Boz Scaggs – The Cool Flame

To some casual music followers the album Silk Degrees and the song “Lowdown” mark the beginning of a brief 5 year / 4 album career that flashed as a bolt across the sky and was gone. It might surprise those same people that Scaggs had a viable career well before he hit the mainstream in the 70’s, and is still going strong in the 50 plus years since his first release – his “busker album” Boz, recorded in Stockholm Sweden in 1965.

In fact that career has had at least 4 distinct chapters to date prefaced by a period of time bumming around Europe, soul searching, before being convinced that he was going to be a professional musician. Already captivated by music, (always Blues, R&B, and Country centred), and immersed – having played in a number of bands both at home and England – Boz, in the uncertainty of his path in life, decided instead to see the world. It was upon his return to the U.S. that things started to unfold for him musically.

The first phase of his career was that of an earthy Roots Rocker as a member of The Steve Miller Band. Chapter two was Boz living his dream as a Texas Blues / R&B / Country singer and guitar player par excellence. The previously mentioned era, highlighted by Silk Degrees, was a natural extension of the Blues cum R&B persona and represents an effortless, smooth transition to Uptown Soul – a place where Philly Soul and Motown are anchored by Muscle Shoals and Memphis roots. Finally, Boz’s current period is characterized by drawing on all of his influences as a peerless interpreter exhibiting a high degree of emotional honesty. 

Born William Royce Scaggs in Canton Ohio in 1944 – his family members still refer to him as Billy Royce – Scaggs spent his formative years first in Oklahoma and then Plano Texas, (a farm town north of Dallas). Boz was drawn to music in his preteen years – specifically Blues and R&B that were the prevalent local styles everywhere he turned, whether it be the radio or live performance. A key moment that Scaggs remembers to this day was when, barely in his teens, he heard T-Bone Walker’s “Blues For Marili” on the car radio. He recalls “it was one of the sweetest things my ears had ever heard; just perfection”. Scaggs also cites another moment as defining and foreshadowing when at 15 he attended a Ray Charles concert in Dallas. One of the few whites in a capacity audience, Boz witnessed a performance forever indelibly etched in his brain: “It gave me some hint, some clue, to what my life might be like if my life was perfect”.

At the time Scaggs’ two favourite artists were Ray Charles (“for the big band he had”) and Jimmy Reed. Boz recalls “I remember Jimmy Reed’s voice and thinking that I was hearing something from another universe; something so appealing and beautiful – so exotic”. Boz was also drawn to Reed because, as a rudimentary guitar player, he found in Reed’s songs a certain simplicity: “everyone can play that”.

It was also in Dallas, at the age of 15, while attending a private school, St. Mark’s, that Boz made the acquaintance of 16 year old guitar whiz Steve Miller. (As a side note, Miller took some lessons as a child from a frequent visitor to the Miller household – the legendary Les Paul). Scaggs joined Miller’s band The Marksmen primarily as a singer because he was a relative novice guitar player compared to Miller. It was Miller that he credits with teaching him the finer points of guitar as a teen. The two would team up once again in Madison Wisconsin after Scaggs’ graduation from St. Mark’s. There they would join forces in various bands, (including The Ardells and The Fabulous Knight Trains), primarily playing the frat party circuit. (In fact, Steve Miller would continue to be a constant presence and mentor well into Scaggs’ career).

At this point, not thinking seriously of a music career, Boz ended up in the army stationed in San Antonio. On off hours he’d would head some 80 miles north to Austin to both play and take in the music scene – and after being discharged, decided to move there. Scaggs formed a band in Austin, (The Wigs), but found it tough sledding in that they were unable to get any traction locally. Following a failed attempt to get the band established in England, Boz decided once again to step away and consider his options.

It was early in 1965 that Scaggs decided to change course and do some exploring while he sorted things out. He travelled to Denmark, France, and Spain among other places before making Stockholm Sweden his home base over the next couple of years. He was working odd jobs as well as busking when he came across an opportunity to record an album for Polydor. Simply titled Boz, the release, with Scaggs singing and accompanying himself on acoustic guitar and harp, featured 12 covers that he performed regularly in the course of playing the street corners of Stockholm. In a day-long session Boz laid down his own versions of “Mockingbird”, “Stormy Monday”, and “Girl From The North Country” among others.

