By Brian Wise
The fact that Boz Scaggs opens his new album, A Fool To Care, with a cover of ‘Rich Woman’, written by Dorothy LaBostrie and McKinley Millet and first recorded by Li’l Millet and the Creoles back in 1955, seems indicative of what he wanted to achieve.
Other choices include The Impressions’ ‘I’m So Proud’, Huey ‘Piano Smith’s ‘High Blood Pressure’, Louisiana legend Bobby Charles’ ‘Small Town Talk’, Al Green’s ‘Full of Fire’, and the Spinners’ ‘Love Don’t Love Nobody.’ Of course, there is also the title track written country singer Ted Daffan (also from Louisiana) back in 1940.
This second album of a project trilogy again features producer/drummer Steve Jordan, along with a classy studio band guitarist Ray Parker, Jr., the great bassist Willie Weeks, and drummer Jim Cox. Recorded in four days in Nashville’s Blackbird Studio the album also features some notable guest spots. Bonnie Raitt duets on vocals and plays slide guitar on the album’s best cut, the rocking, ‘Hell to Pay’ (written by Scaggs). Lucinda Williams joins the cast ‘Whispering Pines.’ ‘I Want to See You’ and ‘Last Tango on 16th Street’ were both penned by Jack Walroth, a friend of Scaggs from San Francisco.
Scaggs may never outrun his mid-70s’ hits such as ‘Lido Shuffle’ and ‘Lowdown,’ however, by choosing a delightful batch of songs (mostly from that same era) he continues to make music that it is ageless – and that is not to overlook his own contribution to the album which turns out to be the real gem here.
I caught up with Scaggs by phone while I was in New Orleans, which seemed appropriate given the songwriters and guests (Lucinda Williams, for a start) represented on the album.
Your last album was recorded in Memphis. This time, you’ve gone to Nashville to record. Apparently, this is the second album in a planned trilogy. Can you tell us why you moved over to Nashville from Memphis?
I’d to have to say, we went to Memphis for a very specific reason and that was the studio – the Royal Studio. Their sound was really what we were passionate about. I had worked there and Steve Jordan, the producer, had also worked there. In our initial discussion of what we were going to do and where we might do it and what musicians we might ask for, we had both independently thought about wanting to go back to Memphis for sound. That’s like finding one in a million people in a crowded city. We came from completely different sides of the country and had a lot of different experiences, but we wanted to work together in that one studio in Memphis, and so we did.
I think we found what we were looking for there. We also found that we had a rhythm section that could go just about anywhere we wanted to with our music. Having discovered that and finding that we had a good working relationship … in thinking about where we might go next, the main concern – the main object – was that we would try to find a place where we could expand the sonics. We were looking for a studio with more variety of sounds. The sound in Memphis, that’s what they did. That studio was a sound and it was very comforting, in a way, to be there, because there were no choices about different microphones and different outboard gear and different drum placements and the like. It was a sound. You put the drums there; you put the guitar there; you use that microphone, and you’ve got that magic sound.
Once we decided to do another project, we wanted a studio like one found in Los Angeles or New York or London or Nashville. Steve had worked at this particular studio in Nashville called Blackbird, and I’ve been hearing about it for many years. It’s quite well-known for its amazing collection of gear and its variety of studios and sounds available. We decided to go to Nashville for several reasons: because of the studio and because of the availability of great musicians who live and work around Nashville. This seemed to lend itself best to the sound that we were interested in and the direction that we were going in.
You’ve still got some of same musicians that worked on the previous album, a fantastic collection of musicians, including Willie Weeks.
With guys like that, you’re able to go in and record it in just four days.
Yeah. I’ll be quick to say that the album itself took a lot longer than four days. We recorded the rhythm tracks in four days.
We spent a lot of time choosing the material, and I’ve spent a good deal of time afterwards doing my vocals, and guitars, and then some miscellaneous instruments and background vocals: horns and the like. Yes, it’s easy to say it took four days to record, but there’s more to it, as I’m sure you can imagine.
I have to say, Willie Weeks recorded my favourite bass solo of all time on the Donny Hathaway Live album, which is still a fantastic album.
Ah, yeah. That’s it, man. You’ve got it. That’s it.
I still play that often. I take that album everywhere I travel.
Yes, it’s just one of the greatest.
The song selection on the album is impeccable but what was the selection process? There are so many songs you could have chosen, and I must say, you haven’t gone for a lot of the obvious things. You’ve gone for some really interesting and some obscure songs. How did that come about?
First of all, the song has to be a vehicle for my voice and it has to be a vehicle for this music that Jordan and I share in common, which is early blues, rhythm and blues, early rock and roll. That’s the main criteria. Then you get in the area that you want to find songs that haven’t been used by a lot of other people.
Whatever song you want to use, you want to make sure you can put your own spin on it. You give it your own interpretation. Each of these songs are very, very interesting to us for various reasons. There may be some, like Al Green, which is one of these really fine songs that people just haven’t heard of. Same thing might be said of Curtis Mayfield, although that song, ‘I’m So Proud’ that we did, is not an unknown song, but no one has really tried to redo that. That makes it attractive to us. It’s a song that I’ve been playing for myself when I sit around and play guitar. I’ve been playing it for decades just for my own personal satisfaction.
