Boz Scaggs has survived an impressive five decades in the music industry, first as an eager rock 'n' roll sideman, then as a blue-eyed soul star, now as an unwavering elder statesman. But for all his commercial success—his 1976 smash, Silk Degrees, featured the silky smooth radio staples "Lido Shuffle" and "Lowdown"—the secret to Scaggs' longevity is simple: He loves playing good music with good musicians.
And he's always had a knack for finding the right players at the right time. In the mid-1960s, Scaggs ventured to London to join the blooming R&B scene there. He released an obscure debut solo album that almost nobody heard (1965's Boz), experimented as a busker in Sweden, and finally circled back to his old pal Steve Miller, who recruited Scaggs to join his band as a rhythm guitarist and backing vocalist.
After two albums with the Steve Miller Band, Scaggs went solo again—but, as he's quick to note, Boz Scaggs albums are hardly "solo" in the traditional sense. His self-titled breakthrough from 1969 established both his eclectic mix of gritty blues, country, jazz, and soul and his smooth vocal style; it also featured an all-star cast of session players, including the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and guitar prodigy Duane Allman. Like his colleagues in Steely Dan, Scaggs wasn't content to write great songs—he wanted to make classic records with timeless chops. Silk Degrees is one of the finest-engineered pop albums in history, sculpted by horns and woodwinds and the core rhythm section of what would become prog-pop outfit Toto.
Even today, Scaggs isn't content to simply tour the country with his biggest hits. He makes albums when he feels like it, and he collaborates with his most talented friends, including the Dukes of September Rhythm Revue, featuring both Michael McDonald and Steely Dan legend Donald Fagen. With his latest studio album, Memphis, released in March, Scaggs has made the most selfless album of his career. With producer/drummer Steve Jordan, Scaggs assembled a venerable session crew (bassist Willie Weeks, guitarist Ray Parker Jr., and a rotating cast of keyboardists) at Memphis' Royal Studios, blitzing through a set of rock, soul, jazz, and blues covers (from a laid-back take on Steely Dan's "Pearl of the Quarter" to a suave version of Al Green's "So Good to Be Here"). It was a tribute album not only in its songs, but also in its live-in-the-room spirit.
"You got great players, the right room, the right producer—the chemistry was all there," Scaggs says. "It doesn't always feel that way, but in this case, that was the way it went."
Everyone from Al Green to Chuck Berry to Tina Turner to Solomon Burke have recorded at Royal. And simply being in the physical space was inspirational to Scaggs.
"There's a lot of that," he says. "On one hand, it's a very relaxing place to be. It's not at all fancy; it's really kind of run-down and shabby. So it's easy just to feel right at home. On the other hand, there's some memorabilia hanging on the walls that reminds you what fantastic work has gone on in the past. On one hand, you're in sort of a sacred place; on the other hand, it's a foxy, comfortable place to be. With the end result, the sound is already built in if you let it happen. All you gotta do is play, and you go back in the booth and listen, and it's got a sound. You don't have to look for it. It's just there."
For Scaggs, the whole goal of the project was submission. After spending his whole career as a guitarist, songwriter, and arranger, he relished the chance to simply lead with his voice.
"One of my requirements with this record is that I just wanted to be a singer," Scaggs says. "I didn't want to have to feel like I had to produce or be too involved with the arrangements. I just wanted to be there and concentrate on singing."
And Scaggs put full trust in his veteran crew.
"Everything we pitched at that rhythm section worked," he says. "We could have done ‘The Star-Spangled Banner' and it would have been awesome."
The vibe in the studio was loose but staggeringly productive. The album was recorded over just four days, as the band juggled sessions with friendly visits from local Memphis players.
"We'd get ready to start a take, and we'd have our headphones on, ready to go, but the door would open, and here comes two or three guys," Scaggs says. "Everybody'd get out their cameras and hang out, and they'd come in and sit down in the control room or take off. We'd given us 10 days to get the rhythm section, but we were done in three days, so on day four, we brought in the horns and the string section, recorded them, went out and had some barbecue and went home the next day."
As he's done his whole career, Scaggs approached Memphis with a wise reverence—the kind earned from nearly a half-century in the business.
"[Jordan and I] independently said, ‘Let's go to Royal and do this thing,'" Scaggs says. "That's where the sound is—that's where we had to be. There's no other place."