Boz Scaggs Interview - Dark Star 9
William Royce Scaggs, better known as Boz, has it seems finally 'arrived' in the commercial sense. Success, however, has not been easy to find and this article is an attempt to put Bozs long hard slog to stardom into perspective.
The heady days of the sixties centred, as far as most rock aficionados are concerned, firmly on San Francisco. It seemed that virtually all the worthwhile music of the time emanated from that particular area the rock and roll 'Mecca'. This is only partly true, however, since through the emergence of bands like the Dead, Quicksilver and the Airplane, San Francisco rapidly became the place for musicians from the rest of the States to gather. Eventually, therefore, the city became a focal point where various styles and ideas were slapped into a musical melting pot, and the San Francisco Sound was the inevitable result.
One of the attractions of the city was the comparative freedom to play anywhere, with anybody, and be able to do so in front of an audience which was both appreciative and attentive. Boz describes a pretty common sort of conversation:
Got a new song today; were gonna go sit in with so and so tonight. See you over The Matrix would you like to play with us tonight?
Steve Miller was one of the early flood of musical immigrants, having paid his dues in Texas before going on to sweat it out in the somewhat exclusive Chicago blues scene. Keen to capitalise on the aforementioned freedom, and the more responsive media in the area, he worked continually to establish considerable respect throughout the Bay Area. In tow at the time, as second guitarist, was the hero of our piece, who had been recruited as a replacement for Curley Cooke, and whose career has been inextricably intertwined with Millers right from the very beginning. Indeed, both had top twenty singles at the same time late last year; Millers earlier incursion with The Joker being the only previous indication that either was remotely recognised on these shores.
The Boz story starts in Canton, Ohio in 1944, where he was born to a travelling salesman and his wife. Roughly ten years later the family moved to Plano, Texas, where prolonged exposure to local radio programmes did a fairly effective job of submerging the youthful Scaggs in Texas Shuffle. He won a scholarship to St. Marks, a nearby private school, and there joined his first band at the age of fifteen. The group also included Steve Miller and his brother, sons of a Texas doctor whose patients included many local blues musicians who would play at the Millers house parties in exchange for their treatment (since they were all too poor to pay for it). Steve soon learned all the licks and decided to form a group, taking his buddy Scaggs along for the ride. Called The Marksmen, they appeared on stage in ridiculous suits with wide shoulders, extra-long lapels and so on, not to mention Ray Charles style shades. It was a six-piece unit and their material was mostly drawn from the catalogues of blues singers like T-Bone Walker, Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed plus Drifters and Clovers numbers and an early version of Gangster of Love.
At first Boz merely played tambourine and sang, but Miller was teaching him to play guitar along the way. Scaggs bought his first axe at the tender age of sixteen, but shortly afterwards Miller got himself expelled from school and that was the end of that. They kept in touch, however, and Boz eventually rejoined Miller at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 1962, by which time Steve had gotten together with Kenny Boyer and Denny Burr to form The Ardells. With the addition of Kenny Adamony, who later gave up performing to pursue a career in the management side of the business. They were also doing summer season gigs as the Knight Trains. Boz was quickly added to the ranks and occasionally Ben Sidran, who was to figure very prominently in Millers subsequent recording career, dropped by for a blow. Sidran remembers the band as a drunken brawl:
We were thrown off campuses for just general rowdiness. Wed play jobs, or theyd play jobs depending on whether I was playing with them that night, and the trouble would start and theyd blame the band, which then became outlawed from that particular school or whatever it was. Fights would break out and the band got the credit for it. Steves name was mud and that was it.
When the band finally collapsed Steve went off to Chicago, where he hung around blues clubs, playing with anybody who would give him a gig. The Third World War Blues Band was his first attempt at putting a band together in the windy city but it didnt last long. Barry Goldberg came into the line-up, the name changed to The Goldberg-Miller Blues Band and although the music was of the highest calibre, the band slowly fell apart. Given studio time to produce six singles, they had set about the task with gusto but sadly only two were ever to see the light of day Mother Song/More Soul Than Soulful and Ginger Man/Shes Fine. Inevitably neither cut much ice with the record buying public and they both hurtled into oblivion.
Millers period in Chicago knocked most of the rough edges from his playing, so that he emerged from the experience a far more proficient musician than a great many of his contemporaries. Armed with all this experience he went back to Texas and hung loose for a while considering his next move. As it happened the West Coast thing was beginning to warm up and he figured that San Francisco offered the ideal scenario for his next musical onslaught upon the ears of non-initiates. Thus he promptly headed west and set up The Miller Band, which metamorphosed into The Steve Miller Blues Band and finally ended up as The Steve Miller Band.
