Melody Maker - Boz Scaggs Interview
Lemme tell you about some close encounters with an American superstar. The person in question is one William Royce Scaggs, better known as Boz, after a nickname Steve Miller (wrong !) pinned on him at high school.
I had been jetted over to the States for meaningful dialogue with Boz, and as a result found myself in Philadelphia, home of that legendary and once payola-ridden TV show American Bandstand. If you think its hot here, try Philly. The humidity was awesome. Stepping out into the street from the air-conditioned life support systems of the hotel was like being subjected to a boa constrictor blowtorch. Sweat oozed from every nook and cranny.
The arrangement was to link up with Boz in a nearby restaurant. Gulping down oxygen, we (the tour manager, the CBS rep and myself) fought our way through the heat haze and contacted Boz in the restaurant foyer. Cool again.
Since I wanted to tape the chat, a minor problem arose about the table. Was there somewhere quiet? A back room maybe? The place was packed and Muzak inevitably seeped through discreetly disguised speakers.
A diligent waitress scuttled off to see what could be seen and done, returning with a helpful (if finally unsatisfactory) location. I happened to be standing at the front of the party and was consequently asked if Sir would like to see if the table was all right. A little surprised, I swivelled round to check the others reactions. Just as well. Boz waxed truculent. Im the one being interviewed here, he let slip, continuing that the decision resided with him. Fine, Boz, go right ahead, if it means that much to you.
Gary from CBS deftly defused the situation by rushing off to do the necessary reconnoitre. Though less noisy, the location was still unfortunately a no-go for a tape recorder, so we decided to eat and then do the interview back at the hotel. Sounded perfect.
The initial half-an-hour was agonising. It being a fish restaurant, the conversation revolved round plaice, lobster, clams, octopus, tuna and the Russian infiltration of American territorial waters. That is to say the atmosphere was about as relaxed as an army of Feds cornering a punk in a cul-de-sac. However, the ice began to melt and a lively interchange ensued. Like almost everyone else I came across in the USA , Boz was fascinated by Britains new wave (surely our next big dollar earner).
He was the acme of sophistication (he savoured the bouquet of the wine rather than hastily knocking it back) and considered opinion, drawing parallels between music past, present and future. He had seen Pink Floyd on their last American tour and (I couldnt agree more) remarked how their stereoscopic visuals tried to compensate for thin rocknroll gruel. Things were flowing nicely.
The waitress handed Boz a note. Two girls downstairs wanted their menus autographed and wondered if there just might be any spare tickets going for that nights show? Sure. We got up to go. Boz sought out the two ladies, exchanged a few words and arranged for tickets to be sent over as soon as possible. Was this the same guy who had thrown a mild superstar tantrum just an hour previously?
Back at the hotel we settled in with a cup of tea. Down to business. On with the tape recorder and out with the first question, then another Scaggs transformation took place. Head lowered and hands clutched, he hovered between barely contained impatience and ohnonotthisagain boredom. The open easiness of 10 minutes before became a professional affability in which he delivered the goods with distanced courtesy.
For various reasons like a sound check, the delay over the meal and heavy traffic, the interview was restricted to an hour, but Boz seemed happy to continue the following morning. Morning came but Boz didnt.
As I sat watching American Bandstand, which, miserably, was a Bay City Roller special (Hey Eric whats your favourite colour of hair?), a squall was brewing. Boz had decided he wanted to take his child for a walk and I could come along if I liked.
What about part two of the chat? It was a walk or nothing. When the news was relayed to me, I said sure, Ill go for a walk. Alas, Boz wouldnt wait for the elevator to hit the ground floor. By the time I arrived, the stroll was underway. He was then flying to Cincinnati.
The above episodes tell a lot about a relative new-comer to the superstar bracket. It was really only last year, with the release of Silk Degrees his least adventurous offering that he strode into the rock pantheon Stateside. The album has already gone double platinum (two million sales), spawned four hit singles (at one point last September Lowdown was simultaneously in the top five on pop and soul charts) and triggered off Grammy nominations for Album Of The Year, Best Pop Vocal Performance and Best R&B Song (Lowdown hits jackpot again).
Such a sudden change in fortune obviously must have its effects. Boz has never welcomed interviews with open arms, and now that he is a white-hot property in the States his defence mechanisms are going to be that more finely tuned. Thats what I prefer to think, anyway.
