BAM - Boz Scaggs Interview

Blue Highways – Boz Scaggs Takes The Long Road Back

[By: Steve Stolder - June 17, 1988]

The Blue Light Café is abandoned except for a publicist, a reporter and the mane they call Boz, looking surprisingly casual in blue jeans and a grey pullover. Scaggs, though a bit craggier, a bit greyer than in past photos, looks pretty much the same as he did on covers to albums like "Slow Dancer," "Silk Degrees," "Down Two Then Left" – lean, healthy and rested.

He should be refreshed; It’s been some eight years between Scaggs’ last album, the lukewarm-received "Middle Man," and his newest, “Other Roads”, an unabashedly commercial LP with a few cutting edges, some courtesy of a surprising collaborator, New York writer/lyricist Jim Carroll. The work is marked by the slick sophistication Scaggs’ recordings have been known for since 1973, when he cut his ties with the standard rock/blues format he’d been locked into for four preceding solo albums, to cut a contemporary R&B record, Slow Dancer. It sold little better than Scaggs’ earlier efforts, but for an encore he assembled "Silk Degrees", with two singles “Lowdown” and ‘”Lido Shuffle,” that established the stylish Texan / San Franciscan as one of the key figures in late 70’s radio. "Down Two Then Left" and "Middle Man" and singles like “Breakdown Dead Ahead,” “JoJo,” “Look What You’ve Done To Me” and “Miss Sun” followed. And then Scaggs disappeared, not to be heard from on record for nearly eight years.

Until "Other Roads", an urbane pastiche of contemporary styles, from dance (“Mental Shakedown”) to Latin (“Cool Running”) to ballads (the initial single, “Heart of Mine,” “Funny”). For all its casual tunefulness, however, "Other Roads" holds something of a disquieting air. There’s a wistful Gatsby-like aura to many of the songs.

Here and there Scaggs muses, “Games of the heart are played by fools,” “Must we stir through the ashes of the past?,” “Sometimes the best prescription is to run.”

“What’s Number One?” focuses on 60’s survivors, veterans of the ’68 Battle of Chicago  now “All laid back/Sitting in the redwood sauna/Hanging slack/Like some dazed iguana.” (The syntax and cutting cynicism come courtesy of Carroll, but the sentiments belong to Boz.) And who is the Daisy Buchanan figure that inspires the “delicious madness” of  “The Night of Van Gogh”? “I felt the heat of the night/The rhythm of light across your face/Kissed by the wind/Won by your hand/Two shot the moon/So it began.”

And so after those many years of travel, reading, listening, running his restaurant, and preparing to open his new San Francisco nightclub, Slim’s, Scaggs is ready to talk. He takes a table in a blue-hued room in the rear of The Blue Light Café, out of the opulent sunlight searing through the skylight, and leans back. He speaks in measured tones, a hint of a Lone Star drawl slipping through, pausing frequently to search for the proper word, the correct tableau. After eight years out of the glow of the spotlight, it’s back to business for Boz Scaggs.

Do you listen much to your older recordings? I’m thinking particularly of all the way back to Steve Miller Band days – “Baby’s Calling Me Home” and “Dime A Dance Romance” and things like that ?

No, I haven’t heard those songs in a long time.

How did you and Steve Miller originally hook up?

We went to high school together in Dallas, I lived in a small town outside of Dallas and Steve [lived] in Dallas and we went to the same school. He was a year older than I am.  I guess it was through... well just through the normal getting-to-know-somebody channels, being in the same school, we became friends.

Interested in the same music, also?

Yes. We both were kind of interested in blues, rhythm and blues, music. He had a band at that time and I was just learning to play. He taught me a good deal of what I was interested in learning at that time and I wanted to be in his band, so I picked up all the stuff that he was already into.

You travelled at a pretty young age. You took a band to England basically during the British Invasion days. How did that work out ?

Well, it didn’t really work. It was great to get over there and .It didn’t work for us. It was working great for them. We got into a situation – I went over with two musicians from Texas, a bass player and another guitar player – and we were hearing a lot of that American influence – blues, rhythm & blues – coming out of London. We went over to see what it was all about. We got there and they were doing it on a really high level. I never heard young white guys playing the authentic stuff like that, anywhere.

Who were you hearing?

The bands at that time were, let’s see, Chris Farlowe and the Thunderbirds, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Graham Bond Organisation. I was in London at the time for about three months and during that time I saw T-Bone Walker, BoDiddley, Buddy Guy. Who else where the notable players? Clapton was around. Peter Green was playing the clubs. There were just a lot of venues above pubs and in the Soho area of London.