He was somewhat content with his bohemian lifestyle – that coincided perfectly with Boz’s laid back “take the path of least resistance” approach – as he contemplated his next move. That next move would come courtesy of Steve Miller. Boz received a postcard from Miller providing him with a topline of the San Francisco scene in addition to telling him of his need of a guitar player for his newly formed band. After agreeing to the idea of joining his band, Miller sent Boz a one way ticket to do just that in San Francisco.

The Steve Miller Band was one of the more buttoned down, professional bands on the scene. (Miller arrived in San Francisco from Chicago some two years previous having served as co-leader of The Miller–Goldberg Blues Band there). They were likened more to, say, John Cippolina’s Quicksilver Messenger Service, and didn’t stretch out like experimental jam bands, e.g. The Grateful Dead. They also had a distinct advantage of being long time electric musicians unlike a number of the local bands that were transitioning from acoustic to electric.

Boz would provide vocals, both lead and rhythm guitar, and songwriting to the collective over the course of 2 well regarded albums and a nine month stay in the band. Personal highlights included “Steppin’ Stone” and “Baby’s Calling Me Home” (from the first, Children Of The Future), and “Dime-A-Dance Romance” (from the second, Sailor).

Boz’s time with the Miller band was short lived because he recognized very quickly that he had definite ideas on music matters that could only be realized by stepping out on his own. Things weren’t exactly moving quickly for Scaggs when he happened to strike up a conversation with neighbour Jann Wenner, co-founder and editor of Rolling Stone magazine. With his position in the music industry Wenner, who had a number of contacts both on the artist and business side, reached out to Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records. As it happened, Wexler had just poached The Swampers, the excellent studio band, from Rick Hall’s FAME Studios; and had financed Muscle Shoals Sound Studios as the enticement in luring them away from Hall’s employ. That being the case, he was looking for an opportunity to give them immediate work, and, in turn, suggested to Wenner that he send Boz to MSSS to record. Not only would Boz be recording with a studio band that had played on a number of Southern Soul hits but Wenner also convinced Duane Allman to return and join the sessions. (Allman had left FAME, previous to The Swampers’ defection, to form The Allman Brothers Band). Boz noted that Allman had an enormous impact on the ensuing recording: “His spirit pervades that entire album. He set the tone for it.”

Scaggs was The Swampers’ first client. And although it took some time to get the rightful recognition, the album that they cut – Boz Scaggs – proved to be one of the definitive albums of the decade, and an outstanding example of Roots / Americana at its’ finest before the term became fashionable. Produced by Wenner, Marlin Green (producer of Percy Sledge’s smash “When A Man Loves A Woman”), and Scaggs, the album features 9 beautifully sequenced songs incorporating Roots Rock, Southern Soul, Country, and Blues.

There are a number of highlights, (and related back stories), but the undisputed centrepiece is the 12 minute plus “Loan Me A Dime”. Allman plays an integral role here as “Dime” opens with a plaintive Hammond B-3 that gives way to the purest Blues guitar obbligato heard on record courtesy of Allman. An inspired Scaggs vocal takes centre stage until the 7’48” mark. From there Allman alters the mood; taking the number into another realm by continually increasing the tempo and intensity, and powering what began as a burning slow Blues into a full force gale of an all stops out guitar / horns jam. And yes, the performance is that dramatic!

(As a sidebar, “Loan Me A Dime” was marked with controversy when Boz originally took songwriting credit on the song thinking that it was Public Domain, a traditional Blues song passed on from artist to artist. Accordingly, as an accepted practice, he would be allowed the leeway to take credit for the song based on a unique arrangement of the tune. Boz’s history with “Dime” was that he had initially heard it as a staple of The Elvin Bishop Band’s live shows and got the lyrics from Jo Baker, Bishop’s lead singer over the phone in the studio before committing the number to tape. He apparently didn’t know that the song was originally written and recorded by Fenton Robinson. When made aware, the situation was rectified with Robinson receiving due credit going forward. Check out Fenton’s fine version on the Alligator release Somebody Loan Me A Dime.)

Despite great reviews found in major publications and the Rock press, the album sold only 20,000 copies on its initial release – a disappointment for all parties involved. The major reason for the poor showing was a direct result of Wenner refusing Wexler’s demand to shut down the project when Wenner continued to exceed the budget. In response Wexler pulled all promotional support. As exceptional as the recording was, it couldn’t succeed on its own merit without Atlantic’s marketing dollars. The album continues to sell with several re-issues on CD. And it was named as one of Rolling Stone magazine’s “500 Greatest Albums Of All-Time”.

