Boz Scaggs takes nothing for granted, especially his voice. Each day before soundcheck on his just-wrapped tour, he put his vocal cords through their paces. For about six or seven minutes, he formed long “oohs” and “aahs,” pushing his throat to a strenuous point before easing it back down. “It’s like lifting weights with your voice,” Scaggs, 74, says. “Compared to years ago, I probably take better care of my voice now than then.”
As heard on that tour — another leg starts in the new year — Scaggs’ voice retains the supple growl familiar to anyone who grew up on “Lido Shuffle,” “Lowdown” or other tracks from his landmark 1976 album Silk Degrees. But playing off his current album, Out of the Blues, a Scaggs show will also feature blues and R&B covers and originals, and even dip back to his simmering classic “Loan Me a Dime.”
That breadth is characteristic of a career that’s not only stretched out over 50 years but encompassed multiple genres. From his early psychedelic days with the original Steve Miller Band (the two met in private school in Texas in the late Fifties) through early solo albums that incorporated soul and blues and into his Silk Degrees pop phase, Scaggs has traversed the musical landscape, holding all of his work together with his instantly distinctive delivery.
Scaggs is currently in a productive zone: Starting with 2003’s But Beautiful, he’s immersed himself in albums devoted to soul, standards, R&B and blues, excavating little-known songs in each genre along the way. RS caught up with the rock legend who’s carved out of one of the most personal journeys in his field.
What made you decide to delve into so many roots genres over the last decade or so?
I think for people in all sorts of positions, not just in creative works, there’s a point of awareness in their life when they begin to return to where they came from. I was sort of a hayseed; I grew up in small town, nowhere Oklahoma and Texas. And the blues, just to start there, is a part of where I came from, a part of the progression. It’s a gateway to a lot of other forms I’ve explored. So I’m getting back to what it was that turned me on in the first place. I’m still trying to get back to what that essential thing was that I heard when I first heard Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley in those formative years. Those first things I heard were just electrifying and rearranged my life. So it’s interesting to go back and try and figure out sort of what it was.
With so many of the blues icons now gone, you’ve become an elder statesman of the genre, in a way.
I never really thought of it like this is some campaign. I’m not actively trying to keep a music form alive. But it’s almost something I’ve never been able to accomplish it before. I’ve hummed or sang some of those Bobby Bland songs ever since I first heard them. Ever since I was a teenager, those songs have been going through my head. But I couldn’t go there because I didn’t have the voice for it. But I feel like I can do Bobby Bland now. I finally feel like I’m delivering those songs with some small semblance of what I heard coming from him. I found a way to make it my own, as they say.
One of the fascinating things about your last few albums has been the choice of material. Whether it’s blues or R&B or standards, you avoid the usual tried-and-true classics and find deeper cuts, like Duke Ellington’s “Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me.” What’s your process for choosing songs?
The keyword is “interesting.” It’s always fun to find something that’s off the beaten path or something that hasn’t been done too much by other people. I’m a list person. It’s a process I went through with Mike McDonald and Donald Fagen when we did a project together a few years ago. We just sent a lot of songs back and forth, and it’s really fun when you’re talking to someone who’s an aficionado. I love tracking down New Orleans music. I love the people that came out of that school — particularly it’s the old R&B guys, and as it progressed out of the Fifties and the Sixties, it grew into urban R&B, Motown, and Philly International. It’s fun to track all that and to share notes with other people. Hundreds, thousands and thousands of songs to go through.
What’s an example from Out of the Blues?
Well, [blues pianist-singer Jimmy McCracklin’s] “I’ve Just Got to Know” was suggested to me when I sat in with Los Lobos at the Fillmore three or four years ago. They asked me to sit in, and David [Hidalgo] or Louie [Perez] suggested that song as something I might play with them. I don’t know how I’d missed the song before. Anyway, we performed it, and it just seemed a good fit for me, so it was another one I parked away as something I might use sometime.
How did Neil Young’s “On the Beach” pop up?
My son Austin has a couple of partners and they produce concerts to honor various musicians they admire and pull together a number of people to do these shows. They did a series with Neil Young songs and brought that one to me. It’s a minor blues, and they know I like that style a lot. We rehearsed it the afternoon of the show, and it just connected. It just seemed electric to me, and I thought that someday there might be a chance to record it. It was a little off the wall for this blues record, but it fit the criteria, and it’s just a magnificent song. It’s great when you find a body of work that’s been there all along and just hits you in the face. It’s a wonderful feeling.
I heard you weren’t super familiar with Neil’s music.
I’m not. We came up around the same time on the West Coast at a certain time. I was certainly aware of Neil and his work, but I tend to gravitate toward the R&B vein. I’ve been aware of him on a pretty high level for a really long time. I’ve just never performed the material. I’ve never met Neil.
Did you hear from him about this version?
No. He didn’t send me a bottle of champagne [laughs]. I don’t know what he would think of that.
Does making pop along the lines of Silk Degrees or Middle Man appeal to you anymore?
