Long Overdue Boz Scaggs Re-Master Brings ‘Sweet Release’
The contrast could not be greater between the muted dark brown cover of Boz Scaggs’ eponymous 1969 debut album and the golden melodies inside. On that cover stands a rumpled young singer-songwriter partially obscuring a nondescript doorway, an image that does little to beckon a casual observer to open that door and venture in for a listen. But, oh, you should, because on December 17 an actual gold hybrid CD/SACD re-master of this album will be released by Audio Fidelity. Produced from the original master tapes, it is the best-sounding CD pressing of this album available, and you will be missing more than ever if you pass it by. *
If ever there was a recording that has cried out for re-mastering, it’s Boz Scaggs, one of the most beautiful yet criminally neglected albums of the entire Sixties era. I can not recall hearing another album that sounds like it, or that delivers its emotional impact with more surpassing grace. Whatever the reasons, it has suffered undeserved obscurity since its initial release. Scaggs has said in interviews that in its first couple of years the album apparently only sold around 20,000 copies. Fortunately, after forty-four years, history has finally begun to treat it more kindly and it now has a home on Rolling Stone’s list of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time”. So the occasion of its re-mastering is the perfect moment to reflect on and celebrate its sonic glories. And if your awareness of Scaggs’ music is based only on his later, best-selling work, you are in for quite a surprise.
Recorded in the spring of 1969, Boz Scaggs was one of the first albums produced at the now-legendary Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, which had opened that same year. The sales figures notwithstanding, both the times and the all-important musical stars were well and truly aligned for Scaggs on this effort. He could not have hoped for a more supremely talented cast of characters with whom to team his golden voice and songwriting skills: the famed Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, honeyed horns, a heavenly backup chorus, and a then-little-known session guitarist named Allman on dobro… and guitar. The result was what AllMusic.com’s Stephen Thomas Erlewine has referred to as “a kind of Americana fantasia”, alluding to its loving embrace of a broad range of musical roots and styles, including blues, country, soul, R&B and rock. Impressively, it all flows together with ease.
The year before Scaggs embarked on his mission to Muscle Shoals, he had been a member of The Steve Miller Band, which had released both its first and second albums almost back-to-back that fall: Children of the Future and Sailor. The two records featured four original Scaggs songs and one he co-wrote, almost all of which were solid, full-tilt rockers. The music was a perfect match for the times, but so was practically everything else. The 1960s were both eclectic and explosively prolific for music, and the year of Scaggs’ solo debut was nearly head-spinning.
According to Billboard magazine, the top-selling song in the US in 1969 was the addictively-bouncy “Sugar, Sugar” by The Archies, an archetypal example of bubblegum-pop style, while the top-selling album was the psychedelic heavy-metal In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida by Iron Butterfly. In 1969, Led Zeppelin released both its first and second albums, the MC5 released Kick Out the Jams, The Who released Tommy, and The Beatles released Abbey Road. Next to those rock powerhouses were pioneering Americana records such as The Gilded Palace of Sin by The Flying Burrito Brothers, Nashville Skyline by Bob Dylan, Pickin’ Up the Pieces by Poco, and The Band by its namesake. Along with self-titled debuts from Crosby, Stills and Nash and The Allman Brothers Band, other album releases that year included Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way, Elvis Presley’s From Elvis in Memphis, Joni Mitchell’s Clouds, Sly & the Family Stone’s Stand!, James Brown’s Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud, and Frank Sinatra’s My Way. A surprisingly large number of artists released more than one album in 1969, including not only the aforementioned Led Zeppelin but The Byrds, Steppenwolf and Creedence Clearwater Revival, each of which released three albums apiece, and Johnny Cash, who released at least four. Into this swirling musical cornucopia Boz Scaggs released his own debut (though technically it was not his first, which was titled Boz, was recorded and released in Sweden in 1965, contained no original songs, and promptly and resoundingly sank from view never to reappear in any form again).
As 1969 began, Scaggs was living across a San Francisco street from Rolling Stone co-founder/publisher Jann Wenner, who had helped him secure an Atlantic Records recording contract when Scaggs left The Steve Miller Band. With Wenner’s encouragement, guiding hand and co-production skills (to be teamed with Scaggs and Marlin Greene), in mid-spring the two headed to Muscle Shoals in the northwest corner of Alabama, where a number of other Atlantic artists had previously discovered a mother lode of musical talent and studio magic. Duane Allman had been working as a session-man at the Muscle Shoals studios and was called back in to join the effort (The Allman Brothers Band had only just been formed a few weeks earlier and was still months away from recording its first album).
