From a whisper to a scream

The many influences of Boz Scaggs

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Boz Scaggs
Chris Phelps

Boz Scaggs calls the trio of albums he’s released beginning with 2013’s Memphis a trilogy. These releases — Memphis, 2015’s A Fool To Care and his new album, Out of the Blues — find him covering songs by artists that impacted him as he was growing up near Dallas, absorbing blues, soul, New Orleans music and early rock ’n’ roll, while beginning his own music career.

Scaggs, though, says his trilogy is not the typical tribute-to-his-influences album. Yes, he has recorded songs by artists that inspired him — such as Bobby “Blue” Bland, Jimmy Reed, Curtis Mayfield and Al Green. But he didn’t include a number of artists that he would consider essential if he made an album devoted to his influences.

“There are way too many influences, and important ones, that I would include in a tribute-style production,” Scaggs says in a recent phone interview. “To me, I’m thinking Ray Charles would have to be in there. But I can’t sing, I’ve never been able to take a Ray Charles song into my own realm. And there are a number of people, Smokey Robinson, there are any number of players that I would include in that compilation.”

In fact, if there’s one quality that unites the three albums of impeccably chosen covers (supplemented by several originals from Scaggs’ songwriting collaborator and friend, Jack Walroth), Scaggs says, it’s his voice, which has long been considered a strong point in his artistry. Yet Scaggs says only in recent years has he started to feel like he’s coming into his own as a vocalist.

So while Scaggs drew his share of accolades for his supple and soulful tone on hit songs like “Look What You’ve Done To Me,” “Lowdown” and “Breakdown Dead Ahead,” which propelled him to major stardom during the late 1970s and early ’80s, he doesn’t rave about his vocal work, especially during those early years of his career.

“Let me put it like this. This is very frank and honest about this,” Scaggs explains. “I hear other singers, let’s just talk about singers, who were fully formed at an early point in their musical careers, shall we say. You hear a young Van Morrison or you hear (John) Lennon or (Paul) McCartney. You hear a style that was developed when these cats were 17, 18, 19 years old. And still, it was whole and it was a defined style. I listen to my early stuff and I can hear that I had certain inflections and certain ideas of a style and a certain voice to do it, but I don’t really necessarily like what I hear when I listen back to that at all. I had the idea, but I couldn’t do it.”

Scaggs feels he started to turn the corner as a vocalist when he began testing the waters in the early 2000s on recording some music from the Great American Songbook with pianist/arranger Paul Nagel.

“He played piano and I sang, and we went through songs just for hours,” Scaggs says. “Over a period of several years, I put together enough material that I did some shows with him and we did a record (2003’s But Beautiful). It was the most challenging thing, that record of standards, it was the most challenging thing that I’ve ever put myself to.

“I’m just more aware of what I want to do and what I’m able to do, and I can do that now in a way that I couldn’t have done at any other time in my life,” he says. “So I’m getting someplace with my voice that really satisfies me.”

Scaggs’ singing has indeed been a highlight on his acclaimed current trilogy of albums. On “Out of the Blues,” his singing stands out from the opening notes of the Walroth original “Rock And Stick,” where Scaggs stretches certain words, letting his voice flutter up to a falsetto and flow back down to a soft fade before accenting other lines with considerable assertiveness. That sort of range, control and command is evident on other songs, such as Bland’s smoky ballad “I’ve Just Got To Forget You,” the crisply swinging Jimmy Reed tune “Down In Virginia,” and the gritty and rocking Texas shuffle of the Scaggs/Walroth co-write “Little Miss Night and Day.”

The breadth of the music Scaggs can now perform is reflected in his concerts, in which he and his versatile band can tailor his set lists to suit the venue he’s playing.

“We might be doing a symphony one night, with which I actually do some standards,” Scaggs says. “Then we might be doing a casino, where they want 60 minutes of burning hits. We might be doing a comfortable performing arts center, where we get to stretch out and do some acoustic things and some more complex music. So it’s a complicated repertoire. It requires the musicians to go from jazz to rockabilly to New Orleans, from a whisper to a scream. So they’re really fine musicians, and they have to be very, very professional.”

On the Bill: Boz Scaggs. 7:30 p.m Saturday, Sept. 1, Chautauqua Auditorium, 900 Baseline Road, Boulder, chautauqua.com. Tickets are $50-$65 ($47-$62 for concert members).