Somewhat disenchanted with the whole experience, Scaggs took a step back and decided to “just hang out down south for a spell”. He sent for his future wife, Carmella Storniola, to join him, and among other activities, was content to just jam with local musicians. The inactivity coupled with the failure of Boz Scaggs caused Atlantic to drop him from their roster. Boz would later resurface as a member of Tracy Nelson and Mother Earth back in San Francisco, both recording and performing with the band on local gigs.

Columbia Records came calling about a year later with the offer of a multi album contract. A wary Scaggs was reassured after discussing the deal with Steve Miller, and accepted the proposal that would result in Boz recording 8 studio albums on the Columbia label over the next 17 years on the road to mainstream stardom.

Scaggs’ first move was to assemble a working band that would also double as a recording ensemble. Influenced by Ray Charles’ and B.B. King’s various bands as well as Texas compatriot Doug Sahm’s Honky Blues Band, Boz added 3 horns to the line-up. To ensure continuity he put them on a “very good” salary. Notable in his 7 piece backing band were inventive drummer George Rains, keyboard maestro Joachim Young, and Bay area session sax man Mel Martin. The band would record 2 albums in year one, (1971), of the contract showcasing Boz’s fine T-Bone Walker influenced guitar playing in addition to his always evocative vocals. Of particular interest is a personal favourite, Boz Scaggs & Band, that was cut in England with Glyn Johns, (Steve Miller Band, Beatles, Rolling Stones etc.), in the producer’s chair.

In 1974, Boz changed the course of his career and his fortunes by taking his Blues and R&B in another direction with the recording of Slow Dancer. He selected Motown producer Johnny Bristol to helm the project, and, for all intents and purposes, left the entire process in Bristol’s hands. Boz barely touched the guitar as Bristol – who had a hand in writing half of the album’s output – assembled a recording crew of primarily Motown session musicians. After sketching out the songs, Bristol oversaw the recording of the backing tracks that were then provided to Boz to overlay vocals. And Bristol’s involvement didn’t end there. A reputed task master and perfectionist when it came to vocals, he pushed Scaggs to the limit and had him continually singing at the top of his range. It was said that at one point when Bristol wasn’t happy with what Boz was giving him on “Sail On White Moon” that he brought one of Boz’s idols, Smokey Robinson, into the session to provide inspiration (read: challenge him).

In the end, Slow Dancer proved to be a game changer; providing Scaggs’ with his first Gold album while effectively altering his sound, and forever changing the way that Boz made records going forward. Boz’s Blue Eyed Soul offerings were a thing of the past, replaced with gritty inner city R&B. Highlights are many; check out “Angel Lady (Come Just In Time)”, “There Is Someone Else”, and “I Got Your Number” for proof. All are representative of a new found urgency evident on the entire record.

With Slow Dancer paving the way, Boz had found a new formula for making records. He viewed his new approach to singing – brought to light by Johnny Bristol – as a perfect match for a more polished uptown brand of R&B.  And, much the same as on Slow Dancer, he sought to concentrate on vocals and pick up the guitar only occasionally. (Reflecting on his guitar playing during this period Boz noted that he left the guitar responsibilities in the hands of more accomplished / expert players sensing “All I do is play Blues guitar.”)

The first point of business was to find a producer who shared his vision and had deep roots in Urban R&B. The criteria as stated pointed him in the direction of Joe Wissert who had worked extensively with Earth Wind & Fire. Next on the to-do list was a plan of putting together a studio band centred on using Jim Keltner on drums. But Keltner, a highly in demand session drummer, unfortunately wasn’t available for the scheduled recording dates. All was not lost however, when Keltner suggested drummer Jeff Porcaro and his trio that included David Hungate on bass, and David Paich, (who had fresh arrangement ideas), on various keyboards. The trio, (all just 21 years old), had been playing together since high school, had positioned themselves as a rhythm section for hire, and had played on several Steely Dan albums. (Note: the trio would go on to form Toto after the sessions). They proved crucial to the success of Silk Degrees, especially Paich who was instrumental in helping Boz achieve his objectives. Paich, who had a hand in writing 6 of the 10 tracks and arrangements on all the tracks, said of Boz: “He was Texas Pop / Blues and I came in and we added the urban thing”.In turn, after the experience of working with Paich, Boz said of him: “I still credit him with being the single most important individual in my entire career”.

