Boz Scaggs (born William Royce Scaggs June 8, 1944) is an Ohio-born Texan singer, songwriter and guitarist.
After learning guitar at the age of twelve, he met Steve Miller at St. Mark’s School of Texas in Dallas. In 1959, he became the vocalist for Miller’s band, the Marksmen. The pair later attended the University of Wisconsin together, playing in blues bands like the Ardells and the Fabulous Knight Trains.
Leaving school, Scaggs briefly left Texas to join the burgeoning rhythm and blues scene in London. After singing in bands such as the Wigs and Mother Earth, he recorded his first solo album, Boz, in 1965, which was not a commercial success. He traveled to Sweden as a solo performer and did a brief stint with the band, The Other Side, with fellow American Jack Downing and Brit Mac MacLeod.
Returning to the US, Scaggs promptly headed for the booming psychedelic music center of San Francisco in 1967. Linking up with Steve Miller again, he appeared on the Steve Miller Band's first two albums, Children of the Future and Sailor, which won over critical reviews. After being spotted by Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, Scaggs secured a solo contract with Atlantic Records in 1968. Despite good reviews, his first Atlantic albums were met with lukewarm sales, until he linked up with session musicians, who would later form Toto and record his smash 1976 album Silk Degrees. The album reached number two on the US charts and number one in a number of countries across the world, spawning three hit singles: “Lowdown”, “Lido Shuffle”, and “What Can I Say”. A sellout world tour followed, but his follow-up album, the 1977 Down Two Then Left, lacked the cohesion of Silk Degrees.
Scaggs recorded Other Roads in the mid-1980s, before taking a ten-year hiatus. He then signed with Virgin Records and recorded four albums including the Grammy-nominated Come on Home, a blues and R&B collection that honored his musical roots, and the critically-acclaimed 2001 release, Dig, which was, in his own words, “the best work of my life in music”.
The current release, But Beautiful, sets another career standard. These are the vocals of an accomplished musician who has honed his craft over time and knows how to deliver a lyric; this is a voice enriched by time. Whether the melody wants that high note on the bridge to “What’s New”, or a husky low whisper on “Never Let Me Go”, Scaggs carries the trajectory, stopping to bring out the right word here and there, or nudge the beat with a sly syncopation. It’s an artful, insightful performance, respectful of the songs and daring at the same time. Scaggs’ delivery is intimate, nuanced, contoured.
But Beautiful took root a little more than three years ago when Scaggs made his San Francisco studio available to a member of his band for a jazz session. Pianist Paul Nagel was in the lineup and so impressed Scaggs that he invited Nagel to bring in his trio and cut material of their own. At about that time, when asked to perform at an all-acoustic fundraising concert, Scaggs invited Paul and his band to join him. “I had the idea it might be interesting to rework some of my songs with a more progressive treatment. We added saxophonist Eric Crystal and started rehearsing. Things opened up so nicely I said, ‘Why don’t we do a standard?’ I pulled ‘My Funny Valentine’ out of the air – doesn’t everybody want to sing ‘My Funny Valentine’? We did the show, we liked it, the audience liked it, and that’s where the bug bit me.”
“I soon realized I would have a new role as a vocalist,” Scaggs says about his initial encounter with this material. “In this form, it’s just you hanging out there with the melody in a much more complex rhythm scheme with no background singers, no horns, no effects. So intonation and phrasing were going to be more critical, but even more so was the notion of developing an original style and fresh perspective. For example, ‘Sophisticated Lady’ is most challenging. The Ellington Book is so amazing: they’re such well-crafted melodies in very complex changes. When you finally marry them up to the lyric you know you’ve really been someplace.” Others, like “How Long Has This Been Going On”, could be approached on more familiar terms. “We were looking for songs that had blues inflections, since I come out of that background,” says Scaggs. “This one came more immediately. Then we took it down to ballad tempo to give it our signature.”
“It was Paul [Nagel] who encouraged me to go into the books and dig out these songs and find my voice in each one,” Scaggs recounts. “He and the other fine musicians of this quartet were generous guides into a new, intensely satisfying world of expression.” Listeners will find But Beautiful intensely satisfying as well. It will undoubtedly connect with jazz aficionados, Boz Scaggs fans and anyone who stands by the old A and R man’s adage; it all comes down to the singer and the song. This one comes down solid.
Speak Low is his 17th studio album, a follow-up to 2003’s But Beautiful - “a sort of progressive, experimental effort ... along the lines of some of the ideas that Gil Evans explored” says Boz. Songs on the album include Chet Baker’s “She Was Too Good to Be True,” Johnny Mercer’s “This Time the Dream’s on Me,” the often recorded “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” and the Kurt Weill/Ogden Nash title track. “I’m a vocalist,” Scaggs says. “I come more out of a blues/rhythm and blues background, but this is a different way of using my voice, and much more musically challenging and adventurous for me.”