Boz-Scaggs-Issue-No26BOZ SCAGGS 

The genre-blending genius takes on classic songs in a historic studio 

By Jeff Tamarkin

Play Boz Scaggs’ 44-year-old debut album, his 1976 multiplatinum megahit Silk Degrees, or his pair of standards records from the past decade, and one constant emerges from his music: He remains true to his vision, finding that sweet spot where R&B, pop, jazz, blues and rock intersect and then customizing it. Scaggs’ attention to detail, level of perfectionism, and endless exploratory zeal keep his music moving to new places.

Memphis, Scaggs’ new release, isn’t so much a departure as an expounding on favorite themes. A longtime devotee of vintage R&B, the Canton, Ohio, native recruited his favorite musicians—including bassist Willie Weeks and guitarist Ray Parker Jr., along with producer-drummer Steve Jordan—and headed to the titular city to record classics in one of the city’s most storied facilities, Royal Studios. “We cut the album in three days,” says Scaggs. “That wasn’t necessary but it just felt great so we kept on going.”

Scaggs applies his distinctive vocal stamp, bolstered by his emotive, perfectly framed guitar parts, on such timeless tunes as the Brook Benton’s “Rainy Night in Georgia,” Tyrone Davis’ “Can I Change My Mind,” the Moments’ “Love on a Two Way Street,” and Steely Dan’s “Pearl of the Quarter,” as well as two Scaggs originals.

From his earliest days as lead guitarist and sometime lead singer of the Steve Miller Band, to the heady, creatively teeming San Francisco scene of the late 1960s and on into the present—taking off most of the ’80s to catch his breath—Boz Scaggs has pushed the creative envelope. Since 2010 he’s also spent time collaborating on tour with two like-minded creative forces, Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen and the Doobie Brothers’ Michael McDonald, in the band they call Dukes of September. Slowing down is not on his itinerary, even at 68. “I think my voice is better than it’s ever been,” says Scaggs.


Why record at Royal Studios?

Steve Jordan and I had both worked at the studio, and once we decided on the kind of material we wanted to work with, it was obvious. The idea was to put together a rhythm section that was really used to playing together in an intimate situation in a studio that had a particular sound we associated with a time and a place in rhythm and blues. It’s the only one left like that that’s still a working studio.


Is it filled with vintage gear?

Yes, exactly. It’s the same microphones, the same console. They’ve pointedly kept everything the same, and we wanted to be there because of that sound. It’s rich and it’s got an intimacy, a closeness that’s part of what we wanted to capture with my voice and these songs.


What’s your connection to Memphis?

My first love was the music that came out of the Delta, and that was filtered through Memphis. I’ve been listening to that music as long as I’ve been listening to music. I’m still exploring Memphis; it’s an enigma to me. My grandparents were from Memphis, and I married a woman from Memphis. There’s something that calls me back there.


Why select Steve to produce?

Steve is a very dynamic character. When he comes into the room you know it. He’s very engaged with his music, and he’s very respected by all musicians. He’s clear about his ideas—there’s an aura of directness, confidence and competence with Steve. He’s also one of the greatest drummers of all time.


Why did he mic your vocals so closely? 

We wanted an intimate quality—the energy is calm and cool, rather than loud and frantic. When I can get that kind of intimacy, I go for it. We used ribbon microphones. It’s all analog gear, and you can feel the resonance, the closeness and the emotion. It’s part of why we chose these musicians, this studio, this microphone, this console. We wanted it to be close. That’s what those records that came out of there were about.


How did you choose the songs?

Songs were chosen over the last few years. I’ve been looking at a lot of rhythm and blues, and a lot of diverse material. Part of what I do as a singer is make demos for myself to fit my voice—I put them in my key and play with the arrangement some and find songs that fit. I showed Steve some of the things I’d been working on—I had 30 or 40 of them—and we talked about an approach. I played him some songs, and we chose them. There was no particular criterion other than songs we wanted to do that fit with the kind of section we wanted to put together.


You did two original songs.

They’re songs that I had sitting around for some time. I’d played Steve some demos of songs I’d written, and he gravitated toward those to encourage me to finish them. They seemed to go with the rest of this material, so we bookended the album with them.


How do you decide when to record a new album?

In the ’70s it was pretty common for most of us to go on the road, go back in the studio, go back on the road, and go back in the studio. There was an 18- or 24-month turnaround to make a record. We were young and the record industry was entirely different. Since I rejoined music after taking the ’80s off, I’ve been able to explore different aspects of my voice and the music I’m writing. I’ve been very busy since I put out the jazz vocal album Speak Low about five years ago. I’ve toured more than at any time in my career, and there really wasn’t much time to record. However, it has been on my mind, and I’ve been collecting songs and putting things together. I have some blues and a group of standards that I want to do. I have an album inspired by growing up in Texas that I want to do when I find the time.


How do you keep up your vocal chops?

I feel I have more facility than I’ve ever had. The couple of jazz albums I made were the hardest things I’ve ever done as a singer. I learned a lot and gained more control over my voice. Aging may affect the physical instrument a bit, but I’m feeling stronger than ever. There’s a point when a voice can radically change but otherwise it’s an instrument that goes on and on.


Favorite memories of playing your first big shows? 

The Fillmore and playing in Golden Gate Park—playing all over America for the first time when I had my first couple of records. Those were my first big shows. Nothing’s as vivid in one’s life as when you’re 22, and you’re making records, and on TV and in magazines.


How did Silk Degrees change your life?

Well, when you sell 5 or 6 million records you feel it. But that was my sixth or seventh record. It didn’t come out of the blue, it had been a progression. The musicians I made the record with became good friends, and they went on to become Toto and had their own success. It was finding those musicians and collaborating with them that was the most important thing about Silk Degrees.


What’s your perspective on it now?

I don’t think my voice was so hot in those days. But some of the songs have stood the test of time. I still get a lot of requests to do “Lido Shuffle,” “What Can I Say,”

“Harbor Lights” and “Lowdown.” Rita Coolidge had a big hit with a song on that record, “We’re All Alone,” and I still get a lot of requests for that, too. I have great fondness for the music and what happened, and I wish all artists could have that kind of success.


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