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BOZ SCAGGS: THE LOWDOWN

By Ben Fong-Torres

They were just curtains, I suppose.

But they weren't. 

For one thing, they reached something like 50 feet high, where lights cast a golden glow onto the rust-colored velour fabric. And the fabric, even gathered, stretched 66 feet wide. Every yard or so, there were appliquéd patterns of hammered satin, and of silver and gold lame.

Now, as the curtains parted to reveal the stage of the Paramount Theater in Oakland, California,  it was clear that a spectacle was at hand. In another time–in the early heyday of the Paramount, in the Thirties, for example – it may have been the world premiere of King Kong. Or of some more glamorous film, equally worthy of the Art Deco splendor of the Paramount. Fred and Ginger, perhaps, in Top Hat.

But no. This was rock and roll. On a Friday evening in the Spring of 1974, twenty years after its raucous birth in the mid-Fifties, and a half-dozen years after San Francisco had helped to redefine it in the Sixties, rock and roll was being reinvented once more.

Outside, on Broadway Street, the marquee announced:


BOZ SCAGGS IN CONCERT
TONIGHT SAT and SUN
SOLD OUT


Inside, 3,000 fans whooped it up as Boz Scaggs strolled to the microphone at center stage, before an orchestra of 30 musicians–some dressed as if for a symphony gig; others for some glamorous rocking.

“For the audience,” I wrote in Rolling Stone magazine, “it was progressive/flashback: girls dressed to the gills, guys dressed to kill top hats and tails, Tom Wolfe ice-cream suits; turbans, fox flings and kolinskies, waved hair, corsages and tiger lilies. And not one Frisbee in sight.”

Gee, Toto. I don’t think we’re at the Fillmore anymore. But for all the astounding sights, of the theater and the concertgoer, it was still the music that would linger long after the night was over.

Boz Scaggs, son of the truest music America ever produced--blues, rhythm & blues, and country--whipped it all together into a stylish soul soufflé and placed it in a setting like no other. Even though he was doing it in Oakland, Boz was being the quintessential San Franciscan.

This is a city that treasures its past, even as it bounds beyond the future. Boz and this city of the Golden Gate and many other bridges were a perfect fit. He came, he played, and he began building his own bridges, most of them taking him on musical journeys.

As Jack McDonough, a Bay Area music journalist, notes in his book, San Francisco Rock, Boz “has come to represent, as much as anyone working within the sphere of pop music could, the ethos of San Francisco as an expansive, genteel, and sophisticated town.”

There are those who, charting Boz’s career, identify specific phases: rock and roll with Miller; the early solo albums, which were as much country and blues, and pop and jazz, as they were rock; the Slow Dancer/Silk Degrees stage, of Boz as sweet soul singer; the nearly decade-long retrenchment and semi-retirement, and the return to rootsy blues and R&B in Some Change and Come On Home.

They are not wrong. But they could be more right. The fact is, in every phase of his career, he has remained faithful to his musical instincts. As he put it: “Each record reflects the spectrum of my musical interests. Silk Degrees (1976) has many of the same elements as the album that I made for Atlantic Records in 1969.  There's a ballad, there's some rockers, there's a Latin thing, there's some sort of progressive or jazzy elements.  The production is the difference. These songs could be done in so many ways. They're vehicles--for my voice and my expression.  It's been said that in one way or another, a writer's rewriting the same book time after time, or a painter is repainting the same painting. That's more or less true. You choose new talents and new materials, but essentially you're revisiting and retelling your story from different vantage points.”

Boz was born William Royce Scaggs in Canton, Ohio, the son of a traveling salesman. The family moved to Oklahoma, then to Plano, a Texas farm town just north of Dallas. He attended a private school in Dallas, St. Mark’s, where a schoolmate gave him the nickname “Bosley.” Soon, he was just plain Boz.

Early on, he found perhaps the greatest love of his life. Boz does not talk easily about personal matters, but when he addresses his romance with music, his natural diffidence gives way to rhapsody.

He was barely a teenager in Dallas, he recalled, when he heard “Blues For Mary Lee” by T-Bone Walker on the car radio.

“It was one of the sweetest things my ears had ever heard; just perfection.” He heard more gems at night on the radio, where he found himself drawn to R&B and blues stations from near and far, and came to think of disc jockeys as teachers.

“From the very beginning,” Boz once told me, “my two favorite artists were Ray Charles–for that big R&B band he had–and Jimmy Reed. God knows where he was at.”

“I remember hearing Jimmy Reed’s voice and thinking that I was hearing something from another universe; something so appealing and beautiful--so exotic.”