Scaggs, meanwhile, had not been idle. Frustrated with the situation he found himself in with The Ardells, he went his own way and wound up at the University of Texas, where he gathered several other musicians around him and formed The Wigs. Those involved were Bob Arthur and John Andrews (who subsequently went on to Mother Earth) and George Rains who later worked with The Shades Of Joy and Sir Douglas Quintet, before re-joining Scaggs for the classic Moments sessions. The Wigs came over the London (although there is some doubt as to whether Rains was with them at the time) in the hope that their particular brand of blues would set England alight. On arrival, however, they found the British blues scene doing very nicely, thank you:
Basically it was and R n B sort of thing and it was the cleanest, most proficient R n B Id ever heard. They were really deep into it amazing blues artists. Theyd studied it, gotten down every chop and lick, and then they started in on their own style.
Boz had no money when they arrived in London, but existed on the small amounts that the other two brought with them. The idea was to get a manager who could arrange work permits, gigs and recording sessions, but nothing worked the way they had planned and Scaggs had to work nights in restaurants washing dishes and preparing food in order to survive. Finally he got so fed up with it all that he decided to split for Europe. He left his guitar with the others as collateral for the money he owed them and upped and went.
I went to Copenhagen first. Then by the summer of 65, when the weather was getting warm, I hopped over to Paris for a while, then on to Spain and back up to Southern France.
He would borrow guitars as he went and play in street cafes and cinema queues, just managing to eke out a living as best he could.
I played things like an old Inez and Charlie Foxx tune called Mockingbird and the Righteous Brothers Youve Lost That Lovin Felling and an old Drifters shuffle called Steamboat. Just loud R n B stuff mostly.
It was sort of hand to mouth and I was living pretty loose, but the weather was good and I always found a place to sleep one way or another.
Stockholm became his home base while he bummed around from 65 to 67, because the club scene was quite good and he had a small following there.
I got to know most of the musicians in the city, played with them. One of the most popular bands in Sweden at that time were The Merry Men. They were doing an R n B kind of thing and they asked me to come in on one of their recording sessions, help out on arrangements, play the guitar add some background vocals. They were recording things like the old Coasters number, Searchin, except they didnt really know the words.
So we got into the studio and I was singing for them when their producer suddenly asked me to do a solo album. It was a low budget thing, recorded for Polydor. Came out in Sweden and Denmark, did pretty well, too.
The record, titled simply Boz, provided him with the opportunity to put on plastic some of the songs hed been performing plus some others, and the track-listing includes Girl From The North Country, Stormy Monday Blues, Let The Good Times Roll, C.C. Rider, Hey Baby and of course Gangster of Love. Sadly it was never issued over here and remains something of a collector's item.
With his limited success, Boz did some T.V. things but it didnt alter his lifestyle much. On returning from a spontaneous hop to India, he found a postcard from Steve Miller waiting for him. The content of the message was simple Steve wanted him back in San Francisco to play guitar in his new band. So, after due deliberation and no small amount of hassles about money, Boz decided to return home and join Miller.
Thus it was that in September 1967, The Steve Miller Band was ready to roll in earnest. The band made two LPs while Boz was involved, Children of the Future and Sailor. The albums are well enough known in themselves not to warrant a lengthy discussion at this point. What is worth noting however, is that a single, Sitting In Circles was cut around the time of Children of the Future and engineered by Glyn Johns; Roll With It was the B-side. Although it bombed at the time, it was a particularly good version of the song and far superior to composer Barry Goldbergs own recording on his Reunion album. It is a simple and somewhat pedestrian number rescued largely by the vocal delivery which is not surprisingly reminiscent of the album.
Steve Miller: That was the very first single we made. Boz and I were very impressed by The Walker Brothers at that stage, as you can hear from the record. It vanished as if down a mail chute from 200 storeys. Miller also claims that the three tracks on the Revolution sound track were made at the very end of the Children of the Future session, although this is by no means substantiated by other evidence or the sound of the record.
Both Children of the Future and Sailor are admirable, but whereas the former has aged less well, Sailor is still widely regarded as a classic. But at the time of recording it all was not well within the band. Both Scaggs and Miller have very definite ideas about the production and arrangement of their material and it was obvious that sooner or later these differences would lead to clashes. They did:-
Steve and I, we were both doing different things. On stage, for instance, I would do my songs, he would sing his songs. And in the studio, I would do my songs and he would do his . The split was inevitable, really.