The result was Boz’s best selling album to date, (5 million units and counting), on a seamless set of songs that included Scaggs’ first Top 40 hit (“It’s Over”), and a song that would become synonymous with Scaggs (“Lowdown”). In fact, “Lowdown” earned Boz special recognition as the first white artist to win a Grammy Award for “Best R&B Song” while landing at # 3 on the Pop charts. Boz regards “Lowdown” “as the most important (song) in my repertoire”. With “Lowdown” as the catalyst, Silk Degrees stayed on the charts for an astounding 115 weeks and vaulted Boz Scaggs into the mainstream!

Boz’s next couple of albums, Down Two Then Left and Middle Man, although outstanding in their own right and including some fine moments, paled in comparison to Silk Degrees. But they also benefitted from Silk Degrees’ halo effect and they too – along with the compilation, Hits – went platinum.

The albums also opened the door to huge worldwide tours with no end seemingly in sight. That is until, in 1981, when Boz Scaggs simply stopped everything. Likening his career to a runaway train, Scaggs made the decision to hop off and let that train continue on without him. After initially sitting in with local bands at home in San Francisco, (e.g. for a short period he took Michael Bloomfield’s place in his band after Bloomfield had passed), he didn’t pick up his guitar for a number of years. Uninspired, he looked to do other things of interest including raising his two sons. No doubt both his record company, Columbia, and his legion of fans felt like they were left in the lurch. But Scaggs was resolute and he refused to talk about his decision and reasons thereof in any great detail.

Undoubtedly with Columbia’s prodding, Boz released a comeback album Other Roads in 1988. Mired by 70’s era production values on a number of different styled entries, and although containing the hit “Heart Of Mine”, the release died on the vine and was quickly forgotten. Adding to the frustration was that Columbia refused Boz’s first submission because they “didn’t hear any hits”, and demanded that he re-cut the entire album. The late musician / poet Jim Carroll, who co-wrote some of the songs with Boz, remarked at the time of his disbelief of Columbia’s treatment of an artist of Boz’s stature. Surely, a divorce was in the offing.

The release of Other Roads proved to be a false start on the comeback trail. Although Boz left no doubt that his skill set was still intact in a relatively few number of dates and an outstanding appearance on David Sanborn’s nationally televised “Night Music” there were no plans in place to either enter the studio or hit the road in a significant way.

With the exception of appearing with Donald Fagen’s NY Rock & Soul Revue, the situation remained status quo for 6 years. In 1994, Boz was without a label, when he cut a deal with Virgin that included full artistic control. Using his home studio, and with the help of ex Beach Boys and Bonnie Raitt drummer Ricky Fataar, Boz delivered Some Change, an album cited by a number of critics as his best since Silk Degrees. Other than selected guest musicians like Booker T. Jones on Hammond B-3 and Fred Tackett on guitar, Scaggs and Fataar covered all the instrumentation on 10 Scaggs compositions. For his part, Boz handled all the vocal chores and all the guitars. His guitar playing is a highlight and the overall product, for lack of a better description, paints Boz as a true professional on a set of honest heartfelt songs. Highlights include the Rockabilly vibe of “You Got My Letter”, the Texas Blues of “Some Change”, and the pain and longing of “Lost It”. Some Change stated emphatically that Boz was indeed back, and was still a force to be reckoned with.

Three years later Scaggs would embark on what he referred to as “part two of my life and my career”. With Virgin, Boz was of the mind that “I was able to pick things I really wanted to do, things that mattered to me on a purely musical basis”. And what Boz wanted to do was an album that paid homage to his musical heroes resulting in the Grammy Award nominated Come On Home. A recording that many long time fans were waiting for, the self produced Come On Home featured covers by the likes of Bobby Bland, Jimmy Reed, and T-Bone Walker interspersed with Scaggs originals that had an affinity with his chosen remakes. Not only was the recording successful commercially, it also served as a re-kindling of Boz’s love of playing the guitar as well as a reminder of why he got involved in the business in the first place – the music! A natural progression was to hit the road which Boz did in support of the album and has continued to do so on a regular basis ever since.

In the midst of his various tours Boz found time to continue to release meaningful music. His next full scale project, Dig, ranks with Scaggs’ very best work. It’s an album that Scaggs refers to as “the forgotten album” due to the unfortunate circumstance of being released on 9/11. Accordingly, all of Virgin’s promotional efforts went by the wayside. And subsequently, in relative terms, no one heard the album.

