Degree By Degree
By Robert Bowman
Last Year I did an article on Boz Scaggs and hardly anyone knew a thing about him. His record company didn't even have all his albums in stock. No bios were sent out, nothing. This year William Royce Scaggs [he picked up his nickname back in school] is a bona fide star. At last count, his Silk Degrees album had sold two million plus copies, hit the top 3 spot in the charts and yielded four super-selling AM hits.
This summer all that is past history. Boz has recorded a new album and is currently on tour [including his July 4th stop in Toronto with Fleetwood Mac]. He plans to release the album September 1st.
Recently I had the pleasure of talking to with Boz long distance from Denver, Colorado. After a few pleasantries and talk about his newborn child [his first - a boy named Oscar] we got down to business and talked about the upcoming album.
It's a little bit more progressive musically, but similar in context to Silk Degrees. A bit more complex."
Joe Wissert (of Helen Reddy and Silk Degrees fame) is producing the new album. In 1972 Boz (with engineer Roy Halee's help) produced himself on a fine album called My Time. I wondered why Boz has not continued producing himself to this day.
"I'm really happy working with Joe, I've never really had any desire to produce myself. I don't find any particular credit for doing that. I'd rather have someone I can bounce things off of, someone who can lend suggestions. I produced one album by myself and the producer chair, for me, is a hot one. I don't particularly like that responsibility. So I'm glad to have someone with me who keeps an eye on the overview. I think I'll always have a producer. In certain senses I am as much a producer as anyone else. What a producer does is basically free me up to do everything I want to do and take a certain amount of responsibility off me. I work very closely with the musicians and it just frees me up to do that and not think about any technical problems. Somebody's always looking after me and helping me get through."
Boz wrote all the lyrics to the tunes, all the music to half of them and he co-wrote the music for the rest, mostly with piano player-arranger Michael Omartian. I asked Boz what he meant when he said the album was more progressive than Silk Degrees.
"It's got an R&B thing but I think you'll find jazz elements, just some progressive stuff. It's a very melodic, very lyrical kind of album with an ear to the R&B side of things and also an ear towards the more mainstream stuff. Omartian is a very sophisticated arranger, so the arrangements are a little bit more elaborate this time. He draws from a legitimate, well-schooled background. He's not pop.
"His arrangements are more elaborate yet I feel that the album leans towards less arrangement than Slow Dancer and Silk Degrees. We had a great rhythm section so we left things pretty much as they are. When you listen to it you will notice the strings and the production on it. But, you'll also be very much aware of the rhythm section because they are features throughout. Not so many overdubs, not as many touches. Everything has been pretty basic. There's not really much soloing either. It's just a lot looser feel. It's more organic. I'm crazy about it."
Boz, in the past, did a lot of guitar playing on his albums. On the last two, the transitional Slow Dancer and the successful Silk Degrees, he played no guitar at all. The only thing he did was write and sing. Some critics thought that such an approach helped Boz, letting him concentrate entirely on his singing. Others felt that he was uncomfortable without his guitar and it showed in his singing.
"I'm playing more guitar on the new album. I write mostly on piano and I play on tour. I don't generally play in the studio because I am amongst some really fine musicians and I'd rather hear them play.
"I've never really considered myself a guitar player. I've always loved playing rhythm guitar but, ever since I started my band I've never been able to just lay back and be the rhythm guitar player. I have to concentrate on lead vocals and fronting the band. So I don't get to just lay back in the corner and knock out the rhythm which is my favourite part of the whole band. I'm getting into this aspect now because I've got an excellent band that leaves me a lot of room. I'm also playing some leads and I'm enjoying it."
Your wanting to be a rhythm player shows your R&B leanings. Most guitarists want to play lead.
"I think you're right. Once they achieve a certain amount of proficiency they want to step out there. I think if I could take any position in the band I'd be the bass player. That's my real fantasy. Bass players control the rhythm and the chords. I love it but rhythm guitar is the next best thing."
The last year must have been quite a whirlwind. I think it would create quite a change in one's life going from cult idol to super star.
"Well yes and no. You see I've been doing what I do for quite awhile. Nothing has really changes. There's been a lot of work and I'm used to that. In some respects it's been easier because I've always managed myself, looked after my own affairs, until a year or so ago when I signed with Irving Azoff (the Eagles, Jimmy Buffet, Linda Ronstadt). Irving has created a big change in my day to day activities. And, of course, the success of Silk Degrees has changed things. We're now working larger, more comfortable venues. I'm controlling my sound, my lights and my production pretty well. Things have changed. It's become easier and it's become harder. The responsibilities are the hard part but the satisfaction, I think, is greater. The ease with which I am able to do what I have to do. I've got a lot of help."
Did you feel a lot of pressure while recording this album ?
"Again yes and no. You can imagine there's a natural desire to want to do what Silk Degrees did. I feel like I've got to have two or three Silk Degrees before I'll feel like I've really touched people."
'Doing what he's been doing for quite awhile' is quite an understatement. In September 1965 Boz released a folkie album on Karusell Records (a Swedish subsidiary of Polydor) simply called Boz. An album of non-originals it proved to be quite successful on the other side of the ocean.
He arrived back in the States to become a member of the original Steve Miller Band. He played, sang and wrote songs on Miller's first two albums, the superb Children Of The Future and Sailor. Splitting to start a solo career Boz released an album on Atlantic (with Duane Allman - a classic record) simply called Boz Scaggs followed by five on Columbia Moments, Boz Scaggs and Band, My Time, Slow Dancer and last year's Silk Degrees.
All of the albums sold moderately well (My Time and Moments a bit better than the rest since they both had medium-successful singles) but until Silk Degrees came along none had made Boz a cross-continent headlining attraction. With his new-found success I wondered if people had started to pick up on his past albums.
