By David DeRocco
If you had to speculate on the type of blood Boz Scaggs has running through his veins, Type O might be a good guess. It would only make sense that the fluids flowing through a musician so versatile would be classified as “universal.” Scaggs has certainly developed a universal multi-genre musical appeal in a career that dates back to the Sixties and a side gig with the Steve Miller Band. He achieved solo-success during a productive mid-Seventies run that included the release of his classic LP Silk Degrees. However, it’s his late-period high points that have truly showcased his versatility as an artist, culminating with his most recent release, A Fool to Care.
That 2015 release hit Number One on the Billboard blues charts, which isn’t really surprising – unless you know that just over a decade earlier Scaggs was sitting at Number One on the jazz charts. From the discofied funk of his Top 40 heyday to the blues/rock of his 2013 release Memphis, Scaggs is a musical chameleon, a shape shifter who can inhabit any music space he decides to explore with exceptional results. For a cool cat from the Sixties, having the freedom to let the music take him in a multitude of directions has him enjoying his career on a whole new level.
“We’re just doing what we want to do,” suggests Scaggs, who rolls into Fallsview Casino’s Avalon Ballroom July 24th at 9pm. “I particularly like working with (producer) Steve Jordan. He’s a wonderful musician and a great musical source of inspiration. That’s probably been the single most important aspect of doing these last two records. We’re just having a good time.”
Times were certainly good for Scaggs during his first wave of chart-topping success. That began in 1976 when, using session musicians who would later form Toto, Scaggs took Silk Degrees to Number One in multiple countries thanks to the album’s four hits singles: “It’s Over,” “Lowdown,” What Can I Say” and his signature song, “Lido Shuffle.” The album sold over a million copies in the U.S. alone, and while he’s never matched those kinds of sales numbers again, Scaggs has managed to carve out a remarkable career punctuated with such classics albums as Middle Man (1980), Some Change (1994) and Dig (2001).
With his latest album, Scaggs has been mining some hallowed ground, covering songs from the heart of Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma that helped shape and define his musical sensibility. From wistful covers of The Band’s aching ballad “Whispering Pines” featuring Lucinda Williams to the new Scaggs’ original “Hell To Pay” featuring the slide guitar mastery of Bonnie Raitts, the album paints the blues with a variety of hues, delivered with Scaggs’ authentic and weathered voice. Scaggs gives much of the credit for the albums musical texture to producer Jordan and the hired guns he was playing alongside: Willie Weeks on bass, Ray Parker, Jr. on rhythm guitar and Steve Cox on keyboards.
“We all sort of know each other well, they’re the best of what they do in terms of what we’re looking for,” said Scaggs. “We all just follow each other. That’s real music. That’s what we do. I have a demo room at home, where I try to work things out, find a key. I send stuff to Steve, we do some collaboration before we get to the studio. We just kind of count it off. Jordan sets up the rhythm, maybe I’m playing guitar, I sing, the guys have charts; we just start running it down. It comes together pretty quickly. We usually do a couple or three takes, take a break, go back and do another one. These guys are chosen because they bring so much creativity and feel and originality to what they do. It’s music in its highest sense, very collaborative. It’s real music.”
Laying down the rhythm tracks for A Fool to Care happened during a lightning fast four day period at Nashville’s famed Blackbird Studio, where songs like the cover of Al Green’s “Full of Fire,” Richard Hawley’s “There’s A Storm A Comin’” and The Spinner’s “Love Don’t Love Nobody” found the light. While Scaggs describes the sessions as “an intense three or four days,” they were a necessary step in the long road to getting him where he ultimately wanted to go – back on the road.
“The sessions started at 11 or 12 and tended to go well after midnight. You catch whatever sleep you can get and do it again. It’s pretty relaxed. But it’s never really over. There’s always one more mix you can do, one more mastering sessions. Then you have to do the album cover, the designs. It just seems to never end. You get sick of it. You love it and you hate it and you go through whole emotions. But then the fun comes, you get to go play it. It’s like a good meal. You think about what you want. You shop and cook it, then finally you get to sit down and eat it. That’s what going out on the road is. You get to play and enjoy it.”Like many musicians from his era, Scaggs is hitting the road out of love for performing but also out of necessity. The digital technology that has forever altered both the audio recording process and the mobile communications that give audiences greater access to artists has also reduced his ability to financially capitalize on his catalogue to the extent he had hoped.
“I came from that era in recording when all the innovation and recording that took place in the 60’s and 70’s were the methods that are most highly emulated now. Digital is starting to sound good, but it doesn’t replace the high quality of analog. As for communicating with the audience, it’s a blessing and a curse. More people can hear you and microscopically communicate with you if they want. But on the other hand it’s severely damaged the career aspect. Instead of selling it it’s all given away now. That’s an ongoing conflict.”
“Many of us who have worked for decades and written a lot thought wrongfully that would be our retirement fund. That’s all changed. I think most of us who have been at it as long as I have, we’ve given up thinking about it in terms of the payout long ago. We started out doing it for love, and the ones still standing are only doing it for love – a love of the music.”