Baltimore Sun - Boz Scaggs Interview

But Beautiful Interview

[Rashod D. Ollison - Baltimore Sun - June 12, 2003]

IT SEEMS, at a certain point, the thing to do. Linda Ronstadt did it back in the '80s. Throughout the '90s, Natalie Cole did it. Although he should have stayed far away from it, Rod Stewart just couldn't resist. And Aaron Neville will do it later this summer.

After years of pushing their voices over wailing guitars, funk-seasoned grooves, or overblown pop arrangements, some music vets feel the need to "get deep" and interpret the American Songbook once the hits dry up.

Some folks pull it off (Linda and Natalie did at first, but both singers eventually drove the formula into the dust). And others (namely Rod) had no business touching a Gershwin tune in the first place.

Now enter Boz Scaggs, the white soul brotha who brought us such hits as "Lido Shuffle" and one of my favorite "shonuff-funky" cuts, 1976's "Lowdown." He has just released a set of covers, But Beautiful, Standards: Volume I, on his Gray Cat label.

Calling from his San Francisco Bay-area pad, Boz says, "This is something I never really approached before because, well, I never got around to it."

Now that he pretty much calls the shots in his career - recording and touring when he gets good and ready, Boz had the confidence to approach such a project. But he says that it wasn't necessarily an easy transition, adapting his off-hand, blues-suffused style to such melodic tunes as Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady" or the Gershwins' "How Long Has This Been Going On?"

"It all presents its own challenge," says the singer-songwriter, 58. "Your voice is more of an instrument here. I didn't write these songs, so I'm not trying to sell my personality. I'm a member of the quartet here. You're more vulnerable as an instrumentalist in this genre of music. It's me hanging out there with these other musicians."

But Beautiful gives off an after-hours vibe. You're at an intimate table inside a small dark bar. Rings of cigarette smoke linger over weary heads. It's mostly quiet but glasses clink here and there; somebody coughs. On the boxy stage, Boz and his quartet deliver gauzy standards under a weak spotlight. A place, a mood, an attitude for grown folks.

"It's intoxicating," Boz says. "These songs are so open. You can sing this stuff in the shower and sound good, because the melodies are so great. But there's a challenge with what you do with the melodies and rhythm structure. You can easily fall into cliche with this material."

Back in the '70s, Boz (along with the fabulous Michael McDonald and the Scottish boys from Average White Band) layered pop-rock with generous flavors of blues and soul. In fact, Mama says it was a while before she realized that "Lowdown," with its smooth California-soul groove and nasty bass line, was by a white dude.

Boz, who was born William Royce Scaggs in Ohio, first found acclaim as a member of the Steve Miller Band. He spent the bulk of his childhood in a "small town in Texas, so there was a lot of the American Songbook around me. It was on the radio. My heroes were people like Bobby Bland and B.B. King."

His debut, Boz, appeared in 1965. But nobody bought it. And although he recorded consistently afterward, mainstream audiences didn't really seem to dig Boz's blues until he smoothed them out and draped them with shades of reggae, R&B and graceful pop on 1976's Silk Degrees. The album, his biggest seller to date, featured "Lowdown" and "Lido Shuffle" and made Boz a huge star before disco exploded and new wave peaked. The 1977 follow-up, Down Two Then Left, repeated the platinum success of its predecessor. But after 1980's Middle Man, Boz's commercial appeal sank. And he spent much of the '80s in retirement, owning and operating the San Francisco nightclub Slim's. In the '90s, he put out four decently executed albums but nobody outside his fan base cared.

Although But Beautiful is a pleasant listen, Boz mostly plays it safe throughout the 10-cut album. He isn't too adventurous with the melody. And his distinctive phrasing, at times, feels out-of-place. But it's a good thing that he didn't pump heavy strings or grand horn charts into the mix. That would have been a disaster for sure. The casual (sometimes too casual) approach and get-closer-to-your-lover musical arrangements keep the mood consistent, warm and real.

Later this summer, Boz (who doesn't tour too frequently these days, maybe five or six weeks out of the year) will play a few jazz festivals in Europe.

He says, "I don't intend to stop recording this material. There will be other volumes. But I also don't intend to make it my career."

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