For each song, I could tell you why and where it’s unique to us, and each of them is really chosen simply because it’s a very, very interesting song in some regard.
Ironically, one of the highlights is your own composition, “Hell to Pay”, on which Bonnie Raitt features.
Thanks. Yeah, that was very special. I don’t think I’ve ever done a song quite that country or rockabilly, or whatever it is. To have Bonnie playing and singing on it is very special and unique for me.
It sounds like an instant classic.
Hey, well, I like that! It felt very natural. It was a very organic track that’s pretty easy to fall into. Nothing is particularly special about it, I don’t think, but it just seemed to fit the time and place very well.
You mentioned that the songs had to suit your voice. Your voice is sounding – dare I say it – as good, if not better, than ever. You’ve obviously taken good care of it. It just seems to have matured into something that’s a great instrument.
Thank you. Thank you very much. That is my instrument and I’ve been working on it for many, many years. I’m enjoying it. I’m getting closer to the voice in my head than I’ve ever felt, really. Thank you for saying that.
Do you feel that it’s changed over the years? You must be happy with it now, but has it changed in the timbre of it or the character of it?
Definitely. I have more control over it. It’s a better-tuned instrument to me. It’s more mature. It’s also changed in range. I was a full tenor technically, and now I’m still a tenor, but I’ve moved into baritone range. It’s really a range that I discovered a few years ago when I was doing a standards album with some jazz musicians.
I sort of automatically tried, at an earlier stage in my career, to sing in keys that would make me reach my voice. I would have to work harder and push harder. There’s a certain amount of energy that you can get out of singing the highest range that you can, and a lot songs and the keys of songs were chosen so that you could sing the highest … You weren’t straining for the highest note in that song. But you wanted it high, because you could put more energy into it.
When I was working in the jazz project, it turned out, that wasn’t at all what was required or appropriate for those songs. The range was much more determined by the soul of the song, about how to deliver the lyrics. The voice was much more an instrument rather than a top figure. I had to learn to use a lower register and I found more expression there. That made me work on it harder, and it was a bit of a hill to climb.
It was a challenge but I’m glad I went there. It gave me more control.
Kind of like a fine wine. It’s gotten better with age.
Could be some of that too. I like that analogy.
It’s fantastic that you included Bobby Charles’ song ‘Small Town Talk.’ There’s a Huey ‘Piano’ Smith’s number, and there’s ‘Rich Woman’, which is an obscure 1955 hit for a group called Li’l Millet & the Creoles. That’s a real discovery. There’s kind of a detour down to Louisiana, isn’t there, on this a little bit?
That’s right, yeah. There’s certain element that we wanted to capture in this album. The way we did it was, at the end of each recording day … It was generally late; it was one or two o’clock, and we had full days.
We just went in, picked up the instruments, and played something full out, full on. Much like the title of your website – Addicted To Noise. We just went in and made a lot of noise. We played it with all abandon. It was those Louisiana songs that were the ones that we chose because they were, in some ways the most simple, in terms of basic elements. But they were the most fun, and they had the most energy to just rip it out. Louisiana music has that quality: the feel of New Orleans and the feel of the Cajun country. The nature of that music has been a … It’s a good time. It’s a party. It’s a wild expression, so it fit the bill. That’s where we found that kind of energy.
Of course, you’re not new to the south. Your first American album was recorded at Muscle Shoals. In fact, I think David Hood played on that. I saw him just the other night, playing with the Waterboys – believe it or not – all these years later.
Really? That’s fantastic. I’m really glad to hear that. I hear that he’s well and working. I haven’t seen him in a long time. They gave music so much. They gave me a lot for my first record. It was a special experience.
Obviously, you’ve always had the interest in that style of music and those songs, haven’t you?
Yeah. At first, I played folk music and blues. That’s what I learned on guitar; that’s what I first learned to sing. Then, as I began to hear rhythm and blues as it came out in New Orleans and the south, and as it became more sophisticated – the chord changes became more complex and it grew up – that’s where I learned. That was my school. It was my education. I followed that music very closely and it gave me direction. It was natural at that time; I was listening mostly to the R & B music out of Memphis and Philadelphia and out of the south in general. Going to the source of a lot of it, going to Muscle Shoals where they were recording Aretha and Wilson Pickett, and all of it, was natural.
I don’t think anyone’s done a better version of ‘Loan Me A Dime’ than you have.
Well, thank you for that. I heard it with the Elvin Bishop Band. Elvin had a great singer named Jo Baker, who was a woman out of Boston, that did a fantastic version of that song. I had no intention of recording it until we had finished recording the album in Muscle Shoals and someone said, “Well, we’ve got a little time. The horn players are here. Dwayne hasn’t left yet. We’ve got time for one more song. Any ideas?” I remembered that song that Jo sang, and how she sang it. I didn’t remember all the words, so I called her and asked her to sing the words or give me the words. I wrote them down and I took it into the guys and said, “Okay, here’s one more song. Let’s give it a try.”