We took a break from our non-stop heavy rotation of Boz Scaggs’ new Top 20 album Memphis to dig further back into his stirring catalog of sophisticated soul, sizzling R&B and gritty blues.
Scaggs goes in-depth on fertile collaborations with Toto’s David Paich and with Duane Allman. He also talks about how a mid-1960s stint in London fed into a lasting connection with Georgie Fame, and takes us inside the construction of his most recent previous album — the Speak Low standards set recorded with Gil Goldstein’s Septet.
Oh, and we couldn’t talk Scaggs without giving Silk Degrees a spin, right?
“MISS SUN” (HITS!, 1980): Just one of nearly a dozen songs co-written with David Paich, “Miss Sun” was a No. 14 hit in 1981, after it was included as the new track on Scaggs’ Hits! compilation. Paich, Jeff Porcaro and David Hungate had earlier worked on Scaggs’ breakthrough release, 1976′s Silk Degrees, before forming the band Toto with Bobby Kimball, Steve Porcaro and Steve Lukather. The Toto connection would continue for Scaggs. Lukather and Jeff Porcaro, for instance, appeared on Down Two Then Left and Middle Man. Toto, minus Kimball and Steve Porcaro, appears on “Miss Sun” as well. But it was Paich who would prove to be a key collaborator into the new century — co-writing five songs on Silk Degrees, as well as six tracks on 2001′s Dig.
BOZ SCAGGS: We really hit it off. I think that we really opened doors for each other. It was not a great secret in LA about those guys. The broader group of people in the studio scene were already aware, in particular, of Jeff Porcaro and David Paich as proteges, and David Hungate had made himself the third member of that trio. During the course of that time, Steve Lukather showed up — and there was a little core of musicians that had grown up around Jeff and David, and it all came together. There was so much talent and musicality and invention with those guys. Nobody was really surprised. I heard them about three years ago. I did some shows with them. They still have an enormous popularity in Asia and Europe, and they still play there. They are just very powerful musical figures. You called it, though. David Paich is the single most important relationship I have in my musical career. He has given me so much. The work we have done subsequently is really important to me, as well. I still look for any opportunity to work with him.
“DINDI” (SPEAK LOW, 2008): Antonio Carlos Jobim’s lilting classic is the perfect vehicle for Scaggs’ collaboration with Gil Goldstein’s jazz outfit, sweetly reminiscent yet deeply sensual. Leave it to Scaggs to take a smart turn into jazz amidst the cacophony of hip hop and plastic pop. After all, he was the guy playing elemental blues during the counterculture 1960s, and very adult soul in the disco days of the 1970s. Elsewhere, on his 17th studio effort — a set of carefully drawn moods, and the second in a series of jazz-inflected pop albums — we find Rodgers and Hart’s “She Was Too Good To Me,” Kurt Weill’s title track and Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark,” among others. Crisp yet cozy, Speak Low isn’t so much a left turn as the next iteration in the Boz Scaggs aesthetic. Unsurprisingly, the selection process was lengthy.
BOZ SCAGGS: We started literally going through all of the material we could get our hands on. Of course, there are some very rich sources — particularly when you can go on line and listen to snippets of the great majority of those songs, done by different vocalists at different times, with different approaches. It’s a fantastic process. I think I spent a year and a half, or two years, looking for material, working with the piano player and exploring that material. There were literally hundreds of songs, and from that a good 40 or 50 that I put my voice to, to see if I could find some expression in it. Once I started that process, I found out that there really was a subset — a limited amount of material that would fit into the quartet approach. You try to mix it up a lot, though you tend to go into a lot of ballads, because that’s what that era was. You find yourself with hundreds and hundreds of choices, but it really comes down to less than a couple of dozen songs that you really want to approach. Then you narrow it down further in performance.
