Boz Scaggs is not exactly a household name—but, dammit, he should be. He’s been killing it as a white-guy soul singer since his stint in the Steve Miller Band in the late 1960s, even though his closest vocal comparison is “sexy Kermit the Frog.”
Those who know a little something know that very few albums have ever beaten Silk Degrees or Middle Man for pure funky smoothness. He notoriously took most of the 1980s off, becoming a successful nightclub owner. But he has recorded some very strong records in the last two decades; this later work, including 2008’s adventurous Speak Low, shows that Scaggs still has his foggy voice, which has lost none of its power—and a restless musical spirit.
So here we are in 2013, and Boz Scaggs travels down to Memphis to make a record informed by that city’s unparalleled soul and R&B culture. In fact, like others before him, he booked Royal Studios, where Willie Mitchell and Al Green recorded the most beautiful pop music ever made by anyone at any time in history.
So, you’re probably thinking worthy-but-snoozy nostalgia trip, right? One of those records that you give your grandfather for his birthday, maybe, but you’d never listen to on your own? Something that’s so middle-of-the-road that it might as well have yellow lines painted on it? Well, Boz Scaggs—even at age 68—has too much soul for that. In fact, Memphis is lean and tight, deeply felt but never boring.
The lead single, a cover of Willy DeVille’s “Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl”, just about jumps out of the radio… or it would if any radio station outside of AAA would touch it. The song is full of love and confusion, like all great love songs; its lean, serpentine guitar line and hushed heartbeat drums contrast beautifully with Scaggs’s testifying vocals and the gospel back-up harmonies.
(In fact, I’m just going to mention some of the musicians here, but I’ll do it parenthetically because these guys are all legends and their names matter to me but might not mean a thing to you. Ray Parker Jr. plays guitar; Spooner Oldham plays keyboards; and the rhythm section is Willie Weeks and Steve Jordan. If you don’t know them, I’m sorry for you; if you do, you’re already on your way to buy this record.)
It’s a little disconcerting to hear Boz Scaggs nail a flawless Al Green impression on “It’s So Good to Be Here”, but he does, down to the last vocal filigree and the floating strings up top and the muted horn stings. Even the song’s construction is perfect—the chorus just seems to go on, twisting and turning here and there until you’re not really sure where it’s going at any given moment.
The song choice here could not really be any better. Could any other human croon Steely Dan’s “Pearl of the Quarter” at this juncture, making it sound fresh and real instead of sappy? I submit to you that the answer is no, including Donald Fagen himself. (Note: Scaggs has been appearing with Fagen and Michael McDonald as the Dukes of September.)
“Cadillac Walk”, another Willy DeVille song, is slinky and muscular; “Dry Spell” is electric blues with some of the hardest-edged guitar tones you’ll hear this year; “You Got Me Cryin’”, a slow weeper, shows the other side of the blues.
But probably the most beautiful thing here is the cover of “Love on a Two Way Street”, the ballad recorded by the Moments and Stacy Lattislaw, among others. Everything here is perfectly calibrated for maximum sadness, capped off by Scaggs’s melancholy vocals.
All in all, Memphis is perfectly set up to be one of the signal records of 2013, and the decade, even though it could probably have been recorded at any time in the last 20 or 30 years. It just goes to show you that soul don’t age… and that Boz Scaggs is one of the smoothest bastards on Earth.