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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
remember hearing Jimmy Reed’s voice and thinking that I was hearing
something from another universe; something so appealing and
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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
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
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,
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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
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
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
‘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.”
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
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.
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.”
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
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.