Wizard of Boz
Like one of his ballad's gently lolling melodies, William Royce "Boz" Scaggs takes an easygoing approach to recording. Never one to give in to a timetable's pressure, the pop-soulster drops an album at his own pace. And when his distinct voice returns over the speakers, it's as welcome as a phone call from a long-lost friend.
But there's truly cause for celebration with the release of Dig (Virgin). His first studio release since 1994's underrated Some Change, Dig is the best record he's put out in more than two decades. Dig features Scaggs's trademark cool crooning and atmospheric R&B-based music, but also some contemporary touches that, for the most part, work surprisingly well.
"I feel fortunate to have had hits, but that's not my motivation at all," Scaggs says during rehearsals for his upcoming tour. "I had been working toward a record for some time, just putting down some tracks and demos. But it really didn't take off until David [Paich] and I got together with Danny [Kortchmar] last year. We had a pretty great chemistry together, so we just set a date."
Indeed, Dig is truly a collaborative effort, with all three sharing writing, playing (Paich on keyboards, "Kooch" on guitar) and arranging credits. From the greasy funk and gritty licks of "Payday" to romantic, elegant ballads, Dig is emotional and near-cinematic. The cover captures the mood with photos of a trench coat-clad Scaggs wandering city streets lit only by neon and streetlights.
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According to Scaggs, these sketches by Boz are about losers -- in the sense of people who have genuinely lost something as opposed to the popular conception of the term; no slackers or Jerry Springer guests here. "We're so tuned in to our culture being some sort of race or game of accumulation that we look at people who don't succeed in the way that modern standards dictate as not belonging somehow," Scaggs says. Characters on Dig, like the border-straddling searcher on the desolate, country-tinged "King of El Paso" or the duo drifting to Vegas on "Vanishing Point," certainly fall into that category. "We need to stop seeking the weaknesses in each other and find a little more humanity and compassion," Scaggs continues. "Actually, I think these characters are more disillusioned than what we think of as losers."
But perhaps the most interesting aspect of Dig is the Paich-Kooch-Scaggs trio's unabashed embracing of heavy synthesizers, programming loops and even assorted hip-hop beats. Blessedly, the high-tech tricks don't sound cold or empty; they only enhance the material (except on "Get on the Natch," when Scaggs's rapping sounds eerily like C.W. McCall on "Convoy").
Scaggs feels that hip-hop is simply the current evolution of his beloved R&B, even though many fans might find it hard to connect the dots between Busta Rhymes and Solomon Burke. "I guess I'm thinking more of people like D'Angelo, who borrows from Marvin Gaye and Al Green. Plus a lot of music that's sampled in hip-hop comes from James Brown and Earth, Wind & Fire and people like that," Scaggs says. "R&B was one thing when I was growing up listening to it, then it became urbanized with Motown, Stax/ Volt and Philly, and the '80s took it even further." Scaggs pauses to laugh, realizing he's taken a turn toward the professorial. "But I'm no musicologist -- and I wouldn't stake my career on that theory!"
Born in Canton, Ohio, in 1944 and raised in Plano, the teen who loved blues and R&B found a kindred soul in his St. Mark's prep school classmate Steve "The Joker" Miller. The pair played in a succession of prep-school blues groups, in Texas and later at the University of Wisconsin, before Scaggs formed his own group, the Wigs. After they disbanded, Scaggs busked in Europe, recording his debut, Boz, in Sweden in 1966 before coming to San Francisco and joining the Steve Miller Band for two records in the late '60s.
He launched his stateside solo career with 1969's Boz Scaggs, featuring the cult Fenton Robinson blues track "Loan Me a Dime" with a 22-year-old Duane Allman on guitar. (Robinson later sued Scaggs for composer credit and won.) That album was followed by four more releases, which failed to break him out but allowed the critical fave to experiment with many different musical genres, a trait that remains a hallmark of his work.
With the release of Silk Degrees in 1976, Scaggs finally caught the brass ring. One of those right-place/right-time records that pins down the zeitgeist, it became a huge success of sleek pop soul and a boomer benchmark. The album, which still sells well today, spawned the hits "Lido Shuffle," "Lowdown" and "It's Over," while "We're All Alone" later became a hit for Rita Coolidge. Scaggs quickly followed that with 1977's Down Two Then Left and 1980's Middle Man, which completedthe "L.A. trilogy" that put him in the company of contemporary Southern California troubadours Jackson Browne and Warren Zevon. He even scored a film hit when "Look What You've Done to Me" was featured in Urban Cowboy.
Still, Silk Degrees was no instant smash. "It took a year before it really caught hold and broke through, and I was out there with my band on the road the whole time trying to survive," Scaggs remembers. "It was an enormous satisfaction to have a hit record, and I wish it at least once for every musician. It had the real effect of letting me continue to play, but now to many more people."
But for most of the '80s and '90s, Scaggs took a much, much lower profile, releasing only two new studio records, several compilations and a collection of mostly R&B covers. He also took part in Steely Dan front man Donald Fagen's Rock & Soul Revue tour and record and scored a minor hit with "Heart of Mine."
Ideally, Dig will do for Boz Scaggs what Two Against Nature did last year for Steely Dan: reintroduce a venerable act to old fans and pick up younger new ones. The accompanying tour will combine a healthy helping of Dig along with the hits and rarities. "We don't have the set list down yet," he says, "but we're rehearsing a lot of things."
Scaggs says he has a lot of good memories of Houston, stretching back to his early- '60s St. Mark's sports clashes with St. John's. Later in the decade, he often returned to Houston clubs to see Bobby "Blue" Bland, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown and Johnnie Taylor concerts. "Those guys were my heroes," he says.
Scaggs also will appear in -- of all places -- an episode of Ally McBeal on October 29. He performs "It's Over" in a club scene, and "Payday" is also on the soundtrack. "They called me up and asked if I wanted to do it. And well, I have this new record to let people know about," he laughs. "But then I found out that they also had people like Barry White, Tina Turner and Al Green on, and I figured that was pretty good company."
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