“LOAN ME A DIME,” with DUANE ALLMAN (BOZ SCAGGS, 1969): Recorded at Alabama’s now-legendary Muscle Shoals studio, with a group of sessions players that would also eventually become world famous, Boz Scaggs has a crackling, very improvisational feel. That led to forays not just into blue-eyed soul, R&B and blues, but even into country — making this a prototype of the Americana movement to come. Fenton Robinson’s “Loan Me a Dime,” a torrid highlight which grew out of the album’s loose, music-focused sessions, is given an expansive reading — showcasing the powerful and yet sensitive work of the still-emerging Duane Allman, who had already impressed Scaggs with previous sideman gigs.
BOZ SCAGGS: The ones that came out of just being there were the Jimmy Rogers song “Waiting for A Train,” and “Loan Me A Dime,” which I brought with me but I didn’t really have any idea about the arrangement — and it was only at the last minute, when we were looking for a song. The others, I had been writing and preparing for a while. We had some time left with the musicians, and I said, “well, there’s this song …,” and it went from there. I was aware of the Muscle Shoals players. They were rated very highly in my book, because I was aware of the work that they had done with Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin and Clarence Carter and others, but they were sort of new to the mainstream. I think it was shortly thereafter that they did the Rolling Stones and Paul Simon and the long list that goes with Muscle Shoals.
“IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN ME,” with GEORGIE FAME (COOL CAT BLUES, 1990): Ben Sidran constructed Cool Cat Blues as an all-star outing for Fame, a huge R&B-influenced star in England who never found much success stateside. The album included appearances from Van Morrison, Robben Ford, Steve Gadd, Jon Hendricks and — on this classic old Ray Charles hit — Scaggs, an unabashed fan. Sidran’s relationship with Scaggs goes back to a college band they both were in that featured a young Steve Miller. Scaggs and Sidran also appeared on the first Steve Miller Band album, 1968′s Children of the Future. Scaggs had become enamored with Fame during a mid-1960s stay in London, and eventually came to count him as a key influence.
BOZ SCAGGS: He was one of the preeminent club stars at that time. He, along with John Mayall, were among only a handful of bandleaders who were exploring the material of Ray Charles, Jimmy Reed, Howlin’ Wolf, Bobby “Blue” Bland and T Bone Walker — and that’s the school I came out of, as a kid growing up in Texas. To come to London and see those guys was just a mind blower. It’s very interesting that you mention that. Georgie was a proponent of that stuff. I had been aware of him for a long time. He really took that jazz influence and explored it. I’ve done Georgie Fame going all the way back to those days.
“LOWDOWN,” (SILK DEGREES, 1976): A Grammy-award winning track for best R&B song, co-written with Toto’s David Paich, “Lowdown” became Scaggs’ first major hit — going to No. 3 on the pop charts and No. 5 on both the R&B and now-defunct disco charts. He’s put out more than a dozen albums since then, covering an amazing amount of musical ground, but much of Scaggs’ fanbase will always associate him with songs from Silk Degrees, especially “Lowdown.” Scaggs says he’s fine with that, though he occasionally tweaks their original arrangements to keep things fresh.
BOZ SCAGGS: I don’t think I’ll ever move beyond “Lowdown,” as a song. It fits me. The words resonate, the chords resonate, it’s right for my voice, it’s right for my approach. Some of those songs, I’ll just stay with. The Allen Toussaint song, “What Do You Want the Girl To Do,” I still perform that. A song like “Lido,” I can do it literally right off the record — which we do, with the Dukes of September — as an encore, and it still works. It feels good. It’s got a little more of a modern interpretation. But I can do that song in a ZZ Top kind of style, and it feels good. It changes it up a little for me and the band, and keeps it fresh. I still do “Georgia,” I do “Harbor Lights” — a song that’s open to all sorts of interpretations. So, not to blow my own horn, but it’s like a standard from the ’40s or ’50s, if a song is good, it can stand up to numerous interpretations over time. Some of those songs just hang in there with me. I enjoy doing them. I have enough material that I can move pretty freely with what I want to do, but I like these songs.