Saturday, 27 June 2009

He might have gone on to become The Buzz in the mid-seventies, but when you’re looking at Boz Scaggs’ extensive back catalogue the first album on Atlantic is a logical starting point, and if you’re only familiar with the glossy sheen of Silk Degrees, Boz Scaggs may come as a pleasant surprise...

Rear View: "Boz Scaggs"

Boz Scaggs

Officially, he’s William Royce Scaggs born on 8 June 1944 in Ohio to Royce Scaggs, a travelling salesman who flew in the Air Force in World War II, and Helen Scaggs. As you’d suspect, travelling salesmen travel, and the family moved from Ohio to Oklahoma before ending up in Dallas, Texas.

Attending the same school as a certain Steve Miller, one of his fellow students persisted in addressing him as Bosley to the point where William Royce became Boz Scaggs.

Having started off learning the cello, his friendship with Steve Miller prompted him to switch to playing guitar and in 1959 he joined Miller in The Marksmen, a Dallas outfit that lasted until the pair moved to Madison to attended the University of Wisconsin, playing in blues bands The Ardells and The Fabulous Knight Trains on the side.

By 1963, Scaggs was back in Dallas, fronting an R&B unit called The Wigs, which relocated to England, disbanded, and had two of its members - John Toad Andrews and Bob Arthur - return to the US, ending up in San Francisco where they were part of the first incarnation of Mother Earth.

Scaggs remained in Europe, singing on street corners, and ending up in Sweden, where he recorded a solo album, Boz, in 1965. The album didn’t set him on the road to stardom, and after a brief stint with a band called The Other Side, a postcard from Miller invited him to head over to San Francisco to join the Steve Miller Band.

As a songwriter and rhythm guitarist. Scaggs appeared on Children Of The Future and Sailor before that old favourite creative differences prompted him to leave the band and embark on a solo career.

With Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner’s assistance, Scaggs signed a contract with Atlantic and ended up in Muscle Shoals studio cutting the album that appeared in 1968 as Boz Scaggs.

Listeners who were expecting something resembling a west coast groove would have been disappointed, though their reactions would have been nowhere as strong as bluesman Fenton Robinson, who sued (successfully) for the writer’s credit on Loan Me a Dime, the album’s highlight, featuring Duane Allman’s guitar on a 12:48 magnum opus.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough to get the album into the charts, and two years later Scaggs found himself signed Columbia, with Glyn Johns looking after production duties on 1971's Moments and Boz Scaggs & Band, both of which failed to make an impression on the charts. Scaggs took the producer’s chair for My Time in 1972, handing it on to Motown's Johnny Bristol for Slow Dancer in 1974, before hitting the big time with the Joe Wissert (Earth, Wind & Fire) produced Silk Degrees in 1976.

With backing from the studio musos who went on to form Toto (and Little Feat’s Fred Tackett is in there as well) Silk Degrees fitted the times in a way that his earlier albums hadn’t quite managed, but it was a one-off success. Successful enough, at any rate to persuade Atlantic to reissue the deleted Boz Scaggs with a new catalog number and a complete remix that brought Duane Allman's guitar into greater prominence.

As a world-wide smash, Silk Degrees produced hit singles in the form of Lowdown, Lido Shuffle, and What Can I Say, as well as a sellout world tour followed, but that was the high water mark. 1977’s Down Two Then Left, didn’t match its predecessor’s success. Nor did 1980’s Middle Man, though it did include Breakdown Dead Ahead, which did quite nicely, thank you.

After that, recorded output became increasingly sporadic. Other Roads didn't appear until 1988, the year Scaggs turned his attention to Slim's, the San Francisco nightclub, he still co-owns. He was back for Some Change in 1994, Come On Home and My Time: A Boz Scaggs Anthology in 1997. 2001’s Dig, released on September 11, 2001 (yes, THAT 9/11) probably didn’t stand a chance, and while But Beautiful debuted at number 1 on the jazz charts it wasn’t going to restore his profile in the mainstream.

Scaggs still tours and probably picks up a comfortable living from his musical efforts. If you’re looking to sample his work, there’s no better place to start than the remarkably cheap two-and-a-half-hour My Time: A Boz Scaggs Anthology, a $9.99 download from the iTunes Music Store, though it only includes Loan Me A Dime from his quite sublime Atlantic album, which is actually the reason why we’re here.

After his stint with the Steve Miller Band, Scaggs found himself at 3614 Jackson Highway (Muscle Shoals Studios) in Alabama, working with (among others) Tracy Nelson, Duane Allman, Eddie Hinton, Jimmy Johnson, Barry Beckett, David Hood and Roger Hawkins on a solo album.

You can see where he’s headed right from the opening of I'm Easy (co-written with Barry Beckett), a loping little groove that flows exactly in the way the title suggests it should. I'll Be Long Gone keeps that groove going and along with Another Day (Another Letter) suggests that the narrator from the opening track may be easy but is also well acquainted with heartache, though he’s not going to lose too much sleep over it.

Now You're Gone reinforces that impression, as the dobro (is that Allman or Eddie Hinton?) gives a touch of honky-tonk while Al Lester’s fiddle fills in around the female vocal chorus, where you can definitely hear Tracy Nelson. Tasty and tasteful.

But it’s not all broken hearts and I’m outta here. Finding Her signals the start of something new, and Look What I Got gets right into the post-breakup bragging that comes with the start of a new relationship. If you’d treated me right, I’d be coming home to you says it all really, once he’s established the fact that he’s got someone special to come home to.

There’s plenty of examples of the links between rock, old-style R&B (the sixties version, not the disco-tainted variant that came later) and country music but Look What I’ve Got underlines those links while that dobro slides away under Scaggs easy relaxed vocal. While he might be pointing out a few home truths to the ex- he’s still the same dude from I’m Easy.

Hughesy’s been known to run a mile from a hint of countryfied yodelling but the cover of Jimmie Rodgers’ Waiting for a Train works in a way that most of the other examples of the genre don’t. Maybe it’s the continuation of the same country-fired groove that runs through the album.

A swirl of organ, a touch of piano and the unmistakeable tones of Duane Allman and we’re into the album’s highlight, thirteen-odd minutes of Fenton Robinson’s Loan Me a Dime, one of the ultimate three-o’clock in the morning blues. Turn down the lights and grab something slightly stronger than a beer and sit back and let the music flow over you. Allman’s solo is masterfully underplayed, and the horns swell in just the right places. Love it.

Under normal circumstances you’d think Loan Me A Dime couldn’t be followed, but Sweet Release manages to do just that, and if you look at the album as, more or less, a song cycle, it’s the perfect closer.

You’ve got the introduction on I’m Easy, followed by the breakup of the old, the start of something new that doesn’t last either, so it’s out onto the highway and the hard times, but Sweet Release, low-keyed at the start as Scaggs enumerates his woes. The music gradually rises behind him as he finds the hope of something better around the corner in the future. Uplifting....

The album as a whole’s a seamless interweaving of down home elements, a splash of country here, a tad gospel over there, bit of blues running through. Scaggs’ vocals are relaxed, the players slide in behind him and the result is an album that deserves to a place in any discerning record collection.

And if you want a perfect summary of the whole, go no further than the cover....

In the Top Thousand:
The whole album (except Finding Her)