It is almost surely the case that it was Duane Allman’s masterwork on four of the album’s nine tracks – most famously on “Loan Me a Dime” – that prevented this otherwise exceptional record from slipping even deeper into popular oblivion for the last four decades. Yes, on this album you will find some of the loveliest dobro you will ever hear, and some of the most soul-piercing guitar, thanks to Duane Allman. But to imply that this is the main reason to listen to this album would be a grievous insult to the veritable crowd of other brilliant musicians who welcomed him to the party. Boz Scaggs’ beautiful songwriting and uniquely-timbred voice at its most soulful, the playing and arrangements of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, and the masterful horn and background voice arrangements all combined with Allman’s six-string mastery to produce a result clearly superior to any of its individual parts. Furthermore, this album would have been immeasurably deficient without any one of these irreplaceable ingredients.
The horn arrangements are nothing short of superb, sometimes restrained and at others a breathtaking force of nature. But it’s the sublime female backup chorus that, to me, adds a singular luster to these songs. Far more than a mere backdrop, these transcendent voices provide a rich tapestry, enfolding the listener in warm, reassuring comfort on some songs, while on others they’re capable of inducing rapture and transporting the listener straight to the heavens.
In fact, this album is a textbook example of judicious, and exquisite, arrangement. Each player contributes exactly what is necessary to fill each allotted space with what it requires, and not a single note more. Even on songs that soar, we soar with just the right momentum to get us to heaven with not an ounce of extra baggage to weigh us down. The result with each song is, to my ears, near-perfection, and a testament to the mastery of the incomparable Muscle Shoals team in concert with Scaggs’ inimitable voice.
The nine songs on this album, including four Scaggs originals and two he co-wrote, bring us love and regret, guilt and despair, and mercifully, hope and deliverance. They are at turns languid, bluesy, jaunty and stirring. Scaggs introduces himself to the world as a weary, pained and pleading traveler who has carried his burden down a very long road just to get here to share these songs with us. We have no doubt whatsoever that he feels deeply these tales he tells, and that they are true. But despite the weight they carry, none of these songs seems to wallow much in its misery or buckle under its burdens. To the contrary they all work together marvelously to reach out and lift us up. And most fittingly, the magnificent closing track, “Sweet Release”, reminds us that even when all seems lost, the redemptive power of song may be just what we need.
The ordering of the tracks works its magic well. Even the almost anomalous opening track, “I’m Easy”, which is by far the most upbeat rocker on the album, seems designed to reassure us up-front that Scaggs is just a regular Joe looking for love, and thus puts us at ease enough to walk with him a little ways down the road ahead and listen to his tales of woe. When we finally get to the next-to-last track – the rousing Duane Allman showcase for anguished guitar, “Loan Me a Dime” – we are truly in need of the catharsis it brings. As we lie spent in its wake, we ache for redemption, and “Sweet Release” delivers it as no other song on this album could. Indeed, this now-inseparable pair of closing songs could not have ceded their space to any other tracks on this album without the entire record suffering an unbearable loss of coherence. As the last note fades, we feel both emotionally drained yet hopeful, and strengthened for the journey ahead. What more could one hope for in an album?
For the last four decades, whenever my day has run a bit too long, my burden has felt a little too heavy, my mood has been decidedly blue, I have often reached out for the tenderness, understanding and glorious relief sheltered between the covers of this album. And whenever I do, it envelopes me like warm, welcoming earth, brings tears to my cheeks, and renews my soul. I am so grateful its re-mastering has finally brought it the sonic justice it has so long deserved.
One final tantalizing thought: In an interview for British music publication ZigZag in 1973, Scaggs said that, during the original Muscle Shoals sessions, they recorded takes of two other songs that did not end up on the album, and two very long takes – one forty minutes – of “Loan Me a Dime”, one of which they used in truncated form for the final 12½–minute album track. And Kirk West, long-time tour manager for The Allman Brothers Band, who has heard tapes from the sessions, told me he recalls five or six acoustic takes of several songs that “sounded great”. I’m already convinced. It’s all worth hearing. I hope someone takes the hint.
[* The Audio Fidelity re-master is the only version on CD that features the album’s original analog master mix (differing markedly from the mix on the only other CD version, which was released by Atlantic in 1990), and it sounds beautiful. It is a 24-karat gold hybrid disc that will play on both CD and SACD players. The first 5,000 copies are numbered as a Limited Edition. All of the original album’s artwork, photos and liner notes are replicated in an enclosed booklet.]