Fifty years ago, a handful of milestone albums set the tone for rock of the following decade. Crosby, Stills & Nash initiated a fresh approach to harmonies and looser group names; the eponymous debut by the Allman Brothers Band laid the foundation for the Southern rock of the Seventies. And setting the scene for the white soul-pop that would explode with the likes of Hall and Oates was Boz Scaggs’ self-titled album, which Atlantic Records rolled out on this day in August 1969.
Technically, Boz Scaggs wasn’t a debut; Scaggs had served time in the Steve Miller Band and had recorded an acoustic folk-blues album, Boz, released in Sweden in 1966. Co-produced by Scaggs, engineer Marlin Greene, and Jann S. Wenner, founder and editorial director of Rolling Stone, Boz Scaggs was the San Francisco singer-songwriter’s proper, full-on introduction as a solo artist, and it paved the way for the success Scaggs would have in the following decade, especially the million-selling, multiple-hit Silk Degrees.
Having moved back to the Bay Area after various travels, Scaggs was writing material and searching for a more focused direction when he met Wenner, who lived across the street. With Wenner’s encouragement, he began recording demos, one of which, with Wenner’s help, wound up with Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler. With the idea of recording in the South, Scaggs decided to check out well-regarded studios in Memphis; Muscle Shoals, Alabama; and Macon, Georgia.
In what he now calls with a chuckle as a “lame-brained idea,” Scaggs visited the studios posing as an RS reporter. Scaggs had actually written a few reviews for the magazine, but this time, he used that connection — and a magazine business card — to hang out and soak in the atmosphere and ask questions as if he were a reporter.
“Everyone was loose and welcoming,” he says, although they were also onto him. At the newly opened Muscle Shoals Sound, one of the musicians asked, “So you’re a Rolling Stone reporter, are you? I really like your work with that band you were in. Have you given up music?” Recalls Scaggs, “I was busted. They were on to me as soon as I walked in the door. I felt embarrassed. But it broke the ice and I told them the truth about what I was doing there.”
During his visit to the Macon studio, Scaggs met another potential contributor to the album, guitarist Duane Allman. Thanks to Wexler, Scaggs and Wenner had Allman in mind for the project, especially in light of Allman’s work with Wilson Pickett. Scaggs caught an early rehearsal of the Allman Brothers Band and, with the approval of Allmans manager Phil Walden, was able to coax Allman up to Muscle Shoals for a week to contribute to Scaggs’ album. Scaggs recalls Allman as standing out from the Southern pack — “he had a West Coast look about him, with long hair and beads and boots” — but says Allman was also “humble and funny, not outspoken or demanding attention.”
Eventually, Scaggs and Wenner settled on the Muscle Shoals studio, which would pair Scaggs with some of the South’s most in-the-pocket session players: keyboardist Barry Beckett, drummer Roger Hawkins, bassist David Hood, and guitarists Jimmy Johnson and Eddie Hinton. (One of the backup singers, local talent Donna Thatcher, would later join the Grateful Dead; by then she had married pianist Keith Godchaux.) “I knew the Muscle Shoals guys had never been used to stretch out,” Wenner says. “I thought we should make a rock & roll record that showcased them as much as Boz. We were listening to Clarence Carter and Nashville Skyline, and that album was a combination of those.”
Over the course of six concentrated days, Scaggs and the musicians spanned American music, cutting minor blues (“I’ll Be Long Gone”), a cover of a song by country founding father Jimmie Rodgers (“Waiting for a Train”), R&B shuffles (“I’m Easy”), and vampy country (“Now You’re Gone”). Scaggs mellowed voice was a snug fit for each track. “There was no great premeditation about it,” Scaggs says. “I had songs written that were easily interpreted by this rhythm section. I didn’t know to what degree they would pick up on some of those things I was writing. But having Duane there, anything was possible with those guys. They could have gone anywhere you could have wanted to go.”
On “Waiting for a Train,” Scaggs even yodeled. “I had never yodeled a syllable in my life,” he says, “but it’s not as hard as it seems.” When a fiddle was needed for the track, someone took note of the fiddle hanging on the wall in the barbershop below the studio. By chance, one of the barbers, Al Lester, played the instrument and came up between haircutting appointments to contribute to the song.
On the last day of the sessions, just as the horn section was packing up, everyone realized there was still time on the clock to cut one more track if so desired. Scaggs remembered a song he’d heard guitarist Elvin Bishop and his band play in a Massachusetts club a few months before, a desolate-alley Fenton Robinson blues called “Loan Me a Dime.” Deciding to take a stab at it, Scaggs called Jo Baker, Bishop’s lead singer, who recited the lyrics over the phone as Scaggs scribbled them down. With the musicians spread out all over the studio — Allman in a water closet, sitting on the tank with his amp at his feet — they began recording.
A little over halfway through, as both Allman and the horns locked in, Wenner was caught up in the moment. “I was in love with what I was hearing, and I ran out into the studio and waved my arms like, ‘Keep going, keep going!’” he recalls. “And they picked up the uptempo and Duane went into that lead line imitating the horn parts.” As Scaggs recalls, “And the rest is history.” With Allman’s bee-sting guitar pushing the musicians and the song to frenetic heights, “Loan Me a Dime” became a standard on the new wave of FM rock stations that were open to playing longer, more experimental songs. “DJs in San Francisco picked up on it first,” Scaggs says. “It was a good-sounding track to them and they could go do something else for 12 or 13 minutes.” (Coincidentally, that same Allman guitar, a Gibson Les Paul, was sold at auction for $1.25 million earlier this month.)
Boz Scaggs wasn’t the commercial success he and everyone had hoped, but the lessons learned during its creation lingered with Scaggs for years after. “It was a great place to start,” says Scaggs. “The energy I got, the thrill of experiencing music like that, seeing it come together and going back into the control room and listening to takes — it was so gratifying to know what was possible. That has stayed with me throughout all the years. I always work with the right players to suit the mood I’m going in. It’s a feeling I probably have been recreating since I did those sessions in Muscle Shoals.”