After all these year performing is still a thrill
Legendary entertainer Boz Scaggs has been touring in support of his latest album, “Memphis,” which was released in March.
Recorded at Memphis’ famed Royal Studio, where soul great Al Green cut so many hits in the 1970s, Scaggs’ first album in five years finds the star showcasing a couple of original songs and some choice covers interpreted in his own inimitable style.
“The album is primarily classic material, songs that are favorites that I just love to sing,” Scaggs reports.
These classic covers range from Willy DeVille’s “Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl” and the early Steely Dan song “Pearl of the Quarter,” to the blues standard “Corrina Corrina,” and Al Green’s “So Good To Be Here.”
Backed by a stellar core band of acclaimed producer/drummer Steve Jordan, guitarist Ray Parker Jr. and bassist Willie Weeks, Scaggs was also joined by guests like Mick Fleetwood Blues Band’s Rick Vito, veteran Muscle Shoals keyboardist Spooner Oldham, harpist Charlie Musselwhite, and Keb’ Mo’ on guitar.
Scaggs has extended roots in Memphis. “My father grew up there and my grandfather grew up there,” he recalls. “Although I have never lived there, it felt like something of a homecoming. We cut 13 songs in three days with no real rush. It’s really keeping with the spirit of this kind of recording. It used to be that when you worked in Muscle Shoals or American Studies and you’re Aretha Franklin or Wilson Pickett, you were given a week to do it.”
One of the greatest rhythm-and-blues singers of our time, known for such smooth, soulful hits as “Lido Shuffle,” “Lowdown,” “Georgia,” “Harbor Lights,” and “Jo Jo,” Scaggs returns to Maui to play the MACC on Nov. 14. He made his isle debut in 2008, playing with the Matt Catingub Orchestra; on subsequent visits, he coheadlined with Michael McDonald. He performed last year with fellow stars Donald Fagen and McDonald as the Dukes of September.
Before he found fame as a solo artist in the 1970s, Scaggs helped revolutionize American rock ‘n’ roll as a member of the San Francisco-based Steve Miller Band, recording the seminal albums “Children of the Future” and “Sailor.”
Miller and Scaggs had been friends in Texas. “We played in high school together, and I was in university with him for about a year,” he recalls. “We were very close friends, and then went our own way. Three or four years later, he was somewhat established with what he called the Steve Miller Blues Band in San Francisco in the mid-sixties. One of the musicians in the band took off, and Steve called me and asked if I would care to join. I was living in Sweden at the time and he sent me a ticket, and I ended up staying for a year.”
For their debut album, the musicians journeyed to London to record with acclaimed producer Glyn Johns, who worked with the Beatles, the Who and the Rolling Stones. “At the studio Jimi Hendrix was working upstairs, and the Stones would come in and do overdubs,” he remembers. “It was a time and a place that was indescribably amazing, a key time for British music. We were right in the middle of it.”
Before he joined the Miller Band, Scaggs had spent time on the streets of Europe as a busker. “You stand in front of the metro or cinema and break out the guitar and wail away and pass the hat,” he recalls. “Then the cops would come and you’d run off.”
In 1968, Scaggs left Miller to set out on his own. “It was mutually agreed upon,” he says. “Steve had his ideas of where he was going, and I had different ideas. The experience was a great one for those two albums for both of us. It was the first songs that I had written. Our styles were going in different directions. He went off with his ideas and became a trio, and I got my first recording contract with Atlantic.”
For his critically-acclaimed major label debut, Scaggs worked with the famed Muscle Shoals’ rhythm section (who backed Aretha Franklin) in Alabama, and recorded the smoldering, 12-minute epic blues of “Loan Me a Dime” with Duane Allman.
“It got a lot of critical acclaim, and it felt good to be recognized,” he notes. “It was my first step into the wider world, and on one hand I was very pleased, and on the other I was wondering what the hell to do with myself. I really didn’t have a great perspective of what I was doing at that time. I was just sort of following what presented itself day to day. It gave me the courage to go onto the next stage.”
Scaggs finally hit the jackpot with the multimillion selling “Silk Degrees,” which remained on the Billboard album charts for 115 weeks, featured three chart-topping singles, earned a Grammy and became one of the most treasured albums of the 1970s.
“It didn’t feel like such a big step,” he says. “I had made four or five albums before that. I’ve always found that each stage of my career has been incremental. In a way it was an enormous step in terms of the number of records I had sold. In those albums I’d made before, I had certain disappointments; I had thought they might reach a broader audience. I was pretty much living hand to mouth, though I was selling a few hundred thousand records and playing quite a bit, but didn’t get the breakthrough that I wished for. So when it came, it didn’t come quickly; it was very slow. When things started happening and radio started exploding, it was a wild ride. It was like OK, my number came up and off I went.”
After a couple more albums and further hit songs like “Jo Jo,” Boz decided to take a sabbatical from music that ended up lasting almost 10 years. “I had been really busy, there had been a lot of pressure on me personally,” he explains. “I had a family to take care of and two young sons. I decided to take a few months off, but that turned into a year, and a year turned into two. I just became involved with other things and stayed away from it for years.”
Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen helped bring him back to the spotlight, recruiting Scaggs for the Rock and Soul Revue. “I had made some trips to Los Angeles and began to put together pieces of an album that was eventually released in 1998,” he relays. “I became interested in recording again, and I was asked by Donald Fagen to tour with his Rock and Soul Review. It was a wonderful experience, and it put me in touch with some of my favorite contemporary musicians. The juices were high, and I got a new recording contract with Virgin Records. I felt rejuvenated, and started phase two of my career.”
This fertile period included a superb return to his R&B roots with “Come on Home,” where Scaggs interpreted classics by Jimmy Reed, Isaac Hayes and Sonny Boy Williamson, backed by musicians from Little Feat and Bonnie Raitt’s band (including Maui’s James “Hutch” Hutchinson on bass). “That one wears particularly well with me,” he notes. “We explored a lot of songs. Some were new, I had not heard before, and some were old favorites, and I wrote a few new songs.”
In recent years, he has released a brilliant concert recording, “Greatest Hits Live,” and in 2003, he successfully embraced what he terms “sacred ground,” reworking the Great American Songbook with a jazz quartet on the album, “But Beautiful, Standards, Vol.1.”
Jazz Times lauded his “impeccably good taste and vocal otherworldliness that’s at once startling and arresting,” while Rolling Stone praised, “Boz Scaggs is hardly the first rock star to turn toward the classic American songbook, but few have ever done it with the soulful ease he does on ‘But Beautiful.’ “
He followed “Beautiful” with the exceptional jazz recording “Speak Low,” collaborating with multi-Grammy-winning musician/arranger, Gil Goldstein.
“It was a challenge to learn new areas of using my voice,” says Scaggs. “I feel very fortunate to be able to do what I do, to stay in music and have a career. And I’m fortunate that I can do the things I really want to do and enjoy, and there’s a broad range of music I’m interested in.”
After more than 40 years of entertaining, Scaggs still finds it thrilling to step onstage.
“I don’t do it all that much, so when I do it’s fresh and fun and reminds me of the reason I started doing this in the first place,” he concludes. “I still love it.”