped him get a contract with Atlantic Records. Jerry Wexler sent him to Muscle Shoals where a magnificent album was cut in double-quick time, with Scaggs, Wenner (as a sort of executive figure) and Marlin Greene (as a musician-gatherer / motivator) sharing production credits.
Its highlight was a long, immensely stimulating blues called "Loan Me A Dime" which burned to a fiery climax inspired by Duanne Allman's blistering guitar-work and a charging horn section. On the album he's credited with its composition. He didn't write it, however. He'd heard the song in a club when he was with Steve Miller's Band.
It was the kind of blues he loved. Later, when he was cutting the "Boz Scaggs" Atlantic album and was scrimmaging around for material they "developed" a "Loan Me A Dime" which "turned out to be somewhat similar but not really very similar at all to the original." Boz had called Elvin Bishop, who had a tape of the original song, and got the lyric but Bishop had neither the name of the composer nor the publisher.
The album was "completed that week. We didn't know who to give the credit for that song to." Atlantic put W.R. Scaggs to it; after the album was out a couple of months the publisher's of Chicagoan Fenton Robinson pointed out to Atlantic that the song was their client's. "It was no effort on my part to steal a song."
Scaggs got his nickname from a kid at school in Plano who, for some reason completely unknown to the recipient, started calling him "Bosley." I really have no way of knowing why he called me that." It stuck with all his school friends and everyone since, come to that.
Boz had no musical education; at college he studied Liberal Arts for years before quitting. "I was more involved in music than with the University." Neither of his parents were musicians but "there was always music around. My father had the same general interest in music as other people of his age - light, classical, George Gershwin was one of his favourites... I was never particularly encouraged by them to take up a musical career."
When did he first pick up guitar? "There was a time when it was very popular in America, the sort of folk era, the Kingston Trio, Josh White. There was that element but then growing up in Texas there was a lot of the blues artists, T-Bone Walker, B. B. King."
To an impressionable twelve-year-old kid, the power of the bluesman on local black radio stations proved devastating. "Jimmy Reed was a real turn on" he says. "It was the easiest thing to do on guitar." After the blues players had sparked his interest he later heard Chet Atkins, Spanish guitarists and then the Beatle era. But the T-Bone Walker and B.B. King era was, for him, the most formative.
We talked, lastly, about his recording speed. "The faster," he says, and "the more accurate" musicians have to work on a track, "just get it, get it for the feeling get it for the spirit." He continues: "I worked with the spontaneity, the energy that's going on."
One can sense that, right back to "Loan Me A Dime" and up to "Dinah Flo." "These are two perfect examples of how, given the idea... the ideas were developed quickly. 'Loan Me A Dime' was first take. That was it."
He explains: "Everybody was in the studio, including the horns, Duane Allman was in the bathroom with his guitar and amplifier (laughs) which were louder than everything else. They just played it through and then cut it ! It was one of the most satisfying things that I've ever done. And I don't see any reason to do it much more complicated."