Music News & Reviews

'Silk' is but one texture of Boz Scaggs' career

Boz Scaggs has had a vast and varied career, but is best known for his seventh album, the mid-'70s classic Silk Degrees.
Boz Scaggs has had a vast and varied career, but is best known for his seventh album, the mid-'70s classic Silk Degrees. John Davisson/Invision/AP

It would be one thing if the only album Boz Scaggs ever cut was Silk Degrees. Then you could almost understand how a record that spoke to the disco legions of the mid 1970s while retaining an unwavering pop-soul presence on radio could be considered a career-defining work.

But those versed in the complete Book of Boz know the multi-platinum album was but one chapter in a career that has now passed the half-century mark. Mind you, Silk Degrees was a whale of a chapter. The fourth of eight albums the guitarist, vocalist and songsmith cut during the 1970s for Columbia Records, it spawned four hit singles led by the Grammy winning anthem of cool Lowdown. Released 11 years after a little known folk blues debut album that never even saw release outside of Europe, Silk Degrees made Scaggs a staple of pop radio alongside Peter Frampton, Bob Seger and Boston during the summer of 1976.

But delve deeper into the Book of Boz and you discover his role as a founding member of the Steve Miller Band. He would stay with the then-heavily psychedelic troupe for its two first two albums, Children of the Future and Sailor (and, in turn, two of Miller's earliest hits, Living in the U.S.A. and Space Cowboy).

Skip ahead a page or two and you learn of a North American solo debut via a self-titled 1969 album for Atlantic. The recording took Scaggs from the hippie havens of San Francisco to the heart of the South and the famed Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. A gifted guitarist with fondness for blues and soul, Scaggs yielded the record's most arresting instrumental sparks to a young guitar stylist by the name of Duane Allman. The extended solo he took on the Fenton Robinson blues nugget Loan Me a Dime is widely considered some of Allman's finest recorded work.

The Columbia years take up most of the following chapters. His first three albums for the label were full of keenly produced pop-soul and led to the more pop- savvy Slow Dancer in 1974. The latter finally earned Scaggs serious radio time, but it offered little hint of what would come when the singer and a pack of eager studio musicians (which later become Toto) began work on Silk Degrees in 1975. The album was released the following spring and, one-by-one, the hits came: It's Over, Lowdown, What Can I Say and Lido Shuffle.

The underappreciated follow-up album, Down Two Then Left, surfaced in the fall of 1977, but radio didn't bite. Still, Scaggs' star status remained intact with a massive tour that brought him to Rupp Arena for a headlining performance in December.

Any commercial momentum lost by Down Two Then Left's comparatively sluggish sales was recouped in 1980 with the release of the Middle Man album, a sleek hit from the Urban Cowboy soundtrack (Look What You've Done to Me) and the singles collection Hits.

Then Scaggs vanished. He withdrew from the pop arena, abandoned the road and didn't release another record until 1988's Other Roads. A year later he was coaxed back on tour as part of the New York Rock and Soul Revue, whose ranks included Donald Fagen, one half of Steely Dan, and Michael McDonald. The three continue to tour sporadically as the pop-soul troika The Dukes of September.

All of those roads lead to Memphis, a 2013 album devoted to epic soul fare penned by Al Green, Willie DeVille, Tony Joe White and Scaggs himself. The music is sunny and relaxed while the singing sounds positively youthful for an artist who turned 70 this year.

But the latest addition to the Book of Boz knows how to sell itself, too. A sticker smacked right on the shrink wrap proudly informs prospective consumers the record is "new from the hitmaker of Silk Degrees."

That's the power of pop suggestion for you. Scaggs has travelled stylistic oceans since that record was first issued 38 years ago. But as far as commercial intent is concerned, the difference between then and now is just a matter of degrees.