Oakland — The Grand Lobby was packed with beautiful—or at least beautifully dressed—people. It was intermission on the fourth of five sold-out shows at the Paramount Theater of the Arts, this restored, 2998-seat art-deco movie palace of the Thirties where Boz Scaggs and his series of New Year’s concerts have become a holiday tradition.
Many of the people here were regulars; they knew their way around the Paramount, upstairs to the mezzanine, downstairs to the champagne bar and the lavish, moderne dressing room and johns. But there must’ve been a lot of new customers as well, helping close out a year in which Boz Scaggs, finally, became more than a local star.
Silk Degrees, his latest album, went double platinum (2 million sales) and hit the Top Three, with only the likes of Wonder, Fleetwood Mac and Frampton keeping it from the top. And it got him several Grammy nominations, including Album of the Year, Best Pop Vocal Performance and even Best R&B Song, for “Lowdown.” That number was one of three hits from the album (the others were “It’s Over” and “What Can I Say”). There was a time last September when “Lowdown” was in the Top Five on both the pop and soul charts, and Scaggs was a certified disco item.
So Scaggs optimistically extended his usual three-night Paramount run to four; when those shows sold out in a few hours, he hastily added a fifth.
Now, intermission was billowing to a close in the Paramount’s monumental lobby. A couple of minutes later a rock rhythm section began playing on the stage, and Boz strode out, all in white from Capezios to silk shirt, grinning to the applause like the favorite entering the ring for a championship bout; another curtain rose to reveal a 20-piece string orchestra plus two trumpets, three saxophones and a trombone, all against a strawberry pink backdrop.
And Boz, microphone in hand, was singing “Lowdown.” The guitar that had once seemed part of him was resting on a rack. He was working the forestage, in fact, like a James Brown or a Tom Jones—even to the undone top two buttons of the white silk shirt. A girl jumped up on the stage and handed him a rose, which Boz accepted almost bashfully and then threw into the audience.
The audience was seeing essentially the same set Boz had taken across the country last spring and summer, mostly songs from Silk Degrees and its immediate predecessor, Slow Dancer, only grander, using live strings where the tour had made do with a synthesizer, a larger horn section and an augmented female chorus. In the three-woman chorus a singer named Rebecca Lewis was dancing up a ministorm and galvanizing the stage with a personification of the magnetic feminine presence all Boz’ songs imply.
The audience was on its feet for an encore even before the curtains had started to close. Boz introduced some of the musicians—guitarist Les Dudek, a sizzler from Macon, Georgia, and Tom Salisbury, who arranged the music, conducted the orchestra and played keyboards. Then Boz was down on the forestage again, tougher and sexier than before, singing “I’ve Got Your Number,” a song which epitomized the mood of stormy romance that seemed to have drawn everybody to the Paramount the night before New Year’s Eve.
The next afternoon I was waiting to talk to Boz backstage at the Paramount. He showed up about three-quarters of an hour late, walking rapidly, and immediately bent his steps in the direction of the pay phone and fished around in his pockets for change. Nothing. Quickly he turned and said, “Hey, got a dime I can borrow?”
“Loan Me a Dime” is Boz’ theme song, cut in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, in 1969 and featuring a session player named Duane Allman on the long jam. It has been fantastically popular for years in Boz’ home territory. In 1975, San Francisco radio station KSAN-FM conducted a poll to find out what one record its listeners would want to have with them if stranded on a desert is land, and the winner was “Loan Me a Dime.” At the first four nights of the Paramount gig, nine out of ten calls from the audience were for that song. Boz never did it.
About the time I handed him the money—well, two nickels actually—Boz realized what he’d just asked. “Funny,” he murmured confidentially, and got on the phone. The interview would have to be continued later at the Scaggs residence in S.F.
Scaggs’ career has gone through a variety of stages: elementary teen rock with his schoolmate Steve Miller in Dallas and Madison, Wisconsin; folk and blues singing on the streets of Europe in the middle Sixties; a stint with the psychedelic-era Steve Miller Band; then six albums on his own.
As the Paramount gig showed, Boz has moved from being a guitarist who writes and sings in a country and blues vein to being an R&B vocalist who often sings without his guitar. These days he even writes most of his songs on the piano, rather than on guitar, a change that allows him to move around more onstage. It hasn’t been easy. At first, around the time of Slow Dancer, he seemed helpless without his guitar as a shield, and on several ballads he cradled the instrument without ever playing it. And, just as his stringy hair, golf shirts and casual slacks have given way to the blow-dry Gentlemen’s Quarterly look, he has learned to relax on-stage, roaming from one side to the other, conducting horn passages with dramatic thrusts or gentle waves of his arms, dedicating songs to “the beautiful young ladies” who buy up entire rows at the Paramount.
Among the people he most admires for showmanship and “believable movement,” he says, is Bruce Springsteen, whom Boz joined onstage in New Orleans last year, and who, as it happened, was in the Bay Area for the holidays. He attended the New Year’s Eve show and a post-concert party in a San Francisco photographer’s studios.
The party, for family and some 150 friends (including all the Tubes, who’d just finished their own New Year’s Eve concerts), could well have taken place at the Scaggs’ new house across town, in the Pacific Heights neighborhood. But the house, formerly a foreign consulate, is in no shape for company. In fact, for 14 months Boz and Carmella, his wife of four years, have been working on remodeling the building into their particular vision of what elegant homebodies should call home. It is a four-story building, roomy enough to have both a front and a back staircase, a library, some large entertaining rooms, a couple of guest rooms and a fourth-floor music study. It must have been a gamble to buy the house before Silk Degrees came out. At that time, Slow Dancer had done well, and would eventually sell 250,000 copies, which was respectable but hardly enriching.