But back to the album. The six million dollar question must be why did the cash registers go berserk for him last year and not earlier? An obvious parallel is Fleetwood Mac, who attained Cartier and Cadillac status with their Fleetwood Mac album after years of hard slog.
Like that album, Silk Degrees appealed to that block-buster category of Hip Easy Listening. The key elements here are technical expertise and flawless production.
Any form of new challenge to the listener is junked as the honed artist retreads/remodels familiar territory, taking effortlessly from the mixed bag of Sixties / Seventies rock genres.
The songs usually deal with adult relationships and are swathed in creamy harmonies that suggest as much hard-core passion as a glass of water. More important, in a commercial sense, it gets maximum exposure on the radio and that, across the Atlantic, sells records by the truckload.
Also, the disco circuit by last year had reached its most manic proportions, and Degrees slotted in there with no problem at all. Hence you heard it in the car, in the supermarket and at the disco.
But just to confuse matters some more Degrees was in no way an out-and-out bid to catch the hip-MOR market. It marked a natural progression from his 74 Slow Dancer, when he tried to translate a fascination for the progressive variety of disco soul (the likes of Marvin Gaye, OJays, the productions of Thom Bell and Gamble & Huff) into his own terms.
Over the same period, he laundered his image to one closely resembling Bryan Ferry in chic, short-sleeved fatigues the cool, off-the-shoulder, sensual restraint of the seascape scene on Degrees.
Interestingly, Slow Dancer has recently been repackaged in the States. Gone is the gawky Scaggs in swim-suit emerging from the sea (have you noticed how many times the sea crops up on his album covers?). In its place is a dinner-jacketed Boz nuzzling a svelte young lady in white evening attire against muted browns and an art deco fresco. Boz had an active hand in the design.
Throughout his six solo albums, Scaggs has worked in a strongly democratic way. His immediately recognisable sound has always been due in large part to the style of production. The producers could almost share equal headlining credits.
Boz agreed. We kicked-off with his first bona fide solo effort on Atlantic, which, according to the liner notes, was co-produced by Jann Wenner, Marlin Greene and Boz himself. Who did what?
This function of producer is probably one of the most loosely and ill-defined terms in the whole business. Its many functions to many people. In my case, Jann Wenner and Marlin Greene, who was an engineer at Muscle Shoals recording studios, and myself were given credits as producers simply because we figured there had to be a producer credit.
Marlin was given credit because he sort of stepped in and took charge, keeping us on the track day to day, I think basically through my experience and Janns inexperience in the studios he was the old hand, the guiding influence to put us through it and relate to the musicians (the famed MS rhythm section of Barry Beckett, David Hood and Roger Hawkins, with the extra bonus of the one then little known Duane Allman).
Jann was pretty much responsible for executive production in terms of booking the studio time and dealing directly with the people at Atlantic namely Jerry Wexler and marking our progress and documenting how much we had accomplished and how much time we yet had to accomplish it.
I was a producer in the sense that I worked mainly in terms of setting a tone for how the material was coming out. Obviously it was not done before we were in the studio, so translating it from inside my head on to the tape was there . . . and approving takes or disapproving them or deciding on what kind of solo would go here or there, what sort of instrumentation we might use.
In that respect, I must say that my function as a producer was perhaps the least, and Marlin Greene and the staff of Muscle Shoals Sound Incorporated were the real producers.
The album, Boz Scaggs, has become a classic of slow-burn R&B, its highlight being a superb, off-the-cuff jam called Loan Me A Dime, which had the absurdly talented Allman playing in the bathroom while everyone else was in the studio. If youre a recent Scaggs convert, search this out.
Next followed a label switch to CBS and a new producer, though an old friend, Glyn Johns. Boz had already worked with Glyn during his brief sojourn with the Steve Miller Band, when they cut two of their most original albums, Children Of The Future and Sailor in 67.
The first CBS solo, Moments, was recorded at Wally Heiders in San Francisco but mixed in London at Islands studios.
Moments was after a good deal of thought on my part as to what I was going to do. Lets say that the Atlantic album was undertaken somewhat casually and there was no real thought towards a solo career, defining a personality or any of that.
Moments I consider my first real solo effort, and that is with my own band and a sort of fresh start with Columbia Records. With that, lets say, little more serious idea in mind, I went back to my early days with Steve Miller in which Glyn Johns was the engineer and, in fact, the producer, although he wasnt credited.