When he was 15, Boz attended a Ray Charles concert in Dallas. In 1960, Brother Ray was on a roll with “The Right Time,” “What’d I Say,” and “Let the Good Times Roll,” and his stage show, a potent mix of jazz and R&B with vocal spice from the Raelettes, was built to kill.

One of only a few white fans in the 3,000-capacity auditorium, Boz was sitting next to a woman who, clearly lost in the joy of the music, suddenly grabbed his arm and held it tight. “It was a transcendent moment,” he said. “The music was everything.”

Boz knew, that night, that he was in a different world and that, no matter his minority status in that auditorium, it could be his world. “It gave me some hint, some clue, to what my life might be like if my life was perfect,” he said.

At age 15, Boz was actively involving himself in music. Having begun noodling around on a guitar a couple of years before, and having learned a few blues tunes on the harmonica, he was already in two groups, the Bacchanal Trio, which did the Kingston Trio thing at coffee clubs in and around Dallas, and the Marksmen, an R&B band of St. Mark’s kids organized by a 16 year-old guitar wizard named Steve Miller.

Over the years, Miller would be a constant presence and mentor in Boz’s musical life. The day after he graduated from St. Mark’s, Boz joined Steve in Madison, Wisconsin, where Miller,  between semesters at the University of Wisconsin, was majoring in the real-life music business. The two put together a band, the Ardells, to play college frat parties. They also played in the Fabulous Knight Trains, a band made up of top players from the local scene that was booked for plum gigs at bars, clubs, and resorts.

The better Boz got on guitar, the poorer his grades became, and he lasted only a year in school. But he wasn’t thinking of music as a career. Back then, he said, few people did. “These were the days before the Beatles and the Rolling Stones,” he reminded. “White boys just didn’t have the vision of a career. Our idea of a career was, if you were really good and played your cards right, you would end up in Las Vegas. That was Mecca.”

Without a musical direction home or a student deferment, Boz ended up–for a little while–in the U.S. Army, based in San Antonio. In his off hours, he hit Austin, where, after his discharge, he formed a bar band, the Wigs, which played mostly R&B. In 1964, they took off for England. “We knew London was open to R&B and Texas music, Bobby Bland and Jimmy Reed,” said Boz, “so we thought there’d be a place for us there, and we’d find some like-minded people there, and play and sing.”

The Wigs were in for a surprise. “There were hundreds of musicians,” Boz found, “who were doing great renditions of material with much more proficiency than anybody we’d ever seen. It was a golden age in London.”

But not for the Wigs. Out of money and discouraged by problems with work permits, two of the three band members returned to Austin. After taking and tiring of odd jobs washing dishes and chopping food at restaurants, Boz decided to see a bit more of the world.

He began, in early 1965, in Denmark, and traveled to France and Spain. Making Stockholm, Sweden, his home base over the next couple of years, he busked–that is, sang in hopes of tips--in front of movie theaters and sidewalk cafes, doing tunes from his high school past: “Mockingbird,” “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” the Drifters’ “Steamboat,” and Bruce Channel’s “Hey Baby.”

“At the time, I was more dharma bum than musician,” he told the writer Sean Mitchell, referring to the Beat novelist Jack Kerouac’s tag for young wanderers who made their way around on thumbs and wiles.  “But I dug it.”

Boz made his first album in Stockholm. As he remembers, “This band wanted to record a Coasters tune, ‘Searchin’,’ and needed someone who knew the words, so I went to the studio with them, and I ended up singing lead.”Actually, he wound up making an album. It was, essentially, his busking music put on record. He sang Dylan, T-Bone Walker, and tunes he’d done back in Wisconsin, including Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s “Gangster of Love,” which he said he learned from “a guy...named Miller.”

On a trip home for the holidays in 1966, Boz saw Steve, who was, typically, trying to get a band going. But Boz had some more traveling to do, more of what the called “the bum scene” to check out. He went to India, where, he recalls, he “stumbled around Bombay for three weeks without a passport.” Back in Stockholm in spring, he worked with various combos, playing jazz,  folk, blues–whatever meant a gig. He was getting itchy to get back into an electric rock and roll band when, in August, he received a postcard from Steve Miller. His buddy was now in San Francisco, with a successful band, and they needed another guitarist, quick.

Boz knew something about the San Francisco scene. In Bombay, he had seen a Time magazine article about the anticipated influx of wannabe hippies into the Haight-Ashbury for a “Summer of Love.” In Stockholm, he’d met Peter Kaukonen, brother of Jorma, the lead guitarist of the Jefferson Airplane, and heard tapes of some of the music coming out of the Bay Area. He’d heard that, along with all these bands with weird names–the Grateful Dead, Big Brother & the Holding Company, Country Joe & the Fish–there was a group called, simply, the Steve Miller Blues Band.