You felt a little intimidated by the quality of the musicianship there?

Yeah. They had really done their homework. They’d listened to the records, gotten the arrangements note for note exactly in that sense. They had it down. So we couldn’t really play at the time. We found a manager – a man who said he was going to be our manager – and he said he was going to get us into a demo studio and what not. Turned out there were problems with the work permits and even to work the basic pubs just didn’t seem to be open to us. So we hung around for awhile. My two cohorts got discouraged and returned to the States and I stayed on. Then I went travelling. Eventually stayed on for another two and a half year.

Mostly working as a folksinger, as a solo?

Yeah, mostly.

In Stockholm?

Based in Stockholm and Copenhagen.

You recorded an album way back then. What’s it sound like?

Aw, it’s horrible. I haven’t really heard it in years. It was done in one or two nights. Just turned on the machines and let it roll. I overdubbed voices and harmonica parts and stuff. It was OK for what it was, I guess. It’s painful for me to listen to. It was in tune and all.

Not inspired?

It was kind of inspired, I guess. The inspiration that comes from hunger. [Chuckles]

So you came back to join Miller after a couple of years in Europe.

Yup. I got a call from Steve, actually a postcard. It was from San Francisco. He had the Steve Miller Blues Band actively going. He’d been at it a couple of years. He lost one of the members of his band and it was a rhythm guitar player/singer and that was my chair. So he sent me a roundtrip ticket and a little cash and asked me if I’d like to come to San Francisco and try it out. At that time I was hearing a lot of stuff about the scene in San Francisco and I was curious about it as a social phenomena, kind of, but I was missing my position as an electric guitar player, rhythm and blues musician. I hadn’t been able to do that too much. So I missed that a lot and felt I had to get back to it. This was a chance for me to see San Francisco and try out my chops again in that way. I liked it. I didn’t like San Francisco at all. I’d been hearing . I had a romantic image of San Francisco and that was not it. I didn’t like San Francisco at all.

What didn’t you like?

I didn’t like the scene. I didn’t like the Summer of  Love scene. It frightened me, frankly. I’d been living . I’d just come back from India, Nepal, Afghanistan, living in Europe for two years, and it was very odd to come back to these people dressed up like cowboys and Indians and wearing beads. So anyway, it wasn’t that part of the package that interested me. It was to be back with the band. Steve had, true to form, assembled some very good musicians. They’d written some material and it was kind of a new experience for me, too. I’d never written much. So they were writing songs, recording, and playing and doing that that first year – the only year I was with the Steve Miller Band was for two albums [Children of the Future and Sailor, both released in 1968]. And so it opened new horizons to me.

At that time, even though you’d only done about four songs as a leader with the Steve Miller Band, it seemed like you were a natural solo artist. Was it just that you had a surplus of material by yourself and Steve Miller that forced you to move on?

No. Steve and I knew each other too well and our styles don’t really blend. We’d been buddies and close teenage friends for some time, but really our lives were really divided. We hardly even spoke to each other. We didn’t like each other. We’ve got a deeper respect and kind of love for each other but it was not happening then. It got to be, on the second album, there were days that Steve was recording and there were days that Boz was recording. Steve didn’t play on my stuff and I didn’t play on his.

Do you hear from him now?

Yeah. Oh, yeah. We shook hands when it was over and we’ve seen each other through the years and kept in touch. There’s no animosity whatsoever. There’s still the slightest bit of competition, I think, because we go back that far and I guess that’s our nature to be that way.

Then you recorded several solo albums that critics loved and sold fine but you didn’t go through the roof. At the time of “Silk Degrees”, were you pretty much resigned to basically the kind of sales you’d achieved with “My Time”, with “Slow Dancer?”

No, no.

Did you anticipate the big break through with “Silk Degrees?”

No, I didn’t. I knew that “Silk Degrees” was something different, something special. And my feeling at the time it was finished was I didn’t want this album . I’d really been disappointed at my own expectations with the albums prior to “Silk Degrees”. “Slow Dancer” I thought was . I felt strongly. I really liked that record. I really thought it had potential to reach a lot of people. And, you know, as you say, it sorta fit the bill at the time but didn’t really develop any big, new fans. So, I’d never had management, and I think that’s an important part of career development. Anyway, I wanted to make sure I had a manager. I had ad representation, I had someone . I’d been able to see, at that point, the importance of having an influential person work on your behalf in management. I made sure I had a manager. I would not let the record be released until I had representation. I felt strongly musically about the album and I felt that I was anything but resigned to just continue to sell two hundred and fifty, three hundred thousand records. I wanted to sell a lot of records and I still do. I think everybody who puts himself in that position wants to sell a lot of records. That’s what it’s all about.

