Since leaving The Steve Miller Band in 1968 Boz Scaggs has made a career of uniting an earthy rhythm and blues approach with smooth soulful crooning. Scaggs’ latest record, A Fool to Care, continues that approach with stylistic success comparable to 2013’s Memphis but with collaborations from the likes of Bonnie Raitt and Lucinda Williams. Not surprisingly, Scaggs worked in another musical epicenter of America, Nashville Tennessee, and utilized similar musicianly values to generate equal authenticity.
A lengthy discography including studio records plus live DVDs to some degree obscures the course of Scaggs’ career. His eponymous debut, produced in Muscle Shoals by Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, didn’t find a wide audience upon its initial release, despite the generally tasteful musicianship, but its visibility has risen over the years based on the distinction of featuring one of the most famous solos of the late Duane Allman’s career including his incendiary guitar work on “Loan Me A Dime.”
In fact, moving to Columbia Records after this one shot on Atlantic label, Scaggs was on the threshold of becoming a journeyman artist when the ever so highly polished Silk Degrees, recorded in Los Angeles with musicians who would eventually coalesce as Toto, became one of the most commercially successful titles of its decade. To this day, songs such as “Lido Shuffle,” “Lowdown” and “We’re All Alone” comprise a healthy proportion of Boz Scaggs’ concerts and lift audiences to their feet in hand-clapping recognition.
In fact, while subsequent releases, such as Middle Man and Some Change didn’t attain a similar wide-spread popularity, it might be said Scaggs has been making much the same album throughout his career, but with the rotating cast of collaborators, so that each one has its own distinct flavor. Comparing his last two albums is a case in point in illustrating how his uniform approach to genre work changes remarkably through the use of different producers and sidemen not to mention the choice of material. The artist was quite forthcoming with his insights into those factors when he spoke with Doug Collette recently.
The new record A Fool To Care sounds like a direct extension of the previous album Memphis. Is that how you intended it to be?
No, we really didn’t have any intentions in that regard. It is a followup in that it is the same musicians essentially, and it’s Jordan and I following a musical odyssey we started with the first album.
I’m glad you mentioned Steve Jordan’s name because as I went back to Memphis, then on to the new record, the thought occurred to ask how much of an effect it has on the whole process of recording an album when the producer is also one of the musicians?
It’s the reason for its being in the first place. I’ll back up a little: I was making an album called Dig around 2000 and we were finishing up final tracks and recording back east in New York and Jordan was brought in to do some drums and percussion overdubs on a song the two producers and I collectively wrote together.
It’s the first time we’d met, though I knew his background as a drummer. But I really took to Jordan. I love his style of playing and his musical knowledge and I made a mental note at the time to get beck to him and see if we couldn’t fashion a project together. We talked over the years and finally got together on it because we have a certain musicality in common that allows us to work together so well: I wanted him to play drums and I wanted him to fully collaborate, so there’s no coincidence at all: that (partnership) certainly changes the tenor of the record.
Can you tell me how it changes the tenor of the record?
It’s usually a collaboration in which I hook up with a key musician, who is a co-writer in some cases and an arranger in some cases. For Silk Degrees I worked with David Paich, for the album following (Down Two, Then Left) that it was Michael Omartian, the album after that (Middle Man) was David Foster, then it was Marcus Miller (Other Roads). Every project I have such a collaborator.
It must be great to have someone to bounce ideas off and engage in a dialogue to fine-tune the ideas as they come along.
It’s an invaluable part of the equation in the process for me. I’ve always admired those collaborations when they work; usually they’re songwriter/music collaborators: Lennon and McCartney, Fagen and Becker (Steely Dan), Henley and Frey (Eagles) Jagger and Richards, (Bernie) Taupin and (Elton) John. There’s a great deal to be said for such successful partnerships. I kind of regret I never had quite that lifelong ongoing relationship, but I guess that allows me to explore more different styles of music which is really where my interests are.
It must give you a great sense of freedom to have the latitude to work with different people and just see see how your roots are transformed by collaboration with them. I’m glad you mentioned those great songwriting partnerships because as I compared the last two records, I came to wonder how you chose the material A Fool to Care seems to be a selection of songs slightly less well known than those on Memphis.
There was a somewhat conscious effort to expand our palette here. Memphis was made in a room that had a specific sound that we wanted to go for–we wanted it to be a defining factor in that production. This time we went down the road to Nashville and a studio that technically had more facilities, one of the biggest range of analog equipment in the world in fact. So we cast the net a little wider, but we took some of the same approach with the songs: there’s an Al Green song, there’s a couple of Curtis Mayfield songs, and a couple of songs out of the Louisiana horn band thing.
The object in some cases is to find the great material that’s got the great grooves that perhaps not everyone’s heard. Every aficionado knows Mayfield’s “I’m So Proud,” but perhaps many others would be hearing it for the first time. Or Green’s “Full of fire.” There’s a Spinners song called “Love Don’t Love Nobody” that actually surprised me in that I thought more people would recognize it : a number of people have asked me where it came from. Those are examples of a great group’s songs that not everybody knows.
I also looked at a couple songs from a friend of mine I’ve worked with in San Francisco whose work I’ve recorded over the last couple of years (Jack Walrath) “Last Tango on 16th Street” and “I Want to See You.” I discovered a British artist named Richard Holley in a song called “There’s A Storm A’Comin.”
We just felt we could open up the search a little more on this record. Obviously, the first album got us on a real solid footing with the rhythm section of the four guys we brought in to make the next album with us; we were feeling really strong that we could go in any direction we wanted to here.
‘Authority’ is a really good word—thank you!. We feel really strong about what we’re doing here.
Another thing that surprised me, at least somewhat in that I hadn’t heard it alot on your records over the years, was a lighthearted spirit most obviously on “High Blood Pressure;” I could hear you smiling as you sang that one and that kind of joy is an undercurrent throughout the record. Does that also arise from the foundation laid by the first record and how good you were feeling going into this one?
I think that’s very much present. We really like playing this music (laughs). It’s really fun. We’re going back to very very basic R & B roots on some of these things like “Rich Woman” or “I’m A Fool to Care” and the other one you mentioned “High Blood Pressure.” And those songs incidentally were done at the end of the day; it might be one or two or three o’clock in the morning before we’d leave. After the first day of recording, we made a point of doing this, go in and just let it all hang out, play it hard, have a good laugh and go home.
Well, if that’s not a measure of confidence, I don’t know what is!
You don’t know if it’s going to work, but you know it’s going to be fun!
That spirit reminds me of the concert you performed here in Burlington, Vermont last October at the Flynn Theatre. It was an excellent show and for the second encore you played a Louisiana-flavored number called “Sick and Tired:” you and the band were knocked out by the response you got and the audience was knocked out by this surprising choice–perhaps my positive reaction to the new record is that it reminds me of that show!
That’s really good of you to remember that. I appreciate it because that’s the spirit that we’re all looking for—the freedom and the fun of it all. Regardless of whatever else you do, if we can preserve that we’ve done our job.
Top photo by Danny Clinch