Arriving in September, he found a city that thought it was changing the world. It was. But to Boz, San Francisco seemed a naive, flower child of a city. In Europe, he’d experienced the post-Beat cultural explosion first-hand, and found it “more cultural, more intellectual, more adult.” Not that Boz was all of that. He’d been part of the drug scene in Europe and Asia–“I was just holding onto a thread of sanity at the point I left India,” he admitted–and had given up drugs.

Now, in San Francisco, he found an entire community celebrating marijuana and psychedelics. “And to see the sort of escapism and the fun and games and the frivolity–what appeared to be dress-up games–it was uniquely American and, frankly, it looked quite silly to me.”

To some of the hipsters, it was Boz who looked strange. In fact, he was often taken for a narcotics officer. “When you go into a scene and you don’t smoke dope and you’ve got short hair and you wear suits, you’re suspect, and I was an outsider.”

Not for long. In the Steve Miller Band, Boz was joining the scene’s most solid band. Darby Slick, writer of the Airplane’s “Somebody to Love,” once defined the so-called “San Francisco Sound” as “out of tune.” Compared with many bands of the day, bands that were as social as they were musical, the Miller band, said Boz, were  “far and away more professional and tight.”

In Boz, Miller found a former protégé who’d grown into a skilled singer/songwriter. Building on a song he’d written while in Europe, “Baby’s Callin’ Me Home,” Boz made his entrance on side two, cut one of the band’s first album, Children of the Future. The acoustic, bluesy lament segued, FM radio style, into a steamroller of a Scaggs composition, “Steppin’ Stone,” with Boz and Steve wailing on lead vocal and guitar, respectively.  In those two tight cuts, Boz had set the eclectic pattern for his music.

After one more album with Miller, Boz left to pursue his own muse. But, as he freely admits, “I’m not a real ambitious person by nature. I’ve found that the encouragement I’ve gotten from various quarters has been the main stimulus for my career.”

Take, for example, the producer of his first solo album, a young rock journalist whose only experience with records involved listening to them. Jann Wenner was, in 1969, the publisher and editor of the wildly successful rock magazine, Rolling Stone–and a neighbor of Boz’s. Wenner liked Boz’s music, and that was enough.

Jann had a pipeline to record executives, and he told Boz to put together a demo tape–after explaining the idea behind a demonstration tape. Atlantic Records signed Boz, and, soon, he and Jann were in a studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where some of the best R&B musicians on earth worked and played.

One ace session guitarist went by the name “Skydog.” Duane Allman took the lead on a mesmerizing Boz composition, “Loan Me a Dime,” and the slow blues number stretched out to more than twelve minutes of the most beautiful longing ever etched on vinyl. It became the most-requested song in the history of  KSAN, the local FM rock station.

That album, released in 1970 and entitled Boz Scaggs, was one of the best albums never heard outside San Francisco. Unfazed, he would re-emerge on Columbia Records, where he built a loyal, steadily-growing following with a series of exquisitely crafted albums.

The first was Moments, in 1971. Produced by Glyn Johns, who’d worked with the Rolling Stones and the Steve Miller Band, among others, Moments was less down-home than the Atlantic album, and broadened Boz’s aural landscape. The upbeat “We Were Always Sweethearts” got the most radio play, but other tracks, like “Painted Bells” and “Near You,” more accurately reflected Boz’s expanding musical vision.

The next album, Boz Scaggs & Band, also produced by Johns, included “Running Blue,” one of Boz’s first attempts at replicating the music of his youth. “We had three horns in the band,” he recalled. “It was probably the first time I had tried fronting a band like the ones I had seen with B.B. King or Ray Charles. We were getting there.”

In 1972, Boz issued My Time, splitting recording time between San Francisco, where he worked with producer Roy Halee, and Muscle Shoals, where most of the old gang convened. The Muscle Shoals sessions produced six cuts, including  “Dinah Flo,” which got substantial Top 40 airplay, and “Might Have to Cry,” which, with its female vocals on call-and-echo, would become a concert favorite.

When, in 1976, Boz attained international stardom with Silk Degrees, it was easy for music writers to slap the “disco” label onto a song like “Lowdown.” Rolling Stone was more on-target, calling Boz’s music “a new kind of hybrid–Southern blues sensibilities mixed with city soul.”