Any cross-fertilisation of ideas and talents that ended up on the record, therefore, was achieved through skilful use of overdubs. Boz decided to go his own way in September 1968, just a year after he joined and one month after the completion of Sailor. Miller, of course, went on to achieve considerable critical acclaim for his later waxings while Scaggs, who had by now developed into a genuine high-flying guitar player himself, drifted into obscurity. An interesting insight into the relative merits of Scaggs and Miller as guitar players was provided by Mike Wilhelm:-
He (Miller) didnt let Boz solo too much cause Boz could blow him off something bad.
It was in the subsequent period of inactivity that Boz met and befriended Jann Wenner, who was getting Rolling Stone moving at the time, and the idea of the Atlantic album was spawned. The sessions were fixed for Muscle Shoals and the resultant album appeared in August 1969. The record is something of a milestone, probably best remembered (although wrongly in my opinion) for Loan Me A Dime, where Duane Allman went apeshit and dragged Muscle Shoals into a forty five minute jam, subsequently edited down for the record. There are plenty of other gems on the album, however, which demonstrates throughout Scaggs ability to handle the various styles of music with equal competence. A special word though for the female backing vocalists Jeannie Greene, Mary Holliday and Donna Thatcher (now Godcheaus and alive and well with the Dead). Listen to them wailing away on Sweet Release for example absolutely stunning. An interesting note here: although Sue Pilkington is pictured on the cover with the other girls, it appears that she didnt actually sing on the record. When it came to putting the cover together there was only one photograph of the others available and Sue happened to be in it too, so on she went !
Wenner played an immense part in getting the album done and Boz is not slow to credit him for it:
Jann just has a way of pushing, you know . Do you have a song for me? Id like to hear it and Ill say . Sort of, but I dont have all the words yet, theres still one chorus that needs to be done, and hell go Well sit down and heres some paper and a pen, just sit down and do it.
The record highlighted the difference between Scaggs and Millers musical identities and provided a firm base on which Scaggs could steadily build his reputation as a musician, songwriter and arranger. Atlantic, however, did not promote the album as well as they might have done and Boz had a lengthy search ahead of him in order to find the company which would release his future product.
Working with the Muscle Shoals session crew had affected him to such a degree that he decided to rest up for a while in the South. He had befriended the whole Macon, Georgia family and headed back there when the sessions were finished. He claims that he only intended to stay for a few days, but an interesting management deal evolved linking the Scaggs fortunes with one Phil Walden and brother Alan.
Initially things went well, with the result that Bozs lady, Carmela, arrived from San Francisco and they stayed in a cabin loaned to them by Alan Walden, located somewhere out in the Georgia woods. They lounged about there for roughly eight months until the advance money from Atlantic began to run out and the lower the financial reserves sank, the larger the idea of forming a band and going on the road became. Phil Walden had different ideas it seems:
He had a feeling that I wasnt gonna do anything right then that I didnt have to do, and he was probably right up to a point, so I asked him to give me back my management contract.
Having sorted all this out, Boz and Carmela piled their gear into a car and hightailed it back to Frisco, arriving on a Tuesday. Scaggs rapidly contacted a few musicians, knocked the whole thing into shape, and the resultant group started working together on the following Thursday night. By the end of the month (January 1970), they were gigging five or six nights a week in clubs like The Keystone, The Matrix and The Lions Share. After a short time these gave way to concerts in better quality venues like The Fillmore, which drew greater interest from record companies. Although CBS were not the highest bidders for his talents, they eventually took home the goodies, largely, according to Boz, as a result of their greater interest and an awareness of what they were doing.
The first album on the new label was Moments, produced by Glyn Johns who had done the same job on the two albums Scaggs had recorded with The Steve Miller Band. Recorded in April of 1971, it is a nifty little piece, more suave and sophisticated than the Atlantic set, and to my mind every inch a classic. The horn players Pat OHara, Mel Martin and Bill Attwood are used to good effect, and the exquisite John McFee (who had been put under considerable pressure at times to join the Scaggs entourage see Dark Star 6) adds some delightful pedal steel. The nucleus of the group was Scaggs guitar and vocals, George Rains drums, Jym Young keyboards, David Brown bass, Doug Simril guitar and keyboards, and the three aforementioned horn players. On 30th June 1971 they were given the honour of taking part in the week of farewell concerts staged at The Fillmore West and a nine-minute version of Babys Calling Me Home made it on to the triple album set. Furthermore, Boz himself showed up and jammed with Elvin Bishop and Taj Mahal the following night and as a result, Were Gonna Rock and Long And Tall also made it on to the package. The Moments line-up was reasonably stable and the whole shebang came over to London to record the follow-up album, Boz Scaggs and Band. Glyn Johns was retained as producer and the band remained the same except that Tom Poole (who was inadvertently credited as Tom Slope on the cover of that previous album, on which he didnt even appear) replaced Bill Attwood.
