Boz Scaggs recorded his latest album at Willie Mitchell’s Royal Studios. By Brian Wise
“It must be both a blessing and a burden,” said the breakfast radio announcer to Boz Scaggs about his 1976 album Silk Degrees. “Do you wish it hadn’t been so successful?”
I resisted the temptation to throw the radio against the wall and waited for Boz’s reply. Would he hang up? Would he be annoyed?
Scaggs seemed a little surprised at the question but replied diplomatically that a big hit could tend to fix him in time for some people but that overall he wished every artist could enjoy such success.
“I’ll figure that out eventually,” said the announcer when puzzling about the title of Scaggs forthcoming Australian tour: Memphis & The Hits. No mention of the album itself, the players, the studio or even the songs.
It was as if the announcer believed that none of the listeners could possibly be interested in the fact that Scaggs had released 10 albums since Silk Degrees – despite a near decade hiatus in the ‘80s – and that his latest, Memphis, was recorded at the late Willie Mitchell’s legendary Royal Studios, also home to Hi Records, with some renowned players on a batch of well-chosen songs.
Not that breakfast radio has ever been the province of the deep and meaningful interview about music but I could immediately understand why some musicians hate doing interviews. (Dylan, rightfully now that I think of it, hardly ever does any).
I daresay most musicians would not be as polite as Scaggs had been. Thankfully, I had chatted with him a week earlier; because if I had to follow this live to air radio interview he might not have been as forthcoming.
Maybe it was piqued by a personal interest but the subject I started with was the new album, Memphis, and the famous recording studio that inspired it.
I can picture exactly where Scaggs recorded because I visited there in 2008 and was greeted at the reception desk by none other than Willie Mitchell who took me through the studio, showed me Al Green’s favourite microphone and later sat and chatted with me for a radio interview. I mark that down as a lifelong highlight.
But it was not just Al Green who recorded there; there are also credits for Chuck Berry, Keith Richards, Syl Johnson, Buddy Guy, Bobby Bland, Otis Rush, Pops Staples, Solomon Burke and even Tom Jones and Jesse Winchester.
The following year Willie’s son Boo showed me around while a session was being recorded. Then Willie was gone but his legacy lives on. You can hear it on Memphis – and on the latest Paul Rodgers album The Royal Sessions.
Royal is about as humble a studio as you could find. I recall that there was a lot of wood, hessian and that famous vocal booth at the back of the room where the Reverend recorded so many classics. It gave me chills up the spine just to walk in there. When I walked out the back corridor and saw the bookcase of full of old tapes I was even more amazed.
“He made that room just sound great over time,” says Scaggs of Royal. “They went in everyday and they recorded, and they refined, and they refined, and they refined. I think it just goes to show that it does not take a big money investment, but what it takes is a genius ear and a lot of time.”
I had wondered for years what the factors were that produced that fabulous warm sound. You’ll notice that every other notable studio in the region – Stax, Ardent, Muscle Shoals – has its own distinctive sound.
“It was really Mitchell’s ear,” says Scaggs when I pose the question. “If he was getting too much reverberation in one corner of the room, he’d stuff some insulation in there, or if he wanted the drum beat had too much reverberation or was too small, he would expand it. Just over time, he built every corner of that room to where it sounded good.
“He used microphones that really captured the ambience of that space. He built that vocal booth so it was just the right size and for Al Green probably and for that microphone which is still there. He used great equipment that exist, tuned that space. He did nothing more and nothing less.
“I tell a funny story about working in that room that when in starts to rain, they have to move the B3 organ because the water drips right on top of it. Then they move the organ over and they put a bucket on the floor. After the rain stops, they empty the bucket and they put the organ back where it was. You ask why don’t they fix the hole on the roof and they won’t … they say because that’s the way the room is. They don’t change it. They don’t fix it. They keep it clean and they keep the electronic bugs out, but they don’t let the room … they protect the room as it is.”
I love that story. It encapsulates the essence of Royal and it says something about he character of the South that you might not understand if you have not spent some time there.
I ask Boz if he got to use Al Green’s favorite microphone: Number 9. It’s an old RCA 77 DX ribbon mic and you might be able to pick one up for a lazy US$2000-$4500 if you are lucky.
“I did,” he replies. “I certainly did. It’s a beautiful, beautiful microphone. That’s very good company I must say.”
Scaggs has also gathered around him a team of crack musicians. You almost feel as if most musicians would be required to present their CV at the door of Royal before they were allowed in. You and I would not be able to afford the basic band used for Memphis!
Steve Jordan co-produces and plays drums and percussion. Guitarist is Ray Parker Jr, who might have had a hit with ‘Ghostbusters’ but who has played with an A-list of musicians, including Stevie Wonder and Barry White. Bassist is the definitely legendary Willie Weeks (who would be famous if all he had ever played on was the Donny Hathaway Live album). Guests include Spooner Oldham on piano and organ, Charles Hodges from the old Hi days on the B3 plus Charlie Musselwhite and Keb Mo’. (It should be noted that this is not the band Scaggs will be bringing with him to Australia but he assures me that the touring band is nearly as hot).
The songs might have been hand-picked for this particular band. There’s Al Green’s ‘So Good To Be Here’ (very appropriately), Tony Joe White’s ‘Rainy Night in Georgia,’ Willy DeVille’s ‘Mixed Up Shook Up Girl’ (along with Moon Martin’s ‘Cadillac Walk’ which he also recorded with a guitar line inspired by Buddy Miller), Steely Dan’s ’Pearl Of The Quarter’ ( Scaggs has toured with Donald Fagen in The Dukes of September),The Moments’ ‘Love On A Two Way Street,’ Jimmy Reed’s ‘You Got Me Cryin’,’ and the standard ‘Corrina Corrina.’
“The band was a collaboration between Steve and myself,” admits Scaggs. “I will tell you quite honestly that we had talked briefly about some of the songs and the style we were going for. Then we agreed to talk later on the phone to give each other ideas. I have written down on a sheet of paper some musicians that I wanted to include. Steve had written down his ideas and the studio. Steve said, ‘Well, I’ll tell you what I’d like to do with this record.’ He said, ‘I like to do it at Royal Studios in Memphis.’ I said, “Bingo, exactly what I want to do’.”
“It’s like playing a fantasy, a sport game or something,” he continues. “You want to get the best player in that position and the best in that position. I’ve got to be honest and tell you that it doesn’t always work that way. The chemistry doesn’t always match the fantasy. But when it does, it’s a beautiful thing. This was the right combination, that room and those players were magic.”
Memphis is out now through 429 Records. Boz Scaggs is on tour in April.