From his earliest records and concerts to his most recent discs and tours with buddies Michael McDonald and Donald Fagen as the Dukes of September, Boz Scaggs has always shown a reverence for music history. That's especially true for the old blues and R&B tunes he'd hear wafting over the airwaves from faraway and seemingly exotic radio stations while growing up in Texas.
"We had radio coming out of New Orleans and as far away as Nashville and Chicago," the 68-year-old Scaggs reflects today from his Napa Valley home and vineyard. "I listened to a lot of hardcore R&B late at night. And there was an extraordinary station out of Dallas that was practically like a master class in roots music, specializing in Delta blues.
"And at school we'd get together in a vacant classroom at lunch and listen to 45s," he adds. "That's where I heard people like Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Elvis and the doo-wop groups."
Many of those influences were on Scaggs's mind during the recording of Memphis (429 Records), his first studio record in five years (released today). Consisting mostly of covers of classics like "Corinna, Corinna," "Rainy Night in Georgia," "Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl" and "Love on a Two Way Street," it was recorded at Royal Studios in Memphis, where producer Willie Mitchell produced so many of Al Green's records.
With a crack core band that includes producer/drummer Steve Jordan, guitarist Ray Parker Jr. and bassist Willie Weeks -- along with guests like Spooner Oldham, Charlie Musselwhite, Rick Vito and Keb' Mo -- Scaggs's own vocal and guitar have never sounded so relaxed and fit before.
"I had been thinking about putting out a record similar to Come on Home [a previous covers project] that involved going back to the past and finding songs that matched my style and voice," he says. From a short list of 30-35 candidates, Scaggs and Jordan winnowed down to the ten covers and two originals that made up the final product.
"I just wanted to sing the songs, to be the vocalist primarily," says Scaggs. "After all these years, after all the projects, there is nothing more satisfying than finding all the elements that go into a good song and putting them together and having them work out in a balanced way. When your love of the music and your voice can match up, it's like...flying.
"It's the closest things to transcendence, a glimpse of something perfect."
Scaggs's own musical journey has wound through decades, starting when he began busking around Europe and Scandinavia in the mid-'60s, where he found out people there (especially in England) often appreciated American music more than Americans.
"Blues and R&B were huge there, which surprised me," he says. "I thought we had some exclusivity on that stuff. But they were more avid than we were, these bands incorporating T-Bone Walker and Lightnin' Hopkins and Bobby 'Blue' Bland into their covers and originals.
"In those days, I saw a lot of musicians in the pubs and clubs who would later go on to be really famous just working things out," he adds. "But for me, those days were more of a travel odyssey than a musical quest."
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In Part 2 Wednesday, Scaggs tells of finding worldwide success with Silk Degrees, what it taught him, why he dropped out in the '80s and how jazz helped him get his groove back.