Highway's Song

Boz Scaggs Finds his Way Home to the Blues

Boz Scaggs

Boz Scaggs

Boz Scaggs, known and heralded in mainstream pop music history for his classic ’70s disco-era album Silk Degrees, has always drawn his roots, influence, and musical expression in Texas blues.

He began with a blues guitar in his hands as a teenager in Texas. The distinctly American music has been his anchor beginning with his first self-titled 1965 album to the recent release, Fool to Care, which also finds him on a national tour with a stop on July 9th at Humphreys by the Bay. Throughout his 50 plus years career he has been a passionate journeyman including what today passes as Americana music with a mix of rock, blues, R&B, and jazz.

Scaggs picked up his first guitar in 1956, at the age of 12. Soon it became a near permanent fixture on his body. However, his taste in music was unusual. Rather than pursuing the rock ‘n’ roll music of the day, the young teenager found himself seeking out blues. One explanation for this is the vibrant blues scene in the Dallas area where Scaggs was raised. Local legends included artists like T-Bone Walker and Lightnin’ Hopkins.

Another explanation for his love of blues is the influence of his friendship with another future music legend and classmate, Steve Miller.

If Miller was musically ahead of 15 year-old Scaggs in 1959 while both were attending St. Mark’s School of Texas, a private Episcopal school in Dallas, he came about it naturally. Born in Milwaukee Wisconsin, Miller’s parents were musically inclined. So much so that they could boast being best friends with music legends Les Paul and Mary Ford, who were frequent guests at the Miller home in Milwaukee. Steve Miller began playing guitar at Les Paul’s encouragement when he was five years old.

In 1959, Miller formed the Marksmen and drafted 15-year-old Boz Scaggs as guitar player and singer. Steve Miller recruiting Scaggs for musical ventures was a pattern that would remain intact for the next ten years.

But, Scaggs had a vision of his own. He leaned heavy into his love for the blues, working hard toward mastery of guitar, vocals, and songwriting. In 1963, Scaggs followed Steve Miller to college in Wisconsin where they formed the band, the Ardells.

But then, just as Scaggs pursued his love for the blues in 1959, over the rest of the country’s fascination with rock ‘n’ roll, as Beatlemania was beginning to cross over the pond in the early ’60s, Scaggs traveled to London to explore the growing blues scene there that was producing bands like the Rolling Stones. In 1965 he traveled to Sweden to record as a solo artist. His first release and debut album, Boz, failed commercially. Released on Polydor Records in Stockholm, the cover boasts a very young Boz Scaggs leaning against a brick wall singing as he plays an acoustic guitar. His song choices for his first album are telling in terms of his influences and his passion. They include the Reverend Gary Davis classic, “Baby Let Me Follow You Down,” T-Bone Walker’s “Stormy Monday Blues,” and Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s “Gangster of Love.” The album remains in the master vaults of Polydor in Sweden and has never been re-issued. It is currently out-of-print.

The year 1967, after Scaggs had returned to the U.S., like much of the youth in the country, he caught the tide of the growing counter-culture and found himself in San Francisco as the Summer of Love was in bloom. Again, his childhood friend Steve Miller lent his influence drafting him, this time into the promising and soon-to-be-successful Steve Miller Blues Band. As a part of the music scene in and around Haight-Ashbury many of the musicians embraced and adopted the blues into their lives. When Scaggs heard artists like Paul Butterfield Blues Band at the Fillmore, he knew he was in the right place and exactly at the right time.

Scaggs played a key role in the early ragged psychedelic blues sound of the band, by 1968, known as the Steve Miller Band, playing guitar and lead vocals for the band on their first two albums, Children of the Future and Sailor.

By 1969, Scaggs was ready to venture out on his own again. And once again, it was the call of the blues that drove his second classic career defining self-titled album, Boz Scaggs. To dig even deeper and closer to the source of the music he loved, Scaggs took the sessions to Sheffield, Alabama and to the near-mystical musical dwelling known as Muscle Shoals. The album was engineered and mixed by Stax producer Terry Manning. The sessions featured Duane Allman, Jimmy Johnson, and Roger Hawkins, collectively known as the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. It is notable that it was co-produced by Scaggs, Marlin Greene, and Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner.

