San Francisco Chronicle - Boz Scaggs Interview

"Come On Home" Interview

[San Francisco Chronicle. Sunday, April 6, 1997]

Boz Scaggs still remembers the first time he saw Ray Charles. Out of the 3,000 people in the Dallas auditorium, the 15-year-old Scaggs was one of perhaps a half- dozen white faces.

"There was ozone in the air," Scaggs recalled. "It was snapping in that room." With saxophonists David "Fathead" Newman and Hank Crawford fronting the large, brassy band, the genius of soul was, Scaggs said, "at the peak of his dynamism."

A woman sitting next to him, caught up in the rapture, innocently took his arm and squeezed. "I was from a segregated little farm town in north Texas," he said. "I had very little contact with Afro-Americans, black people, in my life."

Swept up in the spellbinding charm, the mysterious but encompassing allure of this raw, vital music, Scaggs knew things would never be the same for him. "It gave me some hint, some clue, to what my life might be like if my life was perfect," he said.

When "Come On Home" (Virgin, $16.99) is released on Tuesday, the suave balladeer of "Silk Degrees" makes a surprising return to the bliss of rhythm and blues with a startlingly authentic set of songs originally recorded by Jimmy Reed, Bobby "Blue" Bland and T-Bone Walker. Already radio has picked up on it; it was the album "most added'' to playlists in the country last week.

While many rock stars have paid tribute to their roots in this fashion - including the 1994 No. 1 album by Eric Clapton, "From the Cradle:" -- what makes this album surprising is that Scaggs is customarily associated with sleek pop ballads, not the kind of intensely soulful, richly evocative music on his new album.

"I've always looked to the rhythm and blues as my teacher," Scaggs said in his South of Market studio. "From my first love of the music, I listened to the black stations. As R&B matured, it became more sophisticated. The chord styles became more progressive as the '60s entered the '70s. That's how I learned to write the songs that I write."

In fact, the first record that put the former Steve Miller Band member on the map as a solo artist was an extraordinary, blistering blues song from his unjustly overlooked 1969 solo debut, "Loan Me a Dime," a 12-minute blues epic that featured Duane Allman on lead guitar.

While the album itself sold next to nothing -- and isn't even available on CD - that track found its way onto the playlists of the burgeoning FM rock radio stations of the day and has followed Scaggs around like a stray dog ever since, a piece apparently out of synch with everything else that made him famous.

But Scaggs has always been a blues singer at heart. His explosive, tight quintet that played Bay Area clubs in the early '70s was a powerhouse little blues-rock combo, before he headed off in the direction of the highly polished pop productions that led the way to the multimillion-selling 1975 album "Silk Degrees," which made Scaggs a staple of the elegant pop of the era. It is an avenue he continued to pursue with diminishing returns until the 1994 album ``Some Change,'' his first record in six years, reversed this decline.

Ironically, it was "Some Change" - a title that reflected the contents; some change, not necessarily a lot - that led, in part, to his return home to pure rhythm and blues. For the first time in many years, Scaggs pulled out his guitar for those sessions.

"I surprised myself," he said. "I used to pride myself on being a guitar player when I had my band working seven nights a week. I had the dexterity, that magic connection between the brain and the fingers. But at a point in my career, I elected to bring in studio players and played less and less guitar myself. But I love the guitar - it's one of the reasons I took up music in the first place."

Rediscovering the guitar started Scaggs thinking about playing R&B again. "Every once in a while you get to play a wild card if you have a career that's long enough," he said. "If you have enough radio hits, you get to put out a greatest-hits album. If you're any good at live concerts, you get to put out a live album. Or you can do the `Sinatra Sings Gershwin' or `Ella Sings Cole Porter' thing. And this is `Boz Gets to Do His R&B Album.' Ordinarily I just steal all the ideas from the R&B guys and make my own stuff."

He consulted with Harry Duncan, a little-known behind-the- scenes figure in the Bay Area community for the past quarter century. Duncan, who has managed Van Morrison, Captain Beefheart and the Neville Brothers, went to work as the booker at Slim's, the 11th Street nightclub that Scaggs financed, when it opened in 1989. Duncan's weekly Tuesday night KUSF roots radio show, "Treasures Untold," gives him a regular opportunity to flex what Scaggs calls his "encyclopedic knowledge'' of the music. "We've had an ongoing music dialogue for many years," Scaggs said. Scaggs was leery of treating the material they selected in an offhand manner. He is notoriously scrupulous with his recordings; he spent a year making "Some Change". And he believed the prospects of recording "classical rhythm and blues" posed unique challenges.

"There's a simplicity to most of these songs that's deceptive," he said. "There's a lot of volatility -- it's extremely emotional. If it's not handled correctly, it can become superfluous in a flash, untrue, false. Many people have tried to re-create it and they were deceived by its simplicity. The only way is to make it your own."

Scaggs touches on a variety of blues styles - from the uptown Texas big-band sound of Bland to the New Orleans R&B of Fats Domino, the deep soul of Memphis' Stax/Volt and the Chicago blues of Junior Wells. Every so often the sound of the organ recalls the Memphis soul records of Al Green and Ann Peebles - not surprising, since the overdubs were played by the organist from those sessions, Charlie Hodges.

Scaggs has already road-tested himself as a bluesman, sneaking off on club dates around Northern California outposts such as Chico, Healdsburg and Eureka with his new blues band and singing nothing but the blues - "The most fun tour I've had in years," he said. He will put together a more formal tour this summer mixing material from the new album, the Scaggs standards and some of the blues he was throwing around with guitarist Steve Freund and harmonica player Applejack on these recent dates.

This self-assured blues project is only another sign that Scaggs obviously feels comfortable with himself. His two sons have graduated from high school and are working in the music business. He and his second wife, Dominique, have settled in Napa, although they still maintain their San Francisco home.

Even the record company is enthusiastic about the album. The only suggestion made by label executives was that Scaggs include a couple of original songs alongside the certified R&B classics. He tweaked an old Robert Cray song and managed to eke out a pair of acceptable new songs of his own, leery of how they would stand up against the works of the masters. "They were the hardest songs I've ever written," he said.

But when Scaggs speaks about having to "possess" these songs, he is really talking about the ability to get inside the emotional reality of the compositions. He knows this music rejects the imitators, reveals the phonies and ridicules the poseurs. And Scaggs, a careful, deliberate man, was not about to join their ranks.

"You have to come to possess these songs and they to possess you," he said. "It seems easy to fall into the emotion of them, but it is daunting. Possessing these things is not easy - you can go way off base. There's nothing quite as disappointing to me as hearing someone sing Jimmy Reed badly. It's immoral."

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