Silk Degrees launched Boz Scaggs’ solo career, and Toto too: ‘So much talent and invention’

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When Boz Scaggs released Silk Degrees in March 1976, he was on his way to a five-times platinum smash. We know that now. The truth is, the album didn’t immediately start spooling off huge hits. The lead single “It’s Over” only reached No. 38 in 1976. But then came “Lowdown,” a Grammy-award winning No. 3 smash co-written with David Paich, later of Toto fame. It also streaked to No. 5 on both the R&B and the now-defunct disco charts.

Scaggs’ career was, after a two-album late-1960s stint with Steve Miller and six previous solo releases, finally on its way. “Lido Shuffle” from Silk Degrees would go to No. 11 in 1977, opening the door for four consecutive Top 20 singles in 1980 alone.

Known initially as a blues-rocking gun-slinger, Silk Degrees also highlighted a period in which Boz Scaggs went from being a guitarist who sang toward a new musical persona as a vocalist who also played a little guitar. The decision was spurred, in no small way, by the presence of sessions aces that included David Paich, Jeff Porcaro, David Hungate, Les Dudek, Tom Scott, Chuck Findley and Little Feat’s Fred Tackett.

“That sort of happened when I started working with studio musicians,” Boz Scaggs tells us in an exclusive Something Else! Sitdown, laughing. “It’s very intimidating, to me, to be around the best musicians of my age, the best ones in the LA studio scene. Really, the songs and the arrangements that I was doing at that time were beyond my technical capacity to play.”

Enter Paich, Porcaro and Hungate, who would eventually form the nucleus of Toto with Steve Lukather, a future collaborator of Boz Scaggs’ on the platinum-selling followups Down Two Then Left and Middle Man. David Paich credits their work with Scaggs as a kind of big-bang moment for Toto.

“I’m not sure if Toto would have happened as soon, or quite the same way, without Silk Degrees,” Paich says, in a separate Something Else! Sitdown. “Those were formative years for Jeffrey Porcaro, David Hungate and myself. It was instrumental in launching Toto. So, I owe him a lot. That was a turning-point album. He allowed me so much freedom, and we were able to write just a whole range of things. We went from Stones-y rock ‘n’ roll to pop R&B to some jazzy things like on ‘Harbor Lights.’ Jeff — to whom I owe the introduction to Boz Scaggs — was the most important guy I ever met in my life. When you put those kind of guys in the studio, and give them freedom, you end up with things like Silk Degrees. You end up with things like Toto IV.”

Boz Scaggs would eventually write nearly a dozen tracks with David Paich, including five on Silk Degrees alone. They’d score a No. 14 1981 hit with “Miss Sun,” which had originally been demoed for use by Toto, and reunite again for 2001’s Dig, as well.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Let’s explore outside of ‘Silk Degrees’ in Boz Scaggs’ lengthy catalog, from his bluesier fare to one of those psychedelic Steve Miller sides to some boffo bossa nova.]

“We really hit it off,” Scaggs adds. “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.”

Including live dates and a compilation, Scaggs has put out more 14 albums since Silk Degrees, covering an amazing amount of musical ground. Like Toto, who just released Toto XIV, he has a new album on the way, titled A Fool to Care. But much of Boz Scaggs’ fanbase will always associate him with the canny mix of blue-eyed soul, sleek AM pop and adult-contemporary jazz found on Silk Degrees — and especially “Lowdown.” Scaggs says he’s fine with that, though he occasionally tweaks their original arrangements to keep things fresh.

“I don’t think I’ll ever move beyond ‘Lowdown,’ as a song. It fits me,” Scaggs tells us. “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, and it still works. It feels good.”

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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