As long as Boz Scaggs goes on making records, I imagine I’ll keep buying them. Although his new one, A Fool to Care, has its pleasant moments, it isn’t up there with the very best of his work. And, unusually for Boz, it also contains a serious misstep, one that’s worth noting because of its nature.
It’s a cover version, and when Scaggs chooses to cover a song, you can tell it’s because he loved the original. He never moves far from the way it first fell on his ears. And a man who can deliver a decent cover of something as extraordinary as Mable John’s “Your Real Good Thing (Is About to End)”, as he did on Come on Home in 1997, is not to be disrespected. With one song on the new album, however, he overreached himself before he even got started.
The Spinners’ “Love Don’t Love Nobody” was one of the finest soul records of the 1970s, and still sounds to me like one of the greatest deep-soul ballads of all time. It was written by Charles Simmons and Joseph Jefferson, whose credits appeared on many Philadephia records of the era; the arrangement and production came from the extremely great Thom Bell, who moulded the hits of the Delfonics and the Stylistics as well those of the Spinners. It also has a lead vocal that shows what was lost to the art of soul singing when Philippé Wynne died in 1984 at the age of 43, after suffering a heart attack on stage in Oakland, Calfornia.
Wynne could decorate a song with wonderfully inventive ornamentation which, by contrast with the work of the narcissists of today’s so-called R&B, never called undue attention to itself but was always in the service of the song, the arrangement, and the production. In that respect he was the peer of Ronald Isley and Teddy Pendergrass. And he was at his exalted best on “Love Don’t Love Nobody”: seven minutes and 13 seconds of soul heaven.
The record begins with Bell’s piano, discreetly shadowed by a bass guitar and vibes, quietly commanding attention. There’s gospel in the cadences, but also a grave delicacy in Bell’s keyboard voicings and a pensive elegance in his touch. It’s the sound of introspection, even the sound of sadness itself, setting Wynne up for his entrance with that heart-rending opening verse: “Sometimes a girl will come and go / You reach for love, but life won’t let you know / That in the end you’ll still be loving her / But then she’s gone, you’re all alone…”
As the track builds, Wynne adds his characteristic inventions to the song but firmly resists the temptation to overdo it. He’s listening to Bell’s arrangement, so spare, so subtly sophisticated as it adds strings and backing voices, and he’s making himself a part of it, even when he jams over the long fade.
One other thing. I was doing some remixing at Sigma Sound in 1974 when I fell into conversation with an engineer, and asked him about Thom Bell. When I told him how much I admired “Love Don’t Love Nobody”, he said that he’d worked on that session a year or so earlier. He told me that the rhythm track had been done in a single take, and that Bell had finished it in tears. That knowledge doesn’t make me listen to it in a different way, but perhaps it does help to explain the very deep connection that it can make.
Boz Scaggs does a decent job on a song of which he is obviously very fond. But I can’t help wondering if, had he known about Thom Bell’s tears, he’d still have decided to take it on.