Interview with music legend Boz Scaggs – touring Oz in April
I remember as a kid, my big sister would wake the family up on Sunday mornings playing records on our trusty Phillips stereo. The music wouldn’t suddenly be blasted: that would have been mean on a lazy Sunday. Rather, she’d start of slowly with some acoustic James Taylor, veer into a Fleetwood Mac Rumours vibe, then shift into grooves from Boz Scaggs’ Silk Degrees.
By the time I’d hear those infectious Philly-style keys of Scaggs’ What Can I Say, I’d be out of bed, jumping up and down in our living room. The album, in retrospect, always conjures up great times in the late Seventies for me. Days of innocence for a seven/eight/nine-year-old kid – and while I may not have truly understood the warnings of shady dealings of Lido in Lido Shuffle or experienced the down-and-out bluesy sentiment of Lowdown, somehow those songs prepared me for experiences later in life.
But Silk Degrees is just a fraction of the Boz Scaggs discography. Indeed the guy has delivered some 20 albums in an impressive music career so far, leading to his newest release, Memphis, a record that looks back on his life, musically and biographically. Boz’s father and grandparents are all from Memphis, as is his wife, and of course the bluesy elements that permeate the record have their roots in the famed Tennessee city while acting as reflections of the rollercoaster muso’s life.
Here, Boz Scaggs chats with Cream about his six degrees of separation to other veteran musicians, from Steve Miller to Ray Parker Jr, and what it means to make music in today’s “information age”.
Congratulations on a fine new album in Memphis. You yourself were born in Oklahoma though…
Yes, I grew up in a small town in Oklahoma until I was about eight or nine, then I moved to Texas. The small Texan town that I grew up in had about a thousand people in it, but now it’s part of the larger Dallas/Fort Worth area. It’s got a population of about 400,000 now and I don’t think I’d recognise it if I were to go back.
Did you have aspirations to be a musician when you were a kid?
I didn’t really have any idea about my future as a musician as a kid. Later, as a teen I was mostly a traveller. I left Texas when I was 17 and had a very brief university career. I then went to live in Europe for about three years, and then went back to San Francisco and made a couple of records with the Steve Miller Band. But I still didn’t really have any clear idea of my future as a musician.
Why didn’t you stay with the Steve Miller Band?
Steve and I were going in different directions. He went his way and I went my way.
It seems you have six degrees of separation with other rock’n’rollers, too. Your album Silk Degrees featured session musicians who then went on to form Toto, for example.
That’s right. I think [making music] is a building process.
Your current biography focuses on the blues, R’n’B, rock and jazz elements of your discography but I think it neglects to mention ‘pop’. Wouldn’t you agree a lot of your Seventies hits, particularly from Silk Degrees, were very much in the pop vein?
Well certainly Lido Shuffle was a pop song. And What Can I Say was a pop song with a dance beat. And then there was Lowdown which was the biggest [hit] of all of them, in the States anyway. But Lowdown was big on the R’n’B charts… I got a Grammy for it actually, for top R’n’B song of the year, so that to me was leaning more toward the other side of the radio dial, but it also reached number two on the pop charts.
When you were recording songs like those, did you feel you had to abide by what was in vogue in music at the time, for example incorporating Philly-style keys on What Can I Say?
Well I was working very closely with the arranger on that song, David Paich, who was also the piano player on that song, and he and I shared a great love for Philly-style music like the Isley Brothers and Earth, Wind & Fire. So we were just drawing on our mutual love of that sound.
Artists like yourself tend to write from the heart and the gut, and there was a lot more original music decades back. When you see young performers of today being pre-packaged on television talent shows – with not a lot of original material to offer – what do you think?
I don’t know. I’ve never seen American Idol or any of those shows. I know what they’re about but they don’t interest me. My son is actually a musician [and a music journalist] but I wouldn’t influence what he is doing. Every generation finds it’s own, and every musician finds his own way of expressing himself. The people on shows like American Idol are also, you know… they come from a generation that borrows a great deal. They’re from an information age and in some ways we have to envy them. I think I was 13 years old before I even heard of James Brown, whereas any six-year-old can listen to James Brown now.
Speaking of veterans of the industry, you’ve got quite a few who have worked on your new album with you: Steve Jordan [drummer] who’s worked with everyone from Keith Richards to John Mayer; Ray Parker Jr and Charles Hodges. Did you all just come together in a pub or something and say ‘Let’s make a record’ or were the musicians hand-picked?
They were definitely hand-picked. Steve Jordan and I collaborated on where and when we would do this record and chose the musicians we wanted to work with on this project. We’ve both had experience with Ray Parker Jr, for instance, and we both have a long history with Willie Weeks [on bass] and Steve Jordan. Indeed those two have been working quite a lot recently as a pair. Ultimately, it was very carefully selected: who we recorded with and where we recorded.
Do you have those guys on stage with you when you tour?
I use my own band when I tour, but again, we stick to a pretty close arrangement for the most part.
Boz Scaggs will be touring his new album ‘Memphis’ around Australia in April, with performances at Bluesfest and Deni Blues & Roots Festival included. The full ‘Memphis Tour’ dates and venues are:
11 April – Wrest Point Showroom, Hobart
12 April – State Theatre, Sydney
14 April – Crown Theatre, Perth
16 April – Palais Theatre, Melbourne
18 April – Bluesfest
20 April – Deni Blues & Roots Festival
For ticketing information visit www.bozscaggs.com.
Also soon available is a live DVD of Boz and his supergroup The Dukes of September Rhythm Revue, featuring Michael McDonald and Donald Fagen also in the band. ‘The Dukes Of September Live’ DVD is out April 11 through Universal Music Australia.