Scaggs love of London was the prime reason for coming over to do And Band:
I wanted to bring them over here to get the same flash from London that I get off it, and wed be able to harness that on the album, but it didnt work completely that way because they got such a flash off London that they were completely destroyed as far as the music went.
Incidentally, while they were here they played a couple of gigs in front of a few privileged people at the Roundhouse and Hampstead Country Club. The promoter of the latter described it as the best gig ever.
The album itself further emphasised the luxurious textures that were exhibited on Moments, with those precise Scaggs vocals being delivered against a rich musical backdrop. Runnin Blue, my particular favourite, is a brief and jazzy excursion into the world of urban blues with neatly clipped guitar lines and expertly restrained horn playing, while Love Anyway and Flames of Love (itself a leftover from the Moments sessions) are typical examples of the sound Boz was developing and Up To You casts more than a casual glance in the direction of a more commercial pop sound. Its a well balanced album showcasing Scaggs many talents and is a more than adequate follow-up to the masterpiece that went before.
Boz and Band were not exactly over-active when they returned to the States, however, and when the album hit the shops it did not do quite as well as its predecessor. Boz feels that the reason for this was the lack of live dates they were doing, but things were getting a little difficult within the camp. These difficulties became apparent to the music world as a whole when the group folded around October of 1971, leaving Boz and Jym Young four completed tracks towards the next album and no band to finish it off with. During the enforced lay-off, therefore, Scaggs went back to Muscle Shoals and put the rest of the album together using many of the musicians who had contributed to much of the Atlantic record. The whole package was unleashed in October 1972 and a group was hastily put together to promote the album.
The ensuing tour with a line-up of Scaggs, Young, David Brown, Rick Shlosser and Jack Shroer included the now legendary concert at the Berkeley Community Centre, when no less than thirty musicians ended up on stage at one time. There was Boz and his band as the nucleus surrounded by a horn section, a vocal group consisting of Linda Tillery, Dorothy Morrison, Debra Zaporta and Wendy Hass, a Latin rhythm section and a string section. Even Tracy Nelson had a blow, singing for the first time in ages in the area where her career had begun. She belted away at her own blend of gospel, country and blues for a while before duetting with Boz as the band rocked merrily behind.
My Time itself is a delicious blend of the various major influences upon Scaggs, namely Tamla, Steve Miller type blues things and a hint of country.
The country influence would perhaps come from the fact that half the album was done in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Basically, its not country, but a country/blues sort of influence which they made famous there. Its very much their sound, and a good deal to do with their approach to it. I was merely the singer bringing the songs to them.
Those tracks that were completed by the previous band include an exquisite version of Allen Toussaints Freedom For The Stallion (probably the high spot of the album) and a ball-busting rocker in Full Lock Power Slide which cunningly leads into the most delicate of the songs from the old band, Old Time Lovin.
The remaining six cuts are all excellent, once more embellished by female back-up vocals bearing the same stamp as those on Boz Scaggs courtesy of Sandra Chalmers and Donna Rhodes. Dinah Flo was selected as a single and did moderately well in the States while the title track stylishly concludes a very fine album which could be argued to be the turning point in Bozs career.
1972 also saw a scratch band go on the road to fill out the Humble Pie/Slade I.S. tour, which was of considerable interest because it brought Scaggs and Miller together again, and by all accounts they really cooked ! It was only a sideline however, and once the tour was over, each returned to his own group. Scaggs went on the road and toured extensively through 1973, but eventually weariness began to take over and he decided to rest up awhile. He disbanded the group and neither played live not recorded for almost a year. When he finally decided that he was ready to record again he found that Johnny Bristol had been signed to Columbia as a producer and somehow it all clicked together. Between them they assembled as fine a bunch of session men as youll find anywhere and set about doing Slow Dancer in Hollywood. Three songs were done as an experiment and since the results were considered satisfactory, they went ahead with the project. It was done November through January and was a completely new experience for Scaggs in that he used an arranger (H.B. Barnum). Much of the actual graft was done before even going in to the studio:-
After having given the song to the arranger we would come back several days later, cut the song, and it would be like hearing a different song back.