In the wake of “Silk Degrees”, did you feel a lot of pressure to match it, commercially?

Yeah. Yeah, it’s the obvious thing, you know: “What’re you gonna do next. What’s he gonna do now, he’s so smart.” [Laughs] And you’d like to deny it – not think about it. I think I actually convinced myself at some point, and in some ways it doesn’t really matter. I mean, after a few disappointments one takes the attitude that, and I think a very correct attitude, you do what you do the best you can do without any compromise and that’s it. That’s what it’s really all about. And whatever happens, happens. And, so after the huge success of “Silk Degrees” . I wasn’t disappointed. The next album sold two million instead of seven million. That’s a lot of records. I can continue my career; I can tour insured that I’ll have a valid contract if I want to do it again. That’s really pretty much my attitude now.

When you finished “Middle Man” in 1980, did you, anywhere in your mind, anticipate it would be 1988 before you released another album?

No, it didn’t occur to me. I knew that I wanted to take some time off in 1980, but I didn’t anticipate taking eight years. I didn’t, in fact, take eight years. I took 5 years off.

What did you do in that time?

Well, I did a lot of things that everybody else does. You gotta go to work, catch up on your reading. In my case I had to relocate my life, as it were. I moved to a new house. I have two young sons that I take care of, spent a lot of time with. I travelled a good deal. Listened to some music. Read some books. Didn’t do half of what I thought I would do given all the time in the world to do.  A lot of just boring, everyday, routine, nothing stuff.

What did you listen to?

I caught up with a lot of stuff that I have around. My favourite kind of music is rhythm and blues and ‘50’s bebop. So I caught up with a lot of that and I probably, at times, catch up with what’s happening on the radio, in the contemporary style. I don’t really listen all that much to music. That’s what I do when I listen to it.

You tend to go back?

I tend to go back to the stuff that I enjoy. But then I get turned on to what’s happening. I’ll go out and buy everything that everybody says I should buy. And sometimes I’ll listen to it, sometimes I won’t. I’ll find something I like and I’ll fix on it and listen to a lot of that and forget about everything else.

Some stuff out of Britain, like Culture Club and Simply Red, reflects your stuff quite a bit. Is that something you’ve listened to?

I heard Simply Red in Europe, actually. Culture Club, certainly, was taking after some of the stylings that I’d taken after in the past – the American, urban rhythm & blues stylings of Smokey [Robinson], Motown stuff, Philly stuff. So I’ve always got an ear out for that.

How about Prince?

I think Prince is certainly the most important musical influence of the 80’s. I heard “The Black Album” for the first time yesterday. It’s astounding! Prince is leading the way. He’s an extremely important musician.

Were there abandoned sessions you recorded, projects you started [during your hiatus] that were never finished?

There was one group of sessions I just started almost casually through my friends Jeff Porcaro and David Paich of the band Toto. Jeff has a studio in his house and I usually check in with Jeff when I’m in Los Angeles, and we decided to write something and start putting something together and we recorded two or three songs. One night we recorded one, the next afternoon we recorded another, as if you really start something .We just didn’t continue to do it. I’ve still got the tracks. There’s still one that I’m sure will come out, if not on the next album then as a movie theme or something. But, yeah, that was the only time I went in and actually started something. I went in on several occasions to do as I usually do. Just go down and start asking questions, see who’s doing what, check the studios, musicians, engineers and start getting the project together. I didn’t seek anything else. I mean, I wasn’t into it. So I just put it off.

With this album there’re collaborations throughout. Obviously that’s something you consciously settled on. Why?

Well, several reasons. One, I had never done too much of that in the past and given the time I wanted to do it. Two, after being away from the mainstream you realize how fast things move. I wanted to sort of be up to speed when I started up again. So I looked around at what was happening with the likes of Peter Wolf, Marcus Miller and found that they were doing some of the most vital things I had heard. So I worked with them. Funny enough, I had been developing material at home. I have a small home studio, I had a number of pieces that were fairly well developed that I didn’t bring out. I felt just a little insecure about bringing the material out. I didn’t know where it was going to go. I felt more interested, really, in collaborations. I wasn’t using the material that I developed and I was fascinated by Marcus’ work in particular - he was the first. And after I got into the project, I just wanted to get material in hand to start the first recording session. So I collaborated with Bobby Caldwell, Peter Wolf and Marcus. And then later I collaborated on the lyrics with Jim Carroll.

