Aspen Times - Boz Scaggs Interview

The Lowdown on Boz Scaggs

[By Stewart Oksenhorn - Aspen Times Staff Writer - June 20, 2003]

Over the phone, Boz Scaggs sounds very much like the native Texan he is. Which is a surprise — not only because Scaggs has lived in and around San Francisco for the last 35 of his 59 years, but also because Scaggs’ music reflects no tie to his north Texas upbringing.

But the more one digs beneath the surface of his mid-1970s mega-hits, Scaggs’ life and career are marked by one unexpected turn after another. Calling himself “a moving target,” Scaggs says he has never aimed to be any one thing, other than a fine musician. So he doesn’t feel tied to the bluesman role of his early years, or the smooth r & b singer at the height of his popularity, or his latest incarnation, as an interpreter of the great American songbook.

“It’s not a style contest for me,” said Scaggs, who headlines the Jazz Aspen June Festival bill on Saturday, June 21, following an opening set by singer India.Arie. “I just follow my interests as a musician. I’m not really trying for anything, just following my nose.”

The latest scent Scaggs has picked up on is the American standards of the mid-20th century, the songs of Gershwin, Ellington, Sammy Cahn, Rodgers & Hart. Last month, Scaggs released on his own Grey Cat label “But Beautiful,” a collection of standards done in traditional fashion, Scaggs’ classy singing backed by an acoustic jazz quartet.

The idea for such an album has been with Scaggs a long time. But the project was sparked three years ago when, at a benefit performance, Scaggs played an acoustic set with the musicians who would appear on “But Beautiful.” After singing one standard, the musicians encouraged Scaggs to do more. He eventually recorded some 20 tracks, and gave himself time to contemplate his approach to the songs.

“I lived with them awhile, and got some footing on where I stand with this material,” he said.

Over time, Scaggs was pleased to realize that he had something to offer these songs, that have been the subject of dozens of interpretations. “The beauty of these songs is you can mention anyone who’s done this material, and the songs stand up to all sorts of interpretations,” he said. “To do justice to the songs,  you get as much of your own personality into it, to possess the songs. I felt I gave each of the songs a signature.”

Scaggs’ assessment of his own work seems mirrored by the public. Within three weeks of its release, “But Beautiful” hit No. 1 on the Billboard Jazz Chart.

“But Beautiful” is about as far from Scaggs’ earliest work as he could get. As a kid in Plano, Texas, Scaggs began with folk music, which provided the easiest access into playing his guitar. But Scaggs was quickly taken with the emerging force of rock ’n’ roll and popular r & b; the fact that nearby Dallas was an early rock ’n’ roll hotbed fueled his appetite. Scaggs switched to electric guitar and blues and r & b. He hooked up with Steve Miller — yes, that Steve Miller — and played in Miller’s high school bands on weekends, playing harmonica, singing backing vocals, and eventually earning full membership in the group. When Miller relocated to Madison, Wis., Scaggs followed.

Scaggs at the time was as in love with the idea of traveling as he was with music. In 1965, he began a two-and-a-half-year stretch of wandering through England, Stockholm and India. He worked odd jobs but mostly made his way with his music. “The guitar was pretty much my ticket,” he said of the time.

Even from a continent away, Scaggs could hear the music wailing from the nascent hippie scene. “The San Francisco scene was starting to make itself known around the world,” he said. “I missed playing the music I had grown up with. The music called me back to have another look.” In fact, it was Miller who had summoned, inviting Scaggs by postcard to replace a departing member in his Steve Miller Blues Band. Scaggs arrived in San Francisco in September 1967, and spent a year playing the blues with Miller.

Scaggs left Miller’s band to pursue his own career. He made his solo debut with an album that featured Duane Allman and the Muscle Shoals rhythm section. Scaggs struggled along for a few more years and a few more recordings until he hit it big with 1976’s “Silk Degrees.” The album wasn’t an instant hit, but gradually the pop-r & b sound of “Lowdown” and “Lido Shuffle” were ubiquitous on FM radio. And Scaggs was prepared for the breakthrough.

“It was my fifth or sixth record, and I had worked really hard, never had a manager, just tried to keep a band together,” he said. “When ‘Silk Degrees’ came and started hitting, it just kept going and going. I was ready for it. I had a good band, had gotten a manager, was just being a musician. I was able to step up and play more places and buy more amplifiers. I just continued doing what I was doing; there was no moment where I started celebrating.” If there was a big moment, it was when Lowdown,” which Scaggs co-wrote with David Paich, won best r & b song honors at the 1976 Grammys. Scaggs recalls it as “a notable memory.”

After a decade of scrambling and a few years at the top, Scaggs was ready for a break. In 1980, Scaggs started a planned six-month break; it would turn into a nearly decade-long hiatus. Scaggs raised his two young sons, became a traveler again, and made a “major adjustment in life.” Music played little role in the new existence.

“I got a long way away from it for a while,” said Scaggs. “I didn’t have much music in me. I didn’t have anything original in me and I couldn’t find a good reason to do it.”

Scaggs returned, and eventually showed he had good reason to make music again. “Some Change,” from 1994, was a solid, mainstream r & b effort; 1997’s “Come on Home,” which mixed original tunes with old blues and r & b songs, earned a Grammy nomination.

In 2001, Scaggs unleashed another surprise. “Dig,” produced by Scaggs’ old friend David Paich and Danny Kortchmar, allowed some edges to show through Scaggs’ smooth style. There were hip-hop rhythms, break beats, and heavy effects added to Scaggs’ voice. Scaggs credits the producers for the new sounds, and calls it the
 best work he’s ever done.

“That was really Kortchmar and Paich. They provided the setting for me, they gave me a vehicle for my voice and guitar and songwriting,” he said. “They were responsible for the edge stuff. And I embraced it wholeheartedly. That was the musical collaboration — after all these years and all these recordings — that was closest to my musical heart.”

For the moment, Scaggs is enjoying his affair with standards. “But Beautiful” has gotten positive reviews; unlike Rod Stewart, who also released a standards album recently, Scaggs is being taken seriously by critics.

Scaggs is taking his latest passion to the extreme. When he appears on the Jazz Aspen stage, Scaggs will be accompanied by the “But Beautiful” band — pianist Paul Nagel, saxophonist Eric Crystal, bassist John Shifflett and drummer Jason Lewis — plus Monet, a female backing singer who appeared on “Dig.” The show will include songs from “But Beautiful” and other standards, as well as some older Scaggs material adapted to fit the jazz format. The familiar pop and r & b will be left to the old records.

It is not just a new style of music. The music casts Scaggs in a different role. After writing his own material and playing many of the guitar parts, Scaggs is now a stand-up singer, playing just a bit of guitar in concert. On “But Beautiful,” Scaggs thoroughly enjoyed the different role: “It was nice to just be the vocalist, and not have to meet deadlines for material I was supposed to have written. It was a pleasure to go through the material, a wonderful, freeing experience,” he said.

Playing concerts in that new role is a different thing. Scaggs played a bunch of recent shows in Japan, and said the audience accepted him in his latest guise. But he hasn’t done much yet in the States — just a benefit concert, and a set at the Playboy Jazz Festival, in which his band was treated like background music at a beach party — and he’s not certain how it will go over.

“This material is pretty authentic stuff, and I don’t know how much of an audience there is for it,” he said. “There’s a curiosity in people to see what we’re doing.

“I think the best that could happen is it could open some avenues of appreciation for people who have liked my music in the past. Just as it’s opened doors to other music for me.”

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