R&B and soul have been at the heart of much
of the music Boz Scaggs has made over
his 45-year recording career. Some of his biggest hits — "Lowdown," "Lido Shuffle" and "Dinah Flo" — have been strongly influenced by those styles.
So for Scaggs to make an album called "Memphis" — the city most closely identified with soul and R&B and home to such legendary soul labels as Stax and Hi Records — would seem like destiny.
Except "Memphis," in some ways, isn't at all the album that one might expect, given its title and his musical roots.
Most notably, "Memphis" isn't really a collection of songs about the music that was born and raised in that city. You won't see covers of hits by Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave or any of the legendary artists who recorded for Stax (though Scaggs does cover "So Good To Be Here," a tune by Al Green, the biggest name on Hi Records' roster).
In fact, some songs on "Memphis" come from artists not at all identified with Memphis or its soul history, including "Pearl of the Quarter" (Steely Dan), "Cadillac Walk" (new wave pop-rocker Moon Martin) and the country/blues standard "Corrine, Corrina."
But there are other obvious reasons Scaggs named his new album for the place that birthed the blues. It was recorded in Memphis at Royal Studio, where many Hi Records acts created their most famous works. Some of the players on "Memphis," including Willie Weeks, Charles Hodges and Ray Parker Jr., are among the city's best and most storied musicians.
And yes, the album is strongly rooted in soul and R&B — and is perhaps as flavored by those styles as any album Scaggs has made in a career that dates back to 1965 and includes a run of four albums from 1974 to 1980 that went gold or platinum, including his 1976 quintuple-platinum blockbuster, "Silk Degrees."
"Memphis" was also one of the most effortless releases Scaggs has made. Working with producer Steve Jordan, it took all of three days to cut the album.
"I really love this record," Scaggs said in a phone interview. "It really came from a very natural place. I love working with Steve Jordan and these musicians. It just seemed that any song was going to work."
Scaggs has good reason to like what he hears on "Memphis." Its strong selection of cover tunes includes Willy DeVille's "Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl," which gets an easygoing R&B treatment with a bit of a roll and tumble to its rhythm; "Love on a Two-Way Street," a terrific sleek soul song that was a big hit for Sylvia and Joe in 1970; and "Cadillac Walk," which Scaggs turns into a snaky bit of grooving R&B. Topping things off are two excellent originals — "Gone Baby Gone," a smooth R&B tune that could have fit on "Silk Degrees," and the soulful piano ballad "Sunny Gone."
Scaggs went into the studio without any theme in mind. He said he just wanted to do songs he likes singing, ones he thought his fans might like to hear.
"I've been liking a lot of these R&B songs for various reasons," he said. "First of all, it's my first love. This is the kind of music that I've always listened to. This is where I draw all of my influences. This is where I live as a musician. Secondly, perhaps it has something to do with working with the Dukes of September."
The Dukes is a touring group that has fronted for Steely Dan's Donald Fagen, Michael McDonald and Scaggs. The trio did tours in 2010 and 2012, and a good number of songs in its repertoire had a distinct soul/R&B flavor to them.
"Among Mike McDonald and Donald Fagen and me, we've looked at a lot of songs, like hundreds of songs, over the last two years as we looked for repertoire for the Dukes to do," Scaggs said, "so I just had a lot of material around that I've been thinking about."