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The Memphis blues, again

boz scaggsA new Boz Scaggs album is always a welcome arrival in this quarter. Whether it’s a collection of R&B warhorses, a set of jazz standards or — best of all — a clutch of new original songs, there’s a better than even chance that it will throw up an enduring personal favourite like “Loan Me a Dime” (from the first solo album he  made after leaving the Steve Miller Band in 1969), “Runnin’ Blue” (from 1971’s Boz Scaggs and Band), “We Were Always Sweethearts” and “Near You” (Moments, also 1971), “Breakdown Dead Ahead” (Middle Man, 1980), the sublime “Sierra” (Some Change, 1994), “Ask Me ‘Bout Nothin’ (But the Blues)” (Come On Home, 1997), and “King of El Paso” and “Thanks to You” (Dig, 2001).

I’ve interviewed him a couple of times, first in 1971, when he was spending time in London (and played a memorable gig at the old Country Club on Haverstock Hill with the fine band from his second album), and then in 1994, on a plane from San Francisco to Los Angeles, when Some Change had just come out, ending a long silence caused by his decision to stay at his Bay Area home in order to be close to his growing sons, following the end of his first marriage. I liked him a lot. He seemed to be a man who had the whole thing in perspective. By pacing his career carefully and not getting too carried away when “Lowdown” and “Lido Shuffle” turned him into a white-suited pop star in the late 1970s, and by holding on to his enthusiasm for music, he’s managed to maintain a consistency so impressive that there’s virtually no one of his generation whose releases I look forward to more, even though I know they’re not going to be pushing back any boundaries.

The new one is called Memphis, because that’s where it was recorded. In Willie Mitchell’s Royal Recording Studios, in fact, with a basic band of Scaggs himself and Ray Parker Jr on guitars, Willie Weeks on bass and Steve Jordan on drums, plus guests including Charles Hodges on organ, Spooner Oldham on various keyboards, Keb’ Mo’ and Eddie Willis on guitars, Charlie Musselwhite on harmonica, the crack horn section of Ben Cauley (trumpet), Jack Hale (trombone), Lannie McMillan (tenor) and Jim Horn (baritone), and a small string section arranged by Mitchell and Lester Snell.

Many of the songs will be familiar to fans of rock ‘n’ soul, among them Brook Benton’s “Rainy Night in Georgia”, the Moments’ “Love on a Two Way Street”, Tyrone Davis’s “Can I Change My Mind”, Jimmy Reed’s ‘You Got Me Cryin'”, Al Green’s “So Good to Be Here” and — the biggest surprise — Steely Dan’s “Pearl of the Quarter”. They’re done in the way you’d expect from Boz, which is to say with taste and finesse and respect. Too much of all those qualities for some people, probably, but it doesn’t bother me, although I’m not as bowled over by his gentle version of “Corrina, Corrina” as others seem to be: I’m happy to stick with the reading of this lovely song included 50 years ago in The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. “Rainy Night in Georgia”, “Can I Change My Mind” and Moon Martin’s “Cadillac Walk” are also a little on the underwhelming side. An immaculately sharp treatment of Willy DeVille’s “Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl” (nothing to do with Patty and the Emblems’ girl-group classic of the same name) is the track I’m going to take away from this album, along with the opener, a slinky Scaggs original called “Gone Baby Gone” in which he taps into the real Memphis vibe. And that’ll do for me.

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9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jess Roden #

    Oh yes to that!

    April 4, 2013
  2. Agree almost totally with your review, Richard. Worth highlighting too is Boz’s previous album, Speak Low (2008), a similarly Bosleyian take on the ‘Great American Songbook’.

    April 4, 2013
  3. Philby #

    Will be intrigued to hear Boz’s take on Steely Dan’s ‘Pearl of the Quarter’. However, playing the Dan version just now (“and if you hear from my Louise…”) I can see that it might work well for Boz. They are not a band that’s easy to cover, though there is an interesting CD of interpretations of their songs by two Swedish chanteuses, Sara Isaksson and Rebecka Tornqvist, called Fire In the Hole. Have to admit to a slight weariness when I read that Boz had recorded ‘Rainy Night in Georgia’. Hope to have my prejudices confounded!

    Good to see Jess Roden on this site — fond memories of ‘Gonna Fix You Good’ with the Alan Bown Set in North Staffordshire a mere 45 years ago!

    April 4, 2013
  4. WKB #

    I’d listen to “Love on a Two Way Street” all day long & his version is pleasant enough. However, for me, this astonishing version has always made everyone else come up short.

    April 4, 2013
    • Thanks for that. Laura’s version of anything always tended to sound definitive — or redefinitive, maybe. And that one is very beautiful. There’s a good version of Martha and the Vandellas’ “Come and Get These Memories” from that Japanese concert, too. I’m going to write something about her soon.

      April 5, 2013
  5. Yes Loan Me A Dime was always a beautiful stretched out surprise. This new Memphis album looks promising. Great line up.

    April 4, 2013
  6. GRAHAM ROBERTS #

    Thanks for the piece on Boz Scaggs; I bought the new ‘Memphis’ album a couple of weeks back and have had it pretty much on permanent play since; lovely recording.

    You have highlighted some wonderful moments from his back catalogue, but may I suggest one other, please? About 8 years ago a live album was issued – on the Gray Cat label – with the rather unpromising title ‘Boz Scaggs: Greatest Hits Live’. Taped at Great American Music Hall, San Francisco, with a really fine band, this 2 CD set covers most of the bases, including superb performances of his own songs – ‘Lowdown’. ‘Slow Dancer’, ‘Breakdown Dead Ahead’, ‘I Just Go’ and a blistering ‘Lido Shuffle’ – and terrific interpretations of other writers’ material – ‘It All went Down The Drain’, ‘Ask Me ‘Bout Nothin’ But The Blues’, ‘Loan Me A Dime’ and a sublime reading of ‘Heart of Mine’. Listening to it again just makes me wish that Boz might come to the UK for some live shows here at some stage; hope he does.

    Back to the new release, I was interested in your connection between ‘Rainy Night In Georgia’ and Brook Benton – that’s a version of Tony Joe White’s song that has clearly passed me by so I must seek it out; my favourite reading of the song is by Randy Crawford on one of her early albums. Finally, I share your affection for Dylan’s version of ‘Corrina, Corrina’ but I think that Boz Scaggs’ take on the song is gorgeous.

    April 6, 2013
    • Quite agree about the live album. It’s a beauty, and a reminder that he’s always good in person.

      April 8, 2013
  7. Dave Heasman #

    The track that really shook me on this album was the final one – “Sunny Gone”. The tune is remarkably complete, but I thought initially that the lyrics were still a work in progress. There’s this American conflation of sincerity and clumsiness (or is that Hugh Grant?). Anyway he’s harking back to Stockholm, where he recorded his first album in 1965. And some girl he still misses. I wonder what his wife thinks about that? (And Rod Stewart’s also recorded a “It was back in 1965 and I still think about you” track. Well, we do, don’t we, but we shouldn’t really broadcast it.)

    April 9, 2013

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