Yeah, it does. I think about it from time to time. I like to play with sounds, and try a lot of different textures and elements. Mostly, I did that when I was working with studio musicians in L.A., and when you’ve got that caliber of players and their imaginations to use, it seems like anything is possible. At that time, which was the mid-to-late Seventies, it was just great fun. I worked with some great musicians, notably David Paich, who was one of the starters of Toto, and David Foster. It’s musically more sophisticated than anything I know. That’s when I’m a little out of my element, but I can add a little bit of my style and some bluesy elements to something outside of my realm. I love the sort of soft, jazzy, progressive aspects of that kind of music, and there’s something very cool and satisfying about it, but I don’t look to really go there too much.
Have you heard the term “yacht rock”? You’ve been lumped in with that movement along with Steely Dan, Christopher Cross, Michael McDonald and others.
I have. I don’t like it at all. The image of it is just pretty corny. I’ve been invited to participate in some kind of programming and activities, these tours on boats. I guess they’re keeping [it] in the yacht vein. I don’t hate the association with the people you mentioned and others. That’s cool, and that style borrowed elements of progressive music and jazz. It was explored with integrity at the time. But I just hate [the phrase “yacht rock”]. I hate being put in that bag or categorized in that way. I just wish they would change the name of it.
You gave an interview in the Eighties in which you said you didn’t like “being this image” during the Silk Degrees era. What was the downside of that success?
It just didn’t sit well with me. There was a point when it was exciting and fun, but then I was just going through the motions. Silk Degrees was a big blast, and the records that came after followed the same track in a way, but I just felt I lost my way. It became a career, an exercise — the publicity, the fame, the trappings of all that. The music just kind of got lost to me. I wanted to take some time away, and that time away turned out to be six or seven or eight years. I just didn’t feel like going back to it. The music had left me. I wasn’t preoccupied as I normally am with music. I think the rigors of the career demands got to me. It was tiring and boring.
Is there any advice you would give your younger self?
I don’t regret taking time off from the studio and trying to write and record, but I regret not having continued to do shows. I did a few, but for the most part, I just got away from it all completely, and I wish I hadn’t done that. The fan base, the people who follow you and the people you’ve spent so much time connecting with, are really important. And when you go away from it, you break the deal somehow. When I wanted to come back and wanted to play live again, there was a lot of rebuilding to do.
And when did you return with a new album, Other Roads in 1988, Columbia rejected parts of it.
Yeah, times had changed, at least on the level I was in during the Seventies, and the record companies were becoming formulaic. I made Other Roads and turned it in and was shocked to hear that the president of the company at that time didn’t hear any hits, and he wanted me to record some more. And, you know, hits are not what we’re doing this for. But I did it and that was my last record for that company.
That was the heyday of MTV as well.
That was a scary time, man. Synthesizers came in. And not that I have anything against synthesizers, but they certainly got in the wrong hands here and there.
During that hiatus, one of your projects was becoming a co-owner of the Slim’s nightclub in San Francisco, which just turned 30 this year. What are some favorite memories of acts who’ve played there?
I remember seeing Patti Smith for the first time in Slim’s [in the Nineties]. I didn’t know the magnitude of her work until I stood at the bar and watched her blow the roof off. You wonder where you’ve been all your life when you have those moments. I remember a couple of occasions when Curtis Mayfield played. I got to see a lot of my heroes, like Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, Johnnie Taylor, and Bobby Bland.
Green Day and Radiohead played there early on too. Did you catch their sets?
I didn’t, no. I was at a Radiohead concert later with 14,000 or 16,000 people, and I was just blown away by them and was expressing my awe and admiration for them. And someone with me said, “Well, you know, they played your club about eight times while they were coming up!” It’s been that way a lot. I could stick my head in the door any time I wanted to, of course, but I missed a lot.
California is currently being besieged by fires, and you yourself lost your home in Northern California in a wildfire just over a year ago.
We were devastated. My wife and I built that place up for the last 25 years. When we got it, there were no roads, no water, no power. To see it burned down completely … I don’t know what the worst part of it is yet. In the scheme of things we’re luckier than most people, but we got hit pretty good. We’re trying to rebuild, but it’s going to take a while.
What was the most valuable thing you lost?
I lost lyrics. I lost ideas, sketches, demos and stuff that I really miss. Of course I’ll put it together in one form or another, but what I really miss is stuff like the little bedside notepads I’ve had from over the years that many of those songs are written on, and boxes and boxes of legal pads with all the songs I’ve written.
Fortunately, I was on the road. I’ve got a lot of guitars and amps that would’ve gone up in flames otherwise. All the [other] stuff is just gone, and it can be replaced, but there’s a period after where you’re looking for some traction to get back into your life, and you keep reaching for things that are not there day after day. Month after month. It’s like being displaced in a way. It’s sort of ghostly.
Your first major success was the Steve Miller Band for their first two albums. Are you still in touch with him?
No. You meet people and cross paths and go your own way.
Do you ever see working with him again?
I don’t think about that, no. Probably doesn’t make sense to a lot of people.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
When I was in my early twenties, I was in India and I was something of a seeker. Aren’t we all when we’re that age? I came across let’s say a spiritual leader, a remarkable presence, and I was able to sit alone with this fellow. I felt a powerful connection with this man and he advised me not to follow any particular path, that there is no particular way for me. He wanted to give me courage to not follow anything but my heart — to follow my own instincts and curiosities wherever it took me.
Your career seems a testament to that.
I still find comfort in what he said. I’ve never answered that question before, but I think there’s something in that.