I felt he had the experience and confidence and foresight to get me into and out of my first solo album. Glyn had worked in Heiders recording studios a good deal in the past and felt comfortable about working with the musicians in San Francisco and getting the stuff on tape and then taking it to his home studio to mix it.
As it turned out, there were several songs to be written and vocals to be done, so I accompanied him to London. Glyns influence was very strong. He really took on the full responsibility of a producer and helping me decide on the type of material we would do and so forth.
The relationship and London base proved fruitful enough to do another album, Boz Scaggs And Band, in December of the same year, this time at Olympic Studios.
Londons lure had attracted Boz since 64, when he came over with three fellow Texans to form a horn-based R&B unit only to find that the formative Flamingo club was choc-a-bloc with such bands. Chris Farlowe had his Thunderbirds; John Mayall was getting together with T-Bone Walker.
When I was with the Steve Miller Band we did our first album at Olympic and it was an exciting time. Style-wise, we just picked up things and we felt more inclined to experiment or try something radical, which we might not have back home in San Francisco or Los Angeles.
There was an excitement which I think somehow got into that first album (Children Of The Future) and I wanted to try and draw on that element again by bringing my band to London.
It seemed like a good idea at the time, but in retrospect I cant say that the same thing couldnt have been done better in California. It was summer and it was beautiful, and it tended to be more of a distraction, really, than something that would influence the overall style of the album.
People were more interested in going to Cornwall for the afternoon or going to see Stonehenge or sailing in Hyde Park than they were in coming to the studio.
I found a great deal of the burden placed on me, as opposed to the concept being And The Band. I wanted to feature more of my band as writers, as soloists and helping me design the album. For that reason we went back home to do the next one.
And the next one was My Time in 72, which is probably the most satisfying fusion of all the Scaggs elements R&B, soul, Southern fried rock, light jazz and even Thirties swing.
Glyn dropped out and a curious split location and producer set-up emerged. Half the album Boz himself oversaw at Muscle Shoals. The other half joined Boz with Roy Halee, veteran of innumerable Simon and Garfunkel sessions, in San Francisco.
There was no outright decision for me not to work with Glyn. I think it just came about as a matter of the fact of knowing Roy Halee, who had just been given carte blanche to open a new Columbia recording studio in San Francisco where I was living, and there was just sorta a mutual interest on Roy Halees and my part to do something together.
Glyn had spoken very highly of Roy as being maybe the greatest engineer in the world at that time?. So Roy and I started working and carrying on for several months.
We were getting things done, taking them very slowly, a very methodical approach as was his custom. Then there came a point in the production when the costs were rising and someone from the cost department at Columbia started wondering exactly why we were taking so much time doing it.
I was becoming a little uneasy, too, at the progress we were making after their having told me that, and I decided to take some material that I had not developed fully down to Muscle Shoals and just work for a week or two, and then either bring back those arrangements and work on them with Roy or just finish the project in Muscle Shoals.
In fact, I went for a week and brought back some tracks for Roy. He mixed most of it and remixed some of the stuff we had done in Muscle Shoals.
The next album, Slow Dancer, didnt hit the shops for another two years. Boz explained why. The next idea was strangely enough not strangely enough to go back to London to record.
At that time I was fascinated by the work of Ken Scott, the engineer / producer who worked at Trident Studios in London (hed worked with Bowie on Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust).
So I talked the project over with Clive Davis, who was then president of Columbia, and had Daviss blessing. However, Davis quit that summer and the project was unceremoniously scrapped.
I became very disappointed and came back to San Francisco wondering what to do next, and did nothing at all until some good friends of mine in the company encouraged me to keep at it, do another album.
Boz met ex-Motown producer Johnny Bristol, who had just signed a deal with CBS. Their mutual interests led them into a project that initially involved doing three test tracks in L.A.
We did it and he used some of the players that I had been listening to for years and years and who were my heroes (Ed Greene, Joe Sample, James Jamerson, Wah Wah Watson). Id only briefly entertained the idea of working with them some of the most famous Detroit and L.A. players.
The tracks came out very, very well, and we decided to continue with the project. Johnny was the full producer, in that he took charge of everything going on in the studio. I had very little to do for a change in the studio.
In the past, I had found myself working constantly on every aspect, and in this case Johnny took over all the functions. We even used an arranger (H.B. Barnum) for the first time.
But was that what he wanted? A conscious restriction? I was very open. I was excited about the idea of working with an arranger and I was sorta proceeding carefully not wholly enthusiastically but willing to see it through.
