In 1968, a 24-year-old guitar player stepped away from a promising career as part of the Steve Miller Band and traveled to Sheffield, Alabama, to make a landmark recording.
Jann Wenner, founder of Rolling Stone magazine, served as the producer. Having lived next door to the young musician, Wenner had passed along some demo tapes to Atlantic Records, who signed him to a record deal. At Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, he recruited the legendary Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section to play on the record. Wenner convinced a young guitar player named Duane Allman to add guitar to the album, which would be released the following year as simply the name of the artist: “Boz Scaggs.”
It set the tempo, Scaggs told The Daily Times recently, for everything that would follow. No matter how far outside of that rootsy wheelhouse he ventured, the blueprint for everything he loves was established in those fabled sessions.
“That Muscle Shoals bunch of sessions defined to some degree what I was going to do for a long time,” said Scaggs, who performs Thursday, Sept. 5, at The Tennessee Theatre in downtown Knoxville. “When you’re in the room with those guys, you feel like you can go anywhere you want to go. They’re so versatile; they can pick up on any style and any kind of mood. You feel you can move easily, and it was later on in my career, after I’d had a band for several years and started working with studio musicians again, that I sort of came back to that realization.
“It gives me more freedom for my voice and the material I’m working with when you’re using players with that versatility. That’s sort of been a hallmark for the way I work now and probably always will.”
On his most recent album, 2018’s “Out of the Blues,” he went back to that formula, although ever the master, he wasn’t sure what he was going to emerge with when he first went to the studio. All he knew for certain, he said, is that he wanted to make the final album in a blues-oriented trilogy that began with 2013’s “Memphis” and continued with 2015’s “A Fool to Care.”
“I don’t complete anything until I get to the studio, and I don’t know what the whole program is going to be,” he said. “Through the musicians I choose, I know what kind of feel I’m looking for and what kind of soundscape I’m working in, and for (“Out of the Blues”), it was rich in the guitar section. I had a couple of guys from Texas, Doyle Bramhall and Charlie Sexton, and in that respect, it was a little bit like the Muscle Shoals sessions.
“Then, there were guitar players just hanging around the studio who happened to be specialists in one way or another, Duane Allman and three other mainline guitar players just standing by. With those sessions last year, I had guys like Charlie and Doyle and Ray Parker Jr., and I knew where I was going to go to some degree, but it was still exciting. There were some surprises along the way, and in that way, it was very reminiscent of that Muscle Shoals record.”
Not that “Boz Scaggs” is the end-all, be-all of his career. Born in Ohio, he cut his teeth on early rock ‘n’ roll, the blues and R&B and started playing in area bands while going to school in Dallas. As a younger man, he traveled abroad, eventually settling in Sweden, where he made his first record, “Boz.” Back in the States, he joined the Steve Miller Band for two records, “Children of the Future” and “Sailor,” before making “Boz Scaggs” and hitting the 1970s full-speed ahead.
Records like “Moments” and “Slow Dancer” built on that momentum, but it was 1976’s “Silk Degrees” that made him a bonafide star. It peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard albums chart, stayed on the charts for 115 weeks and produced three Top 40 singles, including the uptempo “Lido Shuffle” and the Grammy-winning “Lowdown.” After another couple of records, he took almost a decade off in the 1980s before returning to music, maintaining a solo career that covered the spectrum of popular music (the album “Speak Low” even topped the Billboard jazz charts).
Although he turned 75 a couple of months ago, he has no interest in slowing down, he added. He always has a record of standards waiting in the wings, and when he comes off the road in November, he’ll look ahead to his next full-length. It may be more ballad friendly, he added, and it’ll certainly feature more of his own songwriting, but after it’s done, he’ll get back out on the road to promote it.
“I really love playing live, and I really love being on the road,” he said. “There’s a time, of course, when your system gets a little worn out, both physically and mentally, and you just go into a zone that can become exhausted — but that’s not necessarily because of the travel. I travel comfortably. It’s just the excitement of shows that kind of wears on your adrenal system.
“It’s still really exciting for me, and it takes a toll sometimes. You have to have a pretty good reserve in order to make it fun, to turn each other as musicians on. But as long as I have a voice, and as long as people want to hear me do what I do, I think I’m going to be out there. There will come a time, I think, for anybody who works in the arts, when you can’t do it anymore, or you don’t want to, but I’m not getting that signal right now. I’m enjoying myself right now, and I need to get out and play, because that’s where I get my kicks.”