From Texas and Motown to Chicago and  Philadelphia, Boz had absorbed the work of Curtis Mayfield and, particularly, of the producers Gamble and Huff and Tommy Bell. For Slow Dancer, he hooked up with long-time Motown producer Johnny Bristol.

“One of Johnny’s goals was to get vocal performances out of his artists,” said Boz. “So there were times in which he would go to the microphone and show me what he expected. Johnny was very much responsible for bringing my voice into those compositions; giving an attitude to the vocals and bringing an intensity that I’d never experienced.” The urbanized Boz is evident both in tough, punchy numbers like “You Make It So Hard,” “Hercules,” and “I Got Your Number,” and in the evocative title track.

In pursuing the style and sound of R&B, Boz was going against the rock and roll grain. Out of the Sixties rock scene, bands were guitar-driven. Although all music borrowed from other genres, there was a thick line between rock and roll and rhythm and blues.

Boz took his stand with his first love. He even put his guitar down, both on stage and in the studio. Let the best guitarists do their thing, he reasoned. He’d concentrate on his singing.

While Boz was discovering the artistic and technical reach of his voice, a new audience was discovering Boz. In funky clubs and at proper theaters, his fans swelled to include an attentive–and adoring–demographic: women, particularly young women, who responded to his lush, sensual ballad style, and to the undercurrent of his empathy.

“I was raised by six women,” Boz allows. “When my father was off in World War II, I was raised by my mother, her four sisters, and my grandmother in one house. I had a very strong great-aunt who was a physical and spiritual presence in my life.

“My father was from Memphis,” he continued, “and Southern tradition holds that women are to be highly respected. I treat sex and femininity with respect, and I think women, perhaps, recognized that about me.”

Fans responded to the evolution of Boz’s image, as well. In conscious or unconscious tandem with his increasing vocal refinement, he refined his stage presence to a trademark elegance. On stage at the Paramount Theater, he was decked out in a satin tuxedo. On the album covers that followed Slow Dancer, Boz looked sharp, suave, sexy. The clothes became part of his overall statement.

But they always had been. “I’ve always been conscious of what I’ve worn,” said Boz, who recalls his father as a “beautifully dressed man, in a classic sense. I was never into flash or extravagance. But I dressed to my own taste, and stylistically, it was a statement.”

At the Paramount Theater for the Arts, he found the perfect setting for his increasingly sophisticated music. Recently restored to its Thirties glory as one of the great movie palaces of the world, it was, at the same time, state of the art, with flawless acoustics.

Boz staged concert series at the Paramount several times, including New Year’s Eve runs in the mid-Seventies. He thought of the year-ending galas as a gift to his adopted home. This, Boz  said, was where he went from clubs to the Fillmore, and from local hero to national success.  “Every time I play here, I feel a commitment to give a special performance, in one way or another. I want people to come to a new place and see something out of the ordinary.”

In 1976, his concerts became celebrations, joyous vindication for those thousands who had known, for years, that Boz Scaggs was the next overnight sensation. Silk Degrees–the name, by the way, was just one of dozens of bits of lyrics Boz had conjured, scribbled, and tossed into a box--simply exploded. The biggest hits were the funky “Lowdown,” “Lido Shuffle” (whose flip side, “We’re All Alone,” was a hit for Rita Coolidge), “It’s Over,” and “What Can I Say.”

Where his previous albums had usually sold in the respectful neighborhood of 250,000 copies, Silk Degrees sold more than four million albums and reached number two on the charts. Boz has said that he was not surprised by Silk Degrees’ success, that it was merely a continuation of his career. But, listening to playbacks in the studio, he sensed that he had something special, and, having gone his entire solo career without management, he sought help to boost the new album’s profile. Once Irving Azoff, the Eagles’ manager, heard it, he signed on, and, soon, Boz was opening concerts for the Eagles, Elton John, and the Beach Boys, as well as headlining sizable shows of his own and watching the hits keep coming.

By the time the silk had settled, “Lowdown,” which occupied the pop and soul charts simultaneously in the fall of ‘76, won a Grammy for Best R&B Song of the Year. “There’s no other category I’d rather win,” said a proud Boz, “unless it would be R&B male vocalist. The black voice in America is the most beautiful voice I know. Those inflections, that feeling is where my heart is.” With Down Two Then Left, Boz showed himself uninterested in carbon-copying a hit record. Still, led by numbers like “Hard Times” and “1993,” the recording gave Boz a second platinum (million-selling) album. In demand for world-wide touring, he struck platinum a third time with Middle Man in 1980, scoring two top 20 hits with “Jojo” and “Breakdown Dead Ahead,” while continuing to refine his love songs, with “Simone” and “Isn’t It Time.” He also contributed the beautiful “Look What You’ve Done to Me” for the soundtrack of Urban Cowboy, and, as a bonus for his Hits! compilation, he and Lisa Dal Bello recorded “Miss Sun.” The bonus track quickly became a hit single on its own.