"Not really. It's okay by me. The record company, of course, is concerned that they see some action on the catalogue. I don't really care because it's like I look at a piece I wrote four years ago and cringe a little bit. Not that I'm not proud of what I did and not that I didn't enjoy it. But, I'm really more into what I'm doing right now than what I was doing 5 years ago. So, I don't become too concerned about the catalogue."
I personally recommend, for all those wanting to check out the past efforts of Mr. Scaggs, Boz Scaggs, Boz Scaggs and Band and My Time for starters.
"I think the general feeling is Silk Degrees was my first album to a lot of people. That's a nice feeling too, because it sort of makes for a fresh career. On the other hand some people go back, but, it hasn't been one of those natural things where people go back and pick up all the old stuff."
Most people who are seeing Boz now are seeing him for the first time. Consequently they don't know his older material and except in certain areas have long been big on Boz (like San Francisco). He has no problem with people yelling for past material. His live set is currently an hour and a half long concentrating on songs from Slow Dancer and Silk Degrees with "Dinah Flo" and "Full-Lock Power Slide" from My Time thrown in for good measure.
His band is a new one consisting of Jeff Porcaro - drums; Steve Porcaro - synthesizer and keyboards; Jai Winding - keyboards, Scott Edwards - bass, Steve Lukather - guitar plus three back-up vocalists including Vanetta Fields and three percussionists.
Boz nearly didn't make it this far. Silk Degrees was only his second album since 1972's My Time. Slow Dancer came out in 1974. I wondered why the two-year gaps when Boz previously had always been a very active musician (four albums in three years 1970 - 1972).
"I had a lot of things to think about. As I said, I took care of my own affairs for awhile. I had a lot of things to take care of. Every person who has made music a career has been through it. I wasn't scuffling exactly (I have scuffled but not during that period). It was just a period of adjustment. I had serious questions about whether I wanted to continue, whether I could afford to continue playing.
"It becomes frustrating after awhile. I had sort of a cult following that was always very supportive of me but it was coming to a point where in order to have a meaningful career you had to sell a certain amount of records. I must say that Columbia Records has always supported me and encouraged me. I've been searching for a long time. A cult following is fine but you need a broader general acceptance."
Boz has believed in his philosophy throughout his career.
"I mean there's a difference in being a musician and being an entertainer. I've always made that distinction. I'm an entertainer and a musician. It's nice to sit back in your bedroom and jam to yourself and practice and call yourself a purist. Some people do that and I admire that. But I've always put myself in the position of being an entertainer. This means that people have to show up and be entertained. It means a broad general public acceptance and that's the big step we're taking now. We're doing larger venues and playing for a lot more people. That's part of it. If I'm going to be a public commodity I want a lot of public.
"I made that decision at one point in my career, right before I signed with CBS. I've travelled a lot, I've drifted all over. I've been to many places. Music had always gotten me around but I'd never considered it as my career. There was a day when I decided I would go at it and make it my livelihood. From that point I've taken very seriously the fact I perform for the public. That's what it's about for me."
When Slow Dancer did come out it was quite a surprise. Boz had always leaned towards R&B and big productions but Slow Dancer featured him singing in front of huge Motown-inspired arrangements produced by ex-Motown producer Johnny Bristol. The album featured such Motown session musicians as James Jamerson and Ed Greene.
"It was an experiment. I had admired that line of music... the Motown and the Philadelphia thing. I wanted to try my hand with those musicians. I learned a lot from it. It was a somewhat frustrating album. It was very difficult for me to make the change from being a band-oriented player to being a single artist. There was a certain distance between the studio musicians and myself and I had to learn to deal with that, with Johnny Bristol and so forth.
"I learned a lot. That was a real transition happening and consequently I think I used a lot of that experience in Silk Degrees. I realised I could go to Los Angeles and have the cream of the crop of studio players. I can get a lot of help in bringing my songs to life."
Boz, of course, is right. Silk Degrees is an outgrowth of the Slow Dancer sessions and it certainly wouldn't have been the same if Boz had not made Slow Dancer. But, on Silk Degrees, with Joe Wissert producing as opposed to Johnny Bristol, arrangements are somewhat toned down. On Slow Dancer Boz was somewhat smothered by Bristol's production. On Silk Degrees Boz is more up front. His vocal literally jumps out at you. He also rocks a lot more and for the first time since 1971's Boz Scaggs and Band he wrote an album's worth of tunes (on My Time and Slow Dancer he had written half an album at best, doing covers instead).
I learned, from talking to Boz, that he writes to order. He has always written tunes the night before or the day of the recording session. Silk Degrees was no different. Boz and Joe Wissert would put their heads together and decide at a certain spot on the album they needed a bright, uptempo tune and Boz would proceed to write one.
He says he finds it very difficult to write this way but for him it's the only way. The music always comes first and the tempo and the changes usually suggest a title, a lyric or a feeling and Boz proceeds to work from there. That is one of the reasons he co-writes so many tunes.
Why Silk Degrees (and Boz Scaggs) took off when it did no one will ever know for sure. It probably had a lot to do with the disco / R&B craze (although Boz is far above your average disco fare). And it probably has a lot to do with Boz finding his niche with a perfectly crafted album encorporating the diverse elements of his past into one aesthetically pleasing whole.
On the new album, besides Omartian, Boz uses Jeff Porcaro and Scott Edwards (drums and bass respectively) from his touring band, Ray Parker Jr. and Jay Gradin on guitars plus several percussionists including Bobbye Hall.
From what he said to me, it sounds like one fine album. We'll all get a taste of it in July and when September comes around we'll get to feast. I've been into Boz since those first two Steve Miller albums and he has yet to make a bad record. Boz Scaggs is a man of taste finally getting to reap his just rewards.