As it turned out there were some very strong positive things, and some things that left me feeling very uneasy. I think it was these pros and cons that got me into my situation with Silk Degrees.
I missed a strong personal involvement, so that was absolutely essential in making Degrees. I enjoyed the comfort of having a full-range producer in Joe Wissert, who was very instrumental in all aspects of Degrees.
Joe has a very diverse background, with Earth, Wind and Fire on the one hand and Helen Reddy on the other, both of whom had had very fine-sounding, very musical albums.
I took a good deal of time to choose the studio, the musicians and develop the material, and then Joe and his engineer oversaw the rest of it. We were all very close, very much involved in the making of that album, and it really tied up all the other things I had been trying to accomplish in the past.
Though frustratingly bland and sticky with Barnums melodramatic string washes, Slow Dancer is important because it signifies a major transition. He switched from composing on guitar to piano.
Since he didnt play on the sessions, he concentrated on the vocals. Scaggs ability in this department has always been peerless. Rooted in the gospel R&B tradition, his vocals are characteristically funky, plain-spoken and good-natured. His smooth, lush larynx can swoop from impassioned sermonising (Testify, Baby) to haunting melodic bridges.
Johnny Bristol was one of the strong producers whose major attributes in working at Motown was to get a very strong, very exciting performance out of their vocalists, and he worked with me more than anyone had worked with me on vocals.
He encouraged me and frightened me into doing things that I had never done before. That was perhaps the greatest thing that Johnny did for me.
In addition, Bristol seemed to commandeer the proceedings to such an extent that Boz felt somewhat at a loose end.
We threw out some of my ideas as far as lyrics go because they didnt lend themselves to that context. Thats a compromise that I dont think I would ever make again, but I guess it had to be done. But, lets say, in using those vocal techniques with my own lyrics now it makes for a little warmer, a little closer, feeling as to what Im all about.
Another open-ended aspect of Scaggs lies in his song-writing collaborations. Roughly speaking, each album has witnesses a new creative duo. On Boz Scaggs he co-wrote two numbers with keyboards wizard Barry Beckett. Boz reveals the truth.
Barry and I didnt really collaborate on anything. It was a matter of my bringing him a song to do and Barry would give me the intro, or, in the case of Sweet Release, gave me some substitute chord changes.
Instead of a three-chord song he turned it into a five chord one. We didnt really actually sit down and collaborate as songwriters, and I was just indebted to him in general for looking after me on that session.
Next in line was Clive Arrowsmith, whom Boz originally knew via his fashion photography in magazines like Vogue. They were introduced during the recording of Boz Scaggs And Band and came up with three numbers all first rate Flames Of Love, Monkey Time and Its Up To You.
The comment on Clive was succinct to say the least. I did the music tracks and Clive and I collaborated on the lyrics.
On Slow Dancer Boz not only co-authored two songs but also interpreted three of Bristols own creations. Johnny and I actually collaborated on some music and on the lyrics as well. It was just a matter of hell throw in a few lines here or Id throw in a few lines into one of his songs.
Silk Degrees saw an even tighter more harmonious, team spirit between Scaggs and L.A. session luminary David Paich. How did it work out?
Id have to take each song individually. In general, lets say, Lowdown: David and I put together the format for the music. David put together the whole format for Jump Street . I wrote the lyrics in all cases.
David was more of an arranger. Wed sit down at the piano and for What Can I Say wed just go through it. Hed throw out the changes and Id say yes, some of that or no, none of that, lets stretch out this piece.
So does it mean that in the end he preferred his own song writing company? Well, on the album thats coming out in September Ive done the same thing, really. Ive collaborated with the arranger on about five songs. His name is Michael Omartian. Hes sort of David Paichs predecessor, if you like.
He was a keyboard player for several years, writer, talented arranger and worked with every major recording artist in L.A. Hes just known as the most tasteful, proficient, imaginative not the most, but one of the most he just had that reputation of being a jack of all trades, having a good feel for R&B things and having an extensive classical background.
Michael tends to bring in a more advanced, more progressive musical style than I would write, because Im not a proficient piano player or chord stylist.
I generally write things around just what I know, where he would tend to bring in these more advanced changes. Its given the album a more progressive feel.
Tell us more about the new meisterwerk. It has the same general character as Silk Degrees that is, we cover a variety of things. Some light hazy things, some unusual instrumentation some serious ballad kind of formats, some very rock kind of things.
