Silk Degrees

Boz Scaggs

Columbia, 1975

http://www.bozscaggs.com/

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 08/26/2020

From the perspective of a consumer, choice is good, because you can get exactly what you want when you want it. From the perspective of a human being, though, infinite choice is both stressful—all those decisions to make all the time—and isolating. The more every experience is customized to appeal to your specific desires, the fewer people you will share that experience with. And shared experiences are essential precursors to empathy and community, two of the critical elements that hold society together.

But you probably wanted to talk about Boz Scaggs. Alrighty then.

To this day Scaggs is considered a local guy in the San Francisco Bay Area, having migrated to SF in 1967 to play guitar in his old friend Steve Miller’s band. And yet, despite my own San Francisco roots, at the time this album came out in 1976, I didn’t know Boz Scaggs from Bebe Rebozo. (That’s a musical-political joke right there, son, don’t look at me like someone stuck a bar of soap in your coffee.) Moreover, this album’s style—smooth, sophisticated blue-eyed soul music with just enough punch and grit to keep it from sliding right past my ears, wasn’t one I was predisposed to dig; not even close.

But thanks to radio—terrestrial radio, with human DJs playing the songs they wanted to play, albeit mostly from a list handed to them by their program director—in 1976-77 Silk Degrees was simply inescapable. Four singles that cracked the top 50 (#3, #11, #38, and #42), a No. 2 album that spent 115 weeks on the charts, and he’s a hometown guy to boot? It’s no exaggeration to say that you simply couldn’t turn on an FM rock station in the Bay Area in 1976-77 without hearing “Lowdown” or “Lido Shuffle”; Silk Degrees was an experience I shared with an entire cohort of peers.

In his early days on the Bay Area music scene, Scaggs managed to place a couple of songs on the Steve Miller Band’s initial pair of psychedelic blues albums, but the sideman role clearly wasn’t destined to hold him for long. After a year and two albums, he struck out on his own, recruiting the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and Duane Allman to play on his rhythm-and-blues-fueled 1969 debut solo album. It and subsequent solo efforts were rangy affairs that dipped into country, soul, folk, and pure blues with the sort of variable approach that would subsequently evolve into the big-tent genre of Americana. Another writer described the Scaggs album prior to my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Silk Degrees, 1974’s Slow Dancer, as “straddling the apparently fine line between Van Morrison and Isaac Hayes,” and I couldn’t argue.

The first thing Scaggs did right with Silk Degrees was to assemble an airtight studio band: guitarists Fred Tackett (Little Feat, Bonnie Raitt) and Louie Shelton (Jackson 5, Seals & Crofts), a horn section featuring the renowned Jim Horn and Tom Scott, and the 21-year-old trio of David Paich (keys), David Hungate (bass) and Jeff Porcaro (drums), fresh off gigging with the exacting Steely Dan, a section so tight they decided during the Silk Degrees sessions to form their own band (Toto). Paich had a particularly strong influence on the album’s musical direction, working with Scaggs to develop his “starts”—songwriting ideas—into full-blown compositions and arrangements and earning co-composer credits on half the album’s 10 tracks. Another major influence was producer Joe Wissert, fresh off helming Earth Wind & Fire’s 1974 breakout album Open Our Eyes. Together this team captured lightning in a bottle and crafted an album of tight, propulsive blue-eyed soul that changed everything for Scaggs.

The music they assembled is smooth yet sharp, sophisticated yet gritty, cool yet heartfelt, and melodic as anything. Up front, opening full-band numbers like the ebullient “What Can I Say” and the lyrical, Van Morrison-esque “Georgia” have an infectious momentum and drive, with the rambunctious vamp “Jump Street” adding Les Dudek on slide guitar as the cherry on top. The first half eases to a close with a horn-heavy rendition of Scaggs favorite Allen Toussaint’s “What Do You Want The Girls To Do” and smoky-smooth ballad “Harbor Lights.”

The second half opens up the throttle as the section sets fingers snapping and toes tapping to the supple, irresistible “Lowdown,” the song that would end up rocketing the album up the charts after a DJ on a Cleveland soul station started spinning it and it flared into a regional, than national hit, quickly crossing over onto the Top 40 chart before cresting at #3. Here and throughout, there’s a thread of irrepressible joy in these grooves; even the album’s big breakup number “It’s Over” has so much drive it feels like half regret and half celebration. Following that one-two punch, the Paich composition “Love Me Tomorrow” adds reggae to Scaggs’ arsenal before the band achieves exit velocity with “Lido Shuffle,” an effervescent r&b number whose soaring chorus Paich decorates with a memorable mini-Moog filigree.

The album closes strong with billowing, lushly orchestrated piano ballad “We’re All Alone,” a number that might have ended up hopelessly twee if not for Scaggs’ passionate, inimitably smoky vocal. (Note: The 2007 CD reissue of this album includes a trio of bonus tracks—crisp live recordings of powerhouse performances of “What Can I Say,” “Jump Street” and “It’s Over” from Scaggs’ 1976 summer tour—that are well worth seeking out.)

Silk Degrees is a superb album and the consensus high point of Boz Scaggs’ long, storied, and diverse career. Just as importantly for me, it was ever-present during an epochal period in my life. It wasn’t the style of music I would spend most of my high school years listening to, but 44 years later Silk Degrees’ melodies and choruses and instrumental breaks remain firmly embedded in memory, part of a set of shared experiences that helped make me who I am today. Thanks, Boz.

Rating: A-

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