2013 - The Windsor Star
Boz Scaggs Dips Back Into The R&B & Blues Music He loved Growing Up
For his first studio album in five years, Boz Scaggs played musical tourist at Royal Studios in Memphis, the home of some classic soul and R&B.
Al Green and Willie Mitchell recorded there, and their music was influential in Scaggs’ early career.
So, naturally, the album had to be called Memphis.
“I wanted to revisit some of the early rhythm and blues and blues music that I love so much from growing up in Oklahoma,” said the 68-year-old R&B singer-songwriter in a recent interview. Scaggs plays the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival June 27 as part of a major tour built around the new collection.
He had done something similar with the album Come on Home in 1997. But that was with different musicians and in vastly different studio environments.
This time, his trip back to the basics became something of a pilgrimage to the Mecca of soul.
“The album took a different direction from Come On Home,” he said. “This time, I worked with a drummer named Steve Jordan, who also happens to be a very good producer. He and I talked about possible material, what we wanted to record and where we wanted to do it.
“We decided on the Royal Studios in Memphis to get a certain sound. We both had an interest in revisiting that era of rhythm and blues.”
Scaggs, of course, is no stranger to that style of music, either as a songwriter or a performer. Two of his bestselling albums, Silk Degrees (1976) and Middle Man (1980), made big dents on the U.S. R&B charts.
Three songs from Silk Degrees alone are among the most popular hits of the 1970s — Lowdown, Lido Shuffle and What Can I Say.
The last few years, Scaggs has been performing off and on with Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen and The Doobie Brothers’ Michael McDonald in a rock and soul revue called The Dukes of September.
“With the Dukes,” said Scaggs, “we do some classic R&B material and, as a result of that, we looked at hundreds of songs that we could adapt to our presentation. A couple of the songs on this album came from that experience.”
Among the top tracks on Memphis are several soul classics: Al Green’s So Good to be Here, Brook Benton’s Rainy Night in Georgia, Tyrone Davis’ Can I Change My Mind, and The Moments’ Love on a Two-Way Street. Jordan arranged strings and horns for many of the songs, placing them squarely in the soul mode of the 1960s and 1970s.
Scaggs’ vocals on So Good to be Here are so close to the original, you’d swear it was Green doing them.
“I love the strings on some of the songs. To me, it sounds a lot like those string backings you hear on Al Green’s songs.”
The same approach was used for the Steely Dan song, Pearl of the Quarter, which Scaggs had heard just a week before the recording session at a club in New York City.
“I sort of pitched it to the guys and they liked the idea,” said Scaggs. “It was a nice change of pace for us.”
Rainy Night in Georgia had a different origin. Scaggs had sung it before, including a 2012 tribute to the late music entrepreneur Warren Hellman in San Francisco.
Surprisingly, Scaggs has a hard time finding a song that suits his style. “There are a lot of songs I love but really only a small percentage that I feel I can get my grip on and put my own signature on.”
It was Jordan who suggested he try the Benton classic during a late night recording session. “We’d already finished a whole day of re-cording and it was really late, like 2, 3 a.m. It was either go home and get some sleep or keep going. We were all excited about just being in that studio so the energy level was really high and decided to take a shot at another song.”
It ended up being one of the standouts on Memphis.
“The song is beautiful and has a very poignant loneliness about it,” said Scaggs. “The stillness in the studio had a depth to it and it really seeped into the recording, I think.”
Two of the songs are covers of Mink DeVille rockabilly songs: Mixed Up Shook Up Girl and Cadillac Walk. There are also two blues tunes: Dry Spell and You Got Me Cryin’.
“Blues is one of my first loves,” he said. “I go back to my beginnings when I do the blues.”
For a songwriter of Scaggs’ stature, it’s a little surprising there are just two originals on Memphis — the first and last tracks, Gone Baby Gone and Sunny Gone.
“Really, one of the goals of this record was to spread the word about styles of music from across the spectrum. I love bringing various styles of music to the attention of my audience.”