And Dig is definitely worth hearing and delving into if for no other reason than the recording reunited Boz with David Paich for somewhat of a return to Silk Degrees. With its’ heavy emphasis on modern day production values and instrumentation, Scaggs, Paich, and guitar stalwart Danny Kortchmar presented an updated, mature set of R&B and Blues inflected numbers. Paich and Kortchmar tag team on the production duties on a recording that tends at times to be unsettling in the raw emotion put forward. Even the joyous opener “Payday” or the beautiful southern ode “Sarah” can’t dispel the underlying feeling of darkness, of a heavy weight on your shoulders. Paramount in conveying the apparent uneasiness are “I Just Go”, “Desire” and “King Of El Paso”. In all, a stunning piece of work.

Boz chose to take a side road for his next projects. He has always viewed himself as a singer above all else; and, as such, it’s somewhat fitting that he recorded a couple of albums that focus on vocals with a nod to the Great American Song Book and Jazz vocal varieties. Both But Beautiful and Speak Low were cut with a small combo and stand as an exercise in taste and restraint while bringing to the fore Boz’s superb interpretive skills. Of the two, Speak Low fared the best with convincing readings of Chet Baker’s “She Was Too Good To Me”, Duke Ellington’s “Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me”, and, what would fit perfectly as part of Scaggs’ repertoire going forward, Nancy Wilson’s “Save Your Love For Me”. 

It’s left to speculation if it was conscious decision on Scaggs’ part to take his interpretive skills and apply them to selections from his own backyard of Blues and R&B but his next move was just that. His last 3 albums: Memphis, A Fool To Care, and Out Of The Blues form a trilogy celebrating American Roots Music. With a few exceptions, they are cover albums similar in effect to Come On Home. And, like Come On Home, the covers display sufficient reverence to the originals but are performed with appropriate latitude thereby allowing them room to breathe.

Memphis and A Fool To Care are the most intimate of the three with shades of Al Green permeating throughout – especially on the ballads like The Spinner’s “Love Don’t Love Nobody”, The Impressions’ “I’m So Proud”, and a slowed down reading of Tyrone Davis’ “Can I Change My Mind”. Like everything that Scaggs touches, no one is in a hurry here as he and his backing musicians lay down a seductive, textured, lazy groove.

Out Of The Blues demands to be taken at face value – this is the Blues y’all, Boz Scaggs style. And, as adept as Scaggs is in his handling of various forms of R&B and Soul, it’s evident on this release that the Blues is where Boz’s spirit truly lies. On Out Of The Blues he wraps a world weary voice around works by Jimmy Reed (“Down In Virginia”), Magic Sam (“I’ve Just Got To Know”) and Applejack Walroth’s “Radiator 110”. He even turns a non-Blues entry, one of Neil Young’s best mood pieces – the album’s focal point “On The Beach” – into a Blues oriented song. Out Of The Blues hit the top of the Blues chart, stayed in the Top Ten for 6 months, and stands as the best of, and a fitting end, to the trilogy.

With Out Of The Blues Scaggs’ career has come full circle, and it’s been quite a varied Roots oriented ride. He’s made all the stops on that journey, stated his business eloquently, and moved on to the next destination. At every juncture he’s been faithful to his musical instincts that have more than served him well.

All things considered, Boz Scaggs has proven to be a genuine musical treasure.

A Boz Scaggs Playlist

  1. I’m Easy
  2. Waiting For A Train
  3. Loan Me A Dime
  4. Sweet Release
  5. We Were Always Sweethearts
  6. Monkey Time
  7. Runnin’ Blue
  8. Why Why
  9. You’re So Good
  10. Dinah Flo
  11. You Make It So Hard
  12. Angel Lady
  13. I Got Your Number
  14. Lowdown
  15. It’s Over
  16. Lido Shuffle
  17. Hard Times
  18. Gimme The Goods
  19. JoJo
  20. Breakdown Dead Ahead
  21. You Got My Letter
  22. Some Change
  23. It All Went Down The Drain
  24. Come On Home
  25. Payday
  26. Desire
  27. King Of El Paso
  28. Save Your Love For Me
  29. Gone Baby Gone
  30. Cadillac Walk
  31. Hell To Pay (featuring Bonnie Raitt, vocals & slide guitar)
  32. Love Don’t Love Nobody
  33. Radiator 110
  34. Little Miss Night And Day
  35. On The Beach
  • Rico Ferrara, December 2021