Today the album is regarded among the best of the form to be recorded before or since 1969. Allmusic calls it “an enduring blue-eyed soul masterpiece.” In 2012, it was voted to be among the Best of 500 albums of all time by Rolling Stone.

Indeed it stands the test of time well confirming as a blues classic. It is a rare album that allows us to hear Boz Scaggs in peak vocal and songwriting form with Duane Allman playing stunning leads backed up by the soulful Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. The classic 12 minute track “Loan Me a Dime” contains all of the right elements. It is a blues classic that stands up to any of the best work of the great artists from whom Scaggs drew his influence. This song alone makes this album among the best of the era.

The intervening years between 1969 to 1976 would find commercial success inconsistent for Scaggs. As the late ’60s wound down, rock became a corporate venture forcing out some of the best musicians of the era. But, Scaggs carried on honing his own unique blend of blues and blue-eyed soul with jazz and rock undertones. It was all ground work for his classic best known and loved album, Silk Degrees.

The album released in March of 1976, hit square in the middle of the booming disco craze in America and was swept into that movement along with the Bee Gees, Donna Summer, and other established artists who found themselves in the midst of a phenomenal trend and unexpected success.

Boz Scaggs’ vantage point with Silk Degrees was unique. It was an uncalculated pop success with the artist’s hand firmly on the pulse of the current trend but based in the sound he had been cultivating for the last seven years on albums. This gave the album a noticeable depth that was too often lacking in much of the sound of the day.

The album sold well including three top 40 hits. Eventually it would be certified five times platinum. It was also nominated for Grammys for Album of the Year and Best Pop and R&B Male Vocal. Additionally, it garnered a classic hit song for singer Rita Coolidge, “We’re All Alone.” Coolidge had lent a hand in backing vocal on the Muscle Shoals sessions in the early ’70s.

Listening to the album today in the context of Scaggs’ previous work, the album is one of those rare moments in a decade, not always known for mainstream quality, when commercial success met artistry. The payoff is great on an album that stands up today as a well-loved classic. Essentially, it is the musician’s homage to his soul influence. It is a celebration of funk, blues, soul, and rock. The album’s biggest and best-loved hit, “Lowdown,” has a funk undertow that merges with jazz in a way that becomes infectious and among the most danceable songs of the decade. After the work that went into the development of his own unique sound, on this album Scaggs sounds like he’s having the time of his life on Silk Degrees. Indeed, he was.

However, success is fleeting in popular music. Those who get onto the charts and stay there are rare. Boz Scaggs would never again reach the commercial heights he achieved in 1976. However, he maintained a presence on the Billboard charts throughout the remainder of the ’70s until a hiatus from recording began from 1980 to 1988.

In 1997, the album Come on Home marked his return to the roots of his full blues sound. His releases since have included blues songs. Since that time, he has released a series of critically acclaimed albums, adding jazz vocal standards to his legacy on the 2004 album But Beautiful, which included songs like “What’s New,” “Sophisticated Lady,” and “My Funny Valentine.”  The album hit #1 on Billboard’s jazz charts the same year. He has also taken time to tour as Dukes of September Rhythm Review with friends Michael McDonald and Donald Fagen.

In the end, life is good for the Texas blues enthusiast who began to build his musical legacy when he was 15 years old. Boz Scaggs shows that when talent and soul are large enough to embrace diverse forms of music great things happen.

Today, with his wife, Dominique, he grows grapes in Napa Valley, California at Scaggs Vineyard. He is the owner of a well-known club, Slims, in San Francisco, which supports roots and Americana music along with jazz and R&B. He also owns the Great American Music Hall, which is a classic music venue. His last two albums, Memphis and Fool to Care, have included blues originals and standards. For Boz Scaggs, it always comes back to the blues. He began his musical journey, which is ultimately the road home.

Boz Scaggs in concert, Thursday, July 9, 7:30pm, at Humphrey’s by the Bay, 2241 Shelter Island Drive.

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