Although he was very excited about it at the time, Scaggs later suggested that the initial rush had paled somewhat and with hindsight was less enthusiastic about the whole thing:-
I had some reservations about the album because Id put myself in an awkward position by not taking a stronger part in the actual control of the music.
Despite all that, Slow Dancer was favourably reviewed all over the place, and leant itself perfectly to the full-blooded orchestral treatment Scaggs had devised for the follow-up tour. The massive project involved a thirty-plus piece symphony orchestra and the gigs were to be fixed for Classical concert halls rather than the usual rock outlets. The band which consisted of Les Dudek guitar, Tom Salisbury keyboards, Gene Santini bass, and Rick Shlosser drums, were decked out in tuxedos, while the girl back-up vocalists wore long dresses and even the audiences were invited to wear black ties. Indeed, most of them took up the option too.
Needless to say, problems were encountered in getting the proprietors of the halls to allow a rock band to use their hallowed ground, but the crippling prejudice was overcome and most of the concerts went off without a hint of trouble. In fact they received such critical acclaim that Boz considered bringing the whole package over to Britain, but as with all his planned tours of these fair isles, it never happened, and while we waited he got another album together.
A short digression here devoted to Les Dudek would reveal a musician of mammoth stature but who is still sadly under-rated in his own right. Born in Florida, he worked his way through The Allman Brothers Macon trip during which he worked on Jessica and Ramblin Man, before lining up with Scaggs and Miller, making the trio to Knebworth with the latter in 1975. His own debut album, which marks Scaggs first production on a record other than his own, is a veritable gem and should have found its way into many more record collections than it did.
Silk Degrees hit the stores at the beginning of 76 and scored points in all the places where Slow Dancer had fallen short the songs were better, the playing was more incisive and gone was the hang on in there slouch of Bristol and Barnum. The back-up crew consisted mainly of Hollywood session musicians, including Fred Tackett, Jim Horn, Jeff Porcaro, Chuck Finley and David Paich. In many ways it is a natural follow-up to Slow Dancer, but for my tastes it far surpasses its predecessor since Scaggs natural flair and ability are allowed to shine instead of being engulfed in sometimes overweight production.
Once the album was out, Scaggs took to the road again using John Madrid on trumpet, Steve Leeds reeds, Dan Ferguson guitar, Kevin Calhoun percussion, Steve Porcaro keyboard/synthesiser, Phyliss St. James and Becky Lewis backing vocals, David Paich keyboards, David Hungate bass and Jeff Porcaro on drums. What I believe to be the first Boz Scaggs bootleg is a recording of this lot in full flight and it is particularly fine. The title is Jump Street Jive Drive and it contains very creditable performances of I Got Your Number, Dinah Flo, Lido Shuffle, What Can I Say and Lowdown to name but five. Worth getting hold of if you can.
The official album, however, has stayed in the American album charts for months on end and has been liberally plundered for singles. Lowdown received an incredible amount of airplay on staid old Radio One which ensured a respectable chart placing, while its follow-up What Can I Say did measurably better, reaching the number 7 slot according to the Melody Maker chart. Those of you who still have the stomach to suffer the occasional viewing of Top Of The Pops may have been lucky enough to witness the lad himself zipping through his hit record and marvelled at the sight.
It is hard to pick out stand-out tracks from Silk Degrees since the quality rarely takes a dive throughout. Perhaps worthy of mention, however, are Georgia, during which Bozs vocal range is exhibited to good effect, and Jump Street which has so much power that its almost unbelievable. Scaggs tackles the songs with a confidence and assurance that at times seemed to be missing from Slow Dancer, and I cant help but think that it must be THE album of 1976.
Further confirmation of its quality is the fact that he was recently nominated for no less than five Grammy awards in the States, of which the one awarded for the best R n B song (Lowdown) eventually went home with him to grace his shelves.
All I can say in conclusion is that if you havent heard any of the records mentioned in this piece, then do so at the first available opportunity, and Im sure that before too long youll be sitting on the edge of your seat waiting for the oft promised but so far unrealised appearances in this country.
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I would like to extend my gratitude to the various individuals and publications from which information has been drawn in order to present a reasonably full history of Boz Scaggs in one place. In particular I would express my thanks to Trailing Clouds Of Glory, Rolling Stone, Zigzag, Melody Maker, Sounds, CBS Records and Mike Haines, plus of course to the mainman himself for the music.