But success began exacting a toll. At home, Boz became something of a new generation’s Mr. San Francisco, a regular at society events–and in the gossip columns. He found himself under an increasingly uncomfortable spotlight, especially during his much-publicized divorce and the ensuing custody battle for his two young sons.

But being on a stage at home was one thing. Touring was another. After 1980, saying that he wanted a break from the demands of a high level career, he simply...stopped.

“I’ve compared it to jumping off a fast-moving train,” he told Sean Mitchell. “You don’t realize until you jump off and roll to a stop and look up and see this powerful beast still rolling in the distance that was me, I was on that train. When your life is a series of people and events, you’re the train: ‘We need more dough, more dates, more interviews,’ more of everything you’ve got.”

Boz’s attentions turned to his boys, whose custody he shared with his ex-wife, and to business ventures that would keep him closer to home. With various partners, he opened a Texas-cuisine restaurant and bar, the Blue Light Café, which he sold several years later, and the roots ‘n’ rock club, Slim’s, which is still going strong.

Even in what he called his “semi-retirement,” Boz never let go of music. He had a studio setup in his dining room, where he’d play blues and R&B. He played benefits, and, on any given night, he might climb the stage at Slim’s and join the house band for a tune or two.

By ‘86, he was at work on the album, Other Roads, and when it came out in 1988, “Heart of Mine” returned him to the Top 40. By now famous for lustrous, R&B-imbued pop songs, Boz sprang a surprise by teaming with the acclaimed poet/musician, Jim Carroll, to write several songs, beginning with “What’s Number One.”

Boz remained off the road until 1991, when he received an offer he couldn’t refuse: to join the New York Rock and Soul Revue, formed by Donald Fagen and including Phoebe Snow, Michael McDonald, and blues legend Charles Brown.

“It was a purely musical endeavor, and it was done right, for all the right reasons,” Boz recalled with an appreciative smile. On tour, he performed numbers like Joe Simon’s “Drowning in the Sea of Love” and discovered that, even after nearly a decade off, he was remembered. Two of his loyal fans, he learned, were the heads of Virgin Records, Jeff Ayeroff and Jordan Harris, and, soon, Boz changed labels.

For his new start, Boz decided to forego Los Angeles and its myriad musicians, producers, and possibilities. Instead, he stayed in San Francisco, where he turned part of an abandoned television sound stage into a recording studio, brought in only one key session player,  multi-instrumentalist Ricky Fataar, and created Some Change. The idea was simplicity. Still, Some Change produced some of Boz’s most gorgeous music, including the title track and the ethereal “Sierra.”

Refreshed by the experience, Boz began performing at radio stations and in other casual situations, guesting with Booker T. and the MG’s on “As the Years Go By” for the Columbia Radio Hour series, and producing a mini (seven-track) CD for Virgin Japan, Fade Into Light, from which we hear “Just Go.”

With Come On Home in 1997, Boz returned  to his first musical love, R&B. Besides  paying tribute to Bobby Bland, Jimmy Reed, and T-Bone Walker, he included four originals, among them “Goodnight Louise,” a paean to “the queen of my past.” The song could easily be segued to any number of songs about sweet release on that album on Atlantic, or to “Baby’s Callin’ Me Home,” or to...

With Boz Scaggs, so well-grounded in the strongest roots of American music, the common threads and possibilities are endless.

Ben Fong-Torres, former Senior Editor at Rolling Stone, has interviewed Boz Scaggs on various occasions over the years. He has written several books, including a compilation of profiles, Not Fade Away: A Backstage Pass to 20 Years of Rock & Roll; Hickory Wind: The Life and Times of Gram Parsons; The Hits Just Keep on Coming: The History of Top 40 Radio, The Rice Room, and The Motown Album: The Sound of Young America.  He writes a casual column for www.asianconnections.com. This essay was written for the Columbia Legacy CD, My Time: A Boz Scaggs Anthology (1969-1997). All rights reserved.


Explicit permission given to www.bozscaggs.org. To my dear friend, Ben, thank you for presenting us with this wonderful gift.

MORE ON BOZ SCAGGS



You are listening to "Just Don't Want To Be Lonely" recorded live
at the Paramount Theatre, March 10, 1974.