At age 75, multiple top forty hits, millions of albums sold, and a career of more than 50 years, Boz Scaggs refers to himself as “A touring musician.” Scaggs sat down earlier this summer for an interview with Dan Rather for AXS television. [Rather hosts “The Big Interview” on AXStv.]
The interview with Rather covered a lot of ground, but only a portion consisted of Scaggs’ white-hot late 1970s career. Instead, Scaggs talks about his family and early life, his musical journey before he hit the big-time, his influences, and the heavy losses he’s endured.
Life has hasn’t always been a sold-out venue. Besides a difficult divorce, his Northern California home burned down, and he lost a son to drug addiction.
Scaggs, at the height of his career, did the unthinkable. He left the music business in 1980, taking a break that lasted eight years. Eight years in the music biz is a lifetime; music moves on.
Scaggs simply explained it as having other things calling him. He planned a break of six weeks or more, but it went much longer as he discovered he was needed elsewhere. With two small children and a marriage that was failing, the music life was shelved. “I went into civilian life, something I hadn’t given my full attention, he said.
Since the early 1960s, music had been his focus. “It was like jumping off a fast moving train.” He had done several albums since 1976’s monster hit Silk Degrees, and had toured the world. He went from small venues to arenas, opening for the biggest acts in the business. The career arc of the past five years stopped.
Silk Degrees put four songs on the chart: “It’s Over”, “Lowdown”, “Lido Shuffle” and “What Can I Say.” The album reached number two on Billboard and sold over five million copies in the U.S. alone.
Yet, here’s how Scaggs described it. “It [Silk Degrees] was just one in a series of records to me. I’d made records before that were selling a decent number of records. Every record I believed in, and my career was growing, steadily. If you weren’t successful, the record company wouldn’t keep you around. My number [success] just came up,” he said matter-of-factly.
Forty-plus years later, Scaggs is very humble about that period of his life. Five years of super-stardom and he was ready for a change. Listening to him talk with Rather, this is a thoughtful, reflective man, who found his balance years ago. There’s no rockstar ego, twisted values or show business pretentiousness.
During his eight year break, he divorced and battled for joint custody. He wanted to be a very involved parent. Music was not on his radar.
On the loss of his home, Scaggs was equally pragmatic. Even though mementos and personal items are not replaceable, other stuff is; and you go on.
Losing his home and all of his possessions was difficult, but it didn’t even compare with the death of his son. Rather touched lightly on the subject, which Scaggs didn’t back away from addressing. Scaggs talked about his son’s problem and how Scaggs was very involved in his son’s drug battle. As a musician, he knew about the availability and use of drugs, and talked openly with his kids about the subject. For his son, the grip of heroin proved too intense.
Fast forward. In recent years, Scaggs has focused on playing the blues, on record and in concert. The blues, he said, “Is the most accessible type of music at an early age. I picked up the guitar and playing basic blues guitar. It’s primal, the most basic human utterance. Every culture has a form of the blues. [The blues is the] sound of escape, emotionally, a way to come out of your troubles. There’s a joy and release in this music.”
As a young man, Scaggs had experimented with many different kinds of music, and blues and R&B were part of his learning experience. After college, he went to Europe where he released his first album, although unsuccessful. He returned to the States at the invitation of friend, Steve Miller, who he had met at St. Marks, and followed him to Madison, Wis., for college. Miller sent him a ticket to join him in San Francisco, where he played on Miller’s first two albums. His intent was to try it for 8 or 9 months, and if that didn’t work, he’d use the return ticket to Sweden.
This was around the time of the Summer of Love, where there was pop music, but also blues, soul and psychedelic-rock. San Francisco in the late 1960s was not just a cultural melting pot, but a musical one as well. His visibility with Steve Miller landed him his own recording contract.
At 75, Scaggs’ voice and guitar playing are stellar. Rather asked him about whether his voice had changed, and if he had to make adjustments like other singers did, late in their careers. “I didn’t have a fully formed voice when I started,” Scaggs said. “I’ve tried every musical style possible. Over time, my voice has gotten stronger. I can sing what I hear in my head.”
Boz is an usual name, and not his real name. The Boz nickname was hung on him in school. As the new kid, he was being tested by the other boys, who were intent that it stick; so he accepted it. They referred to him as Bosley, from Bosely, North Carolina, but Scaggs said he never really bonded with the name, in fact he prefers William, his given name.
After Silk Degrees, Scaggs returned with Down Two Then Left, a year later. Living up to Silk Degrees was a tough chore, and while he used the same production team, it didn’t live up to expectations. It’s a good album, just not a great one. While it didn’t get the airplay or sales as Silk Degrees, Scaggs was no less in-demand on tour.
Three years later, Scaggs returned with Middle Man, a more commercially accessible and slickly produced album. With a stellar group of session musicians, a new producer in Bill Schnee, and a songwriting partner in soon-to-be-mega-producer David Foster, the sound was almost too perfect. By that, I mean they polished the soul out of the songs. It sounded like it came off the assembly line, not out of the studio. The album spawned the hits “Jojo”, “Breakdown Dead Ahead”, “You Can Have Me Anytime”, and “Simone.” The album sold better than the previous one and returned Scaggs to the stature of Silk Degrees.
Less than a year later, Scaggs released a greatest hits collection that had two new songs, including “Look What You’ve Done to Me,” a ballad from the hit film Urban Cowboy. It reached number 14 on Billboard. Another new song, “Miss Sun”, also peaked at number 14. Then, Scaggs jumped from the train and didn’t resurface until 1988, with Other Roads, an album blending various styles.
Periodically, he would release a new collection of songs, which would get some interest on the adult contemporary charts, but his mainstream hit days were in the rear view mirror.
Starting with Come On Home in 1997, Scaggs began a transition toward the R&B and blues. Allmusic reviewed the album this way, “…he blue-eyed soulman eschews the slick production values of his pop chart-toppers such as “Lido” and “Lowdown”, instead getting way down and his hands dirty with the honest blood, sweat, and tears of the real down-home blues.”
For the past twenty years, Scaggs’ journey has taken him from R&B, blues, jazz and back again. The man tours and plays what he hears in his head. We should all be so lucky.
By the way, Boz Scaggs is on tour. For my friends in the Kansas City area, he is playing at the Lied Center in Lawrence, Kansas on September 10, 2019. What Can I Say?