Throughout his lengthy recording career — now clocking in at five decades — Boz Scaggs has been a tireless sonic alchemist, whose output is the epitome of musical amalgamation.
While best known for the blue-eyed soul and dance grooves of the monstrously successful 1976 Silk Degrees record, a casual listen to his discography also shows dips in the waters of blues, R&B, jazz, crooning, Latin, and rock styles.
On his last effort, 2013's Memphis, Scaggs tapped the essence of that city with a record largely of old soul covers. They were laid down in the city's famed Royal Recording Studios, where producer Willie Mitchell and singer Al Green did their seminal work.
Scaggs, who spent his formative years in Plano near Dallas, continues his elegant musical meanderings — tracking mostly further southwest this time — in A Fool to Care (429 Records). The dozen songs feature covers written by Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, Huey P. Smith, members of the Band, and bluesman Jack Walroth. This one was put together at Nashville's Blackbird Studio in just four days.
"We were looking for a particular sound with Memphis at Royal, and there's not much in the way of decision making when you go there," Scaggs says. "You put the drums there, the mike there, the console there, and it comes out sounding like Royal."
"For this one, we wanted to expand the sound a little bit...have more of what I call an audio palette," he adds. "And Blackbird seemed very comfortable. Plus, there was an enormous collection of toys that recording artists like!"
Scaggs also revived the earlier album's core backing band of Willie Weeks (bass), Steve Jordan (drums), former Ghostbuster Ray Parker Jr. (guitar) and Jim Cox (piano and keyboards). Jordan also again produced.
"We started throwing out songs to each other and made a long list. We also needed to see what would fit my voice," Scaggs explains. "And the regional approach was very much intentional. Doug Sahm has been on my mind a lot in recent years. And when you do that, then Texas and Louisiana creep into the picture."
The material — from a funky, greasy "Rich Woman" and the torchy "Love Don't Love Nobody" to the Latin-infused "Tango on 16th Street" to the '50s balladry of the title track — covers a lot of ground. One track, Green's "Full of Fire," even hearkens back to the Silk Degrees sound with its funky disco beat and lyrics praising The Boogie.
A Fool to Care also features two duets, the swampy "Hell to Pay" (the only Boz-penned tune) with Bonnie Raitt, and the Band's "Whispering Pines" with Lucinda Williams. And he's very pleased with the results of both.
"We kicked open the door to considering some duets," he says. "And I while I didn't write 'Hell to Pay' with [Raitt] in mind, I had the riff and the title. And of course, her slide guitar lended itself beautifully to that."
Scaggs also knew he wanted to take a stab at "Whispering Pines," and while "trolling around the Internet," he found a version that Williams did at a tribute for that group's Levon Helm after his passing.
"I was captured by the way she did it," he recalls. "And we had already talked about doing something together, so this was perfect."
On his tour for Memphis, which stopped at Houston's Arena Theatre, five of the show's first six songs came from that album. Scaggs says he and the current touring band have worked up the same amount from the new one, but he'll vary which ones they perform on any given night. Like every other classic rock-era artist (or, come to think of it, any-era artist), he's fully aware that the bulk of the live audiences will most want to hear the hits and most popular material.
In Scaggs' case, that includes tracks like "Lowdown," "Lido Shuffle," the slow-burn Urban Cowboy-ballad "Look What You've Done to Me," "Jojo," "Breakdown Dead Ahead," and the blues scorcher that helped launch him, Fenton Robinson's "Loan Me a Dime."
"It will be a mixture, but the [new songs] come from where I come from, so they fit into the older repertoire, they shoe in nicely," he says.
Finally — in an odd instance of musical messengering — I passed along to Scaggs the greetings and effusive praise of Steve Lukather. I had interviewed the guitarist and vocalist for Toto day before for an upcoming piece on the band's new album and summer co-headlining tour with Yes, which stops in Houston August 25 at the Woodlands Pavilion.
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Lukather replied that his first professional job happened at age 19, when Scaggs hired him for his band in the mid-70s. And Scaggs had an indirect hand in the formation of Toto when he hired David Paich (keyboardist), Jeff Porcaro (drums), and David Hungate (bass) to play on the sessions for Silk Degrees.
Paich's name appeared as co-writer with Scaggs on half the tracks and another sole original. That studio trio — after recruiting Lukather, singer Bobby Kimball, and another Porcaro brother Steve on keyboards — formed Toto the next year.
"Oh man!" a surprised Scaggs laughs when he's told of Lukather's effusive fealty. "How about that!"