The Times UK Boz Scaggs Interview

The Times - UK - Boz Scaggs Interview

[By:  Nigel Williamson - July 13, 2003]

Change is good for the soul singer:

In his lengthy career, Boz Scaggs has gone from hippy rock star to pop-soul singer. Now he's back in London trying out jazz chops. He tells our critic how he did it his way.

They have an elegant term to describe artists of a certain age in America “heritage act”. It’s a phrase that fits Boz Scaggs like a glove. Over a career that began in the 1960s, he’s put in time as a West Coast hippy rock star with the Steve Miller Band, and served as a sleek-suited pop-soul singer with such multi-platinum hit solo albums as "Silk Degrees".

For most of the 1980s he retired from music to run a restaurant. But the allure of playing proved too great and in the 1990s he began performing again with a gritty R&B band. Now he’s back in a new guise as a jazz singer with But Beautiful, a set of standards that includes his stylish versions of Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered and Easy Living.

At 58, Scaggs is happy with the “heritage” tag: “I’m not in the business any more of building or promoting a career, because I did that long ago. I’m just doing what I want to do. And the experience of making this record has been one of the most challenging and rewarding I’ve ever had.”

Lately the album of standards has become something of a rock cliché: Bryan Ferry, Rod Stewart, and k.d. lang, duetting with Tony Bennett, have all done it - even Robbie Williams. The results have been spotty, to say the least.

“A number of my contemporaries have done it very successfully. And a number have failed miserably,” Scaggs concedes. Pressed for names, he sidesteps. “The first pitfall is cliché. You fall into your idea of Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald or Tony Bennett and it can become derivative and schmaltzy. These songs will burn and betray you if you don’t find your own voice.”

He admits that he could not have recorded such material when he was in his twenties: “I could probably have hit the notes but until you get some grip on the lyrical content you are not a part of these songs. There are some young stylists out there who have an amazing facility to get their vocal cords around this music. But it’s sometimes hard for them to convey the emotional wealth of these songs.”

Softly spoken and unfailingly courteous, Scaggs insists that it was never his plan to make an album of standards. Four years ago, he lent his studio in San Francisco to a jazz trio led by the pianist Paul Nagel. Shortly afterwards, Scaggs was asked to play a benefit concert and asked Nagel’s trio to accompany him. They performed several of Scaggs’s hits, then pulled Rodgers and Hart’s My Funny Valentine out of the air: “The audience liked it. I liked it. And that’s when the bug bit me.”

Yet it was another three years before they went into the studio to make But Beautiful. “It took more than learning the songs and perfecting the vocal techniques,” Scaggs explains. “It was about gaining confidence and learning to own these songs as a singer.”

He found that a tune such as Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Lady was more tricky to sing than the blues and R&B. “The intonation and phrasing are more complex and there’s a lot more harmonic information. The great voices of the past have used these songs as a vehicle, so the challenge is in finding a different interpretation. You can get into a lot of trouble with this material but it’s intoxicating. These songs are just there waiting, like fruit on the vine.”

Brought up in Texas in a well-to-do family, Scaggs grew up on a musical diet of Ray Charles, Bobby Bland and James Brown. By the mid-1960s he had become a “dharma bum”, spending two-and-a-half years travelling overland to India and Nepal.

“The allure of places like Kabul and Kathmandu and all those stops along the way was very romantic,” he recalls. “And it gave me a view of myself and a definition of the world I live in that I still hold.”

By the time his old school friend Steve Miller sent him an air ticket to come home and play guitar in his band, it was 1967. In keeping with the spirit of the times, they gravitated to San Francisco, where Scaggs helped Miller make a couple of classic hippy albums - Children of the Future and Brave New World. “I liked the band but not the scene very much,” Scaggs says.

He soon quit for a solo career, making a string of albums, including My Time and Slow Dancer. But the big commercial breakthrough came with 1976’s Silk Degrees, a suave soul-pop collection which sold five million copies in America alone, spawned the Top Ten singles What Can I Say and Lido, and won him a Grammy.

Then in 1980, at the height of his popularity, he walked away. “Success had leached all the creative stuff out of me,” he says today. “I was burnt out. Music had become routine and I wasn’t doing it any longer for the love.”

He had intended to take six months off. In fact, he made just one record in the next 14 years. In the interim, he opened Slim’s, a music bar and restaurant in San Francisco.

Since his musical return in the mid-1990s, he’s made four albums and played his first British dates in 20 years. This week he’s back, promising a set that will range from blues and R&B classics to jazz standards and his mid-1970s hits. “It’s very mysterious, this music thing,” he says. “It’s been bugging me all my life. And it still seems to be there.”

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