How did you and Carroll come to work together?

I met Jim up in North Beach. He was rehearsing his band some years back and it was then that I became aware of his work – [Carroll’s acclaimed memoirs] “The Basketball Diaries.” And then I listened to his musical work and [he] was to me a very important mind. I never collaborated with anybody on lyrics and he writes great lyrics. And not only does he write great lyrics, he has that sense of what lyrics need to be sung. It’s different. Some people write lyrics that are obviously uncomfortable to sing. Jim writes lyrics that are meant to be sung. He’s a fine craftsman in that respect. So I called him and he was open to [delivering lyrics]. I asked him if he had any lyrics, any words to look at that I might adapt to music. He sent me about two or three pieces. I adapted one of the pieces to an existing piece of music, a song that one of the session musicians, Dann Huff, had played for me. And we put them together, roughly. I sent Jim a copy of it and he dug it. So I finished one song.

Was that “I Don’t Hear You”?

That was “Crimes of Passion.” And then Marcus had given me a piece of music – we had recorded one of Marcus’ tunes – and I started the lyrics on it. So I sang what I had and sent Jim the tape with voice on the track. I sang a scat vocal on it and told him what I was looking for. And he sent me back some ideas that I worked on a little bit. At that time he was coming out to do a reading at UCLA and we got together and talked about the song and finished it up and I gave him another piece of music with a scat vocal on it and that was “I Don’t Hear You.” We collaborated on “What’s Number One?” when he was in town and then I gave him the scat vocal on “I Don’t Hear You” and he wrote that completely and sent it back to me.

How did “What’s Number One?” come about? Was that idea yours or Carroll’s?

Yeah, it was my theme and I wrote the first verse and then we talked about what the guy was saying and he just developed that theme further. He wrote the second verse. We wrote the third verse together and then he had written a number of ideas for a chorus and dipped among those and we had a chorus.

Was there a general mood you were trying to develop with the recording? Were you trying to steer your collaborators in a certain direction?

Well, in a general sense I would just say, “Musically I’d like to tackle some areas, some progressive areas,” like in a song like “Funny,” in a song like “What’s Number One?” We were going to Marcus for that. I was looking for something that I thought was very contemporary. It’s already here. It’s in the air, but I just wanted to sort of find it, fix it. The other material, for instance the three songs that Dann Huff wrote the music to, were just stuff that he played for me in the studio – stuff that he’d done on his home demo board. He didn’t write that for me, he wrote it for himself and I used it. Other pieces represent more areas that I just wanted to touch upon. For instance, the song “The Night Of Van Gogh” was a piece of music that I had been playing just to myself on piano for some years that I finally brought to life. It’s nothing new; it’s quite traditional in a lot of ways. On the other hand, Jeff Porcaro brought in a song which became “Cool Running,” which was an element we were looking for. I wanted something rhythmic, Latin, open, simple, melodic .So we were looking for some thing and we just took from that. I think Marcus was the best example of asking for a direction and Marcus delivered me several pieces of music that were along the lines of the feel that I was trying to find.

Did you enjoy the collaboration process? Is that something you’d do in the future?

Um-hmm .Toward the end of the recording process I was feeling sort of more confident, getting my legs under me in a way. To start out the project to get back in the studio, is routine to some extent. It’s a style and approach that’s mine, is my own. After having recorded a number of albums there’s a certain attitude, certain thing that I look for, but then after having been in the sessions for some months it really starts coming alive. You start creating something new and finding your footing. So I would like very much to have gone and started a new record right when I ended that one, because I was feeling very much my own footing. In a situation like that, I would rather write everything – write the music and the lyrics. But the collaboration was good and if I’m not doing it myself there are plenty of people around that I would like to work with in the future. I don’t really set out to say, “Well this is gonna be a collaborative process” or “I’m gonna do it all myself.” Doesn’t make any difference to me as long as I get what I’m looking for in the end.

I take it there won’t be quite so long a hiatus between your next record and this one.

I don’t think so. I’m looking forward to the next record. I’ll probably be in the studio before the year is out. I’ve got the number of pieces that we did not finish off this project .Things are already in motion for the next album.

How did Stewart Levine come to be involved in a couple of the songs toward the end [of the sessions]?

