William Royce (Boz) Scaggs has been releasing records for almost a half-century. Although he started out as a bluesy sort, he reached the height of his popularity in the Seventies as a cool blue-eyed soul musician. Silk Degrees was one of the defining records of the decade, setting the template for a shiny version of L.A. pop/soul that influenced everyone from Toto (whose members played on the record) to Michael Jackson. Since his commercial heyday passed in the early ’80s, Boz has been sort of a musical vagabond, playing whatever pleases him, dipping his toe in multiple genres (sometimes on the same album.)
His latest album, Memphis, is a tribute to that city’s excellent soul tradition. Although it’s probably most associated with early rock and roll (*cough*Elvis*cough*,) the Tennessee town is home to great blues musicians, soul legends like Al Green, and even modern pop-soul starts like Justin Timberlake. No, Boz doesn’t cover “Cry Me a River” on his latest album, but he certainly pays tribute to the classic soul and blues that the city is most well known for.
While Memphis is not completely a covers album, most of the tracks are remakes. Of the songs I’m previously familiar with (like “Rainy Night in Georgia” and “Love On a Two Way Street,” Boz doesn’t seem to deviate much from the original versions. He just adds his idiosyncratic vocal style to the well-worn arrangements. The result is pleasant if not groundbreaking. It’s funny to me how, even after all these years, Boz’s voice has so much character to it without straining. His singing is the epitome of cool-it’s like his voice is perennially sipping on a glass of bourbon and smoking a Gitane.
It might just be my personal preference, but he fares best with songs like the self-penned “Gone Baby Gone” and “So Good to Be Here,” both of which have that Al Green flavor (the latter turns out to be a cover of a song co-written by the Reverend himself.) Boz is definitely going for authenticity here-he recorded the album at Hi Records Studios in Memphis (the same place Al and Willie Mitchell cut their classics) and his studio band for this album contains vets steeped in soul, including bassist Willie Weeks and guitarist Ray Parker Jr. Other highlights include a take on Steely Dan’s “Pearl of the Quarter” (which switches focus from Memphis to New Orleans) and “Cadillac Walk,” a bluesy number which allows for some shit-hot guitar theatrics.
I wouldn’t call Memphis a must-have, but your music collection certainly wouldn’t suffer for the addition of it. Although I’m opposed to covers albums at a general rule, Boz imbues each of these songs with a cool professionalism while still sounding passionate about the music he’s playing. Not bad when you’re 5 decades in, huh?