Same variety of things but taken a step further, musically. Its very lyrical, there are pretty chords, its pretty music and lush in a certain way, but its perhaps a little harder and a little more complicated, musically.
There is no title as yet. Thats usually the last thing I do. After we finish up in London I have two more weeks of work on it to do. I go back to L.A. and do three more vocals and have yet to write lyrics to three tunes.
Boz has a tried-and-tested technique in the studio. He handpicks a group of sessioners, making full use of their experience, versatility and ability to integrate and originate rather than dominate.
The pattern then goes something like this: I have a sketch, a rough idea of what its going to be about musically, the rhythmic pattern, what kind of changes I want it to go through.
If the session is supposed to start at 7.00, well show up then and the arranger and myself will go into the other room with the piano. Well spend five minutes and then come out, give it to the band, cut it and an hour later its done. And thats it.
Some cases well walk in and have no idea what were going to do, but we rely very heavily on the musicians that is, we give them a free hand. We just start talking about an idea, or Joe (Wissert, of course, who is also handling the latest album) and I will discuss a type of feel that we want.
For instance, Joe will say, Lets try something thats j-a-z-z-y, up-cum-progressive, pretty, that will lend itself to just a whole modern progressive treatment. So Omartian and I will just start putting together something that sounds like that.
The henchmen on the up-and-coming album include Omartian (keyboards), Scotty Edwards (Bass), Jay Graden (guitar), Jeff Porcaro (drums) and Ray Parker (guitar).
It so happened that everything fell very naturally into place with them. Jeff happened to be working with Omartian, who happened to be working with Ray Parker, one of the hottest guitar players on the scene right now. He has just got a solo contract with Arista.
Jay Graden has been growing up over the last couple of years as probably one of the most in-demand guitar players in L.A. After this tour, hes going out on the road with Steely Dan.
Porcaro and Edwards are in the current outfit which London will see this week. The others are Steve Lukather (guitar) Jay Winding (keyboards), Steve Porcaro (Jeffs brother, on synthesizers), Lenny Castro (percussion), John Madrid (trumpet), Adrian Tapia (sax/reeds) and three back-up singers: Venetta Fields, Charles May and Zedrick Turnbough.
Boz continues: My sessions are such that anything goes. I want to know if they dont feel like playing one night. If so, we dont play, or if they want to sit around all night and talk, well sit around and talk.
Its just open and they have complete freedom, no rush or pressure, just to give me the best, the most creative, innovative stuff that theyve got.
One long-cherished ambition for Boz is a type of revue in which he will appear sporadically but basically organise. He partly succeeded in realising it early this year during his now traditional New Year shows at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland (just across the bay from Frisco).
The concept was to make the first half jazz, an attempt to update standards for a 77 audience. All that transpired was four numbers before the band fell in behind the main-man.
It was a concept in which I wanted to retrace the origins of American popular music, from the early days of Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Stan Kenton,
Louis Armstrong. I wanted to feature various parts of it say a 40- or 50-piece orchestra and singers and dancers?. I dont want to elaborate on this too much because its an idea.
Basically, the idea is that I would like to do a Cole Porter number or several. I could come off and on. I could feature my musicians as soloists. Its an idea that I will someday get to, one way or another.
Quincy Jones does it to a sort of extent. He carries a large section; hell feature at some point one of the back-ground vocalists in a lead spot. For a time he had the Brothers Johnson in his band. It will be just kind of a full musical evening that changes and moves through various progressions.
The big band approach is already evident in Bozs more routine live presentations. I caught him in Philly, where he played an exuberant set, culled mostly from Slow Dancer and Silk Degrees.
Just as Steve Miller is a strictly taboo topic during an interview, so, it seems, is his earlier material on stage. He is now totally confident in taking the limelight and has built up a close-knit sympathy with the men behind him.
The visual attack has been developed, with the result that every number is offset by a backdrop of some kind. Georgia was crooned against a deep blue sky peppered with puffy clouds.
Slow Dancer waltzed to a sort of triple sunset over-looking a mountain range. A starry, starry nightscape nestled behind Were All Alone.
One new song, called, I think, Hard Times, was given its first trial run and sounded messy. A synthesized growl underscored a straightforward and constantly intoned chorus of, I am falling back into a spell (or was it cell?).
The strangest aspect was the audience. Sixteen-year-old wide eyes outnumbered everyone else by about two to one. Is this the start of Scaggs the sex bomb? Next thing Playgirl will want him.