We finished the album last March, that’s March of ’87, and CBS .the president of CBS at that time [Al Teller] was hit orientated. He said he didn’t hear a hit song.  He said he heard single number two and single number three, but he didn’t hear single number one, so he asked if I would go back to the studio and develop some more material that would be that first single. So, I’ve known Stewart for a long time. I met Stewart years ago. When I was recording “Silk Degrees” he was in the studio next door doing Joe Sample and the Crusaders. I’d sort of been following Stewart recently through his work with Boy George and Simply Red and so I phoned him up. And Stewart had some major hits with those bands but he also had mainline hit records with some of the English groups. So it’s kin of the old and the new and Stewart’s an old bebopper from way back; he’s really a solid musician. He’s rooted in that music and blues and R&B and so we have a lot in common, musically. And Stewart has got a great ear for what’s a hit, what’s a single. Plus he’s coming from a little of the English side, which seems to do American things better than the Americans. So anyway, Stew wanted to hear the album. We got together and talked and we decided to do some things together and his idea was for me to write some things with Lamont Dozier. And he got us together and we spent some time together writing. We finished a couple of songs, neither of which appear on the album, but a couple of other pieces, one a song that I wrote, Stew developed; the song “Claudia.” And Stew heard a lot of potential in the song “Heart Of Mine” but wanted to take a shot at recording it with .a little different approach.

What are your touring plans?

We’ll tour in Japan. We start in the end of June for about 10 or 12 days. Then there’s a break and I’ll start touring in America the last week in August and we’ll play what they call the sheds, the outdoor facilities. That’ll be September into October.

What’s the line-up look like?

It looks like two guitars, two keys, bass, drums, vocalist and a percussionist.

Any of the Toto people?

I don’t think so. I called Jeff up to ask him about drummers and I called [Steve] Lukather up to ask him about a guitarist. I have one guitar player. But I doubt they’d be going out. They’ve got a number of dates already lined up of their own. They’re pretty busy with their own affairs to take time to go on the road with me.

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Editors Note: At this point in the interview, Scaggs spoke of his plans for Slim’s, a South of Market nightclub he and partners Bob Brown (manager of Huey Lewis & The News) and restaurateur Jack Slick planned to open June 23. Scaggs seemed proud of the opening week bill that had been assembled. It included blues great Otis Rush (with Scaggs, under the non de plume of Presidio Slim, sitting in) and jazz innovator Ornette Coleman. Less than two weeks later, however, the plans were abruptly put on hold. Scaggs explained the late developments in a phone interview last week.

When we spoke two weeks ago, everything seemed to be in place and you were planning for the grand opening. What’s developed since then?

The escrow didn’t close and, therefore, the liquor license and the assets didn’t transfer, the liquor license and the assets didn’t transfer to Slim’s, and we were on  a hairline schedule to get open on time anyway, as these things go. I mean, we planned away, way out in advance and gave ourselves a month leeway. We had a month to be finished. I mean, we planned to be finished an entire month to just fine-tune it. And, as things go, we just got right down to the wire. It seemed to me that we were going to make it. Then I left for Japan about 10 days ago and while I was away this thing didn’t transfer. And we had to hold up construction; we couldn’t construct it – the permits wouldn’t allow us to. It just didn’t make any sense to commit. We had about $150,000 committed to this particular phase of construction and we just cannot go ahead and do that until we legally have the place. That’s what happened. When I came back from Japan it had been delayed to the point that we had an emergency session and decided that we simply cannot open. We had to cancel all the acts. It’s just a monumental bummer .It’s one of the saddest thing’s that ever happened to me. I just don’t .I’m heartbroken.

Is it something that you’re planning on recovering? There’s still mention of a September opening. Is that realistic?

That’s entirely realistic. It’s just a matter of these things going through. And the delay, when you shut down for a day or a week, it takes that long to get it going again. So it’s entirely conceivable. September is a conservative guess.

How are expenses for the club going?

It’s expensive. Like many other things these days. You project one thing and have a fixed amount of money that you’re going to spend and it doubles and triples .very easily.

There’s still a commitment between yourself, Mr. Brown and Mr. Slick to go through with it ?

Uh, huh.

You’re still envisioning it, when it does open up, as featuring Otis Rush, Ornette Coleman and that sort of mixture of performers?

Absolutely! That’s been our goal and our dream all along. It’s just such a beautiful couple of opening weeks. Of course, it can’t be the same ‘cause you take people wherever they are. We’ll just have to take it from wherever it is.

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