Boz Scaggs took it as a good omen, a kind of papal seal, when one of his childhood heroes, Bobby “Blue” Bland, showed up at his recording session last winter at Memphis’ Royal Studios.
“Bobby came by and spent an afternoon with us, and it galvanized the whole experience,” recalls Scaggs of the R&B legend’s visit. “I feel like his presence blessed the project.”
Last month, Scaggs released the document of those sessions, appropriately titled Memphis. Cut at Royal Studios — the home base of the late Willie Mitchell and Hi Records — it marks Scaggs’ first new album in five years, and one of the most satisfying of his five-decade career.
The 12-song collection finds the 68-year-old pop hit maker putting his own spin on American roots music through a grab-bag collection of songs spanning nearly half a century. “I grew up in area and an era where my passion primarily was stuff that came out of New Orleans and Memphis and the Delta and Texas. I was heavily influenced by it and continue to look for
inspiration in that kind of music,” says the Dallas-reared singer, who brings his Memphis tour Tuesday night to Downtown’s Orpheum.
Scaggs and drummer/producer Steve Jordan (Keith Richards, John Mayer) each came up with the idea to decamp to Memphis and record at Royal independently. “When we talked about it, we were both thrilled that we’d landed on the same page. Steve has worked at Royal before, as have I. Willie Mitchell did some horn charts for me, and we recorded with the (Hi) rhythm section some years ago. So the studio was a known quantity to both of us. Really, it was the only place we considered.”
Jordan soon rounded up a group of notable session players who included a core band featuring bassist Willie Weeks, guitarist Ray Parker Jr., and keyboardist Spooner Oldham. Mitchell’s grandson, Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell, helped engineer, the Memphis Horns performed, Stax vet Lester Snell handled string arrangements, while other guests (Keb’ Mo, Charlie Musselwhite, Funk Brother Jack Ashford) chipped in.
Scaggs, Jordan and the other players quickly hit the ground running. “The sound is just there at Royal. You get the musicians you feel are going to respond to that idiom and put them in that space, and it’s just magic,” Scaggs says. “You go into the control room and start pushing up the faders and turning the knobs, and it’s there instantly. You could spend a week tweaking and changing things, but it’s not gonna get better than what’s already there.”
Though it’s not a concept record, there’s an invisible thread that runs through the material on Memphis. Consisting mostly of covers, the songs cut across eras and genres, but all feature something that Scaggs connected with personally or musically. “I collect material that I might like to sing,” he says. “I’ve literally gone through hundreds of songs, and these were very carefully considered. For this album, I was looking for things I felt I could give my own expression to.”
On Memphis, Scaggs finds new expression in R&B records from his childhood, like Jimmy Reed’s “You Got Me Cryin’ and Bo Carter’s “Corrina Corrina.” He ventures into ’70s blues-funk with the Meters’ “Dry Spell,” pulls off the bedroom soul of Al Green’s “So Good to Be Here,” and makes punk romantic Willy DeVille’s “Mixed Up Shook Up Girl” and jazz-pop outfit Steely Dan’s “Pearl of the Quarter” work perfectly alongside each other. “Once we got into the room and laid down a couple tracks, we felt like we could do any kind of song we wanted,” he says.
Scaggs also penned a pair of originals that bookend the album: the Hi Records-influenced “Gone Baby Gone” and the farewell ballad “Sunny Gone.” Having toured more in the past five years than at any other point in his career, he admits that writing has “never come easy to me. I’m not a writer who constantly has a notebook, scribbling songs,” he says. “There’s no point in writing anything that doesn’t mean a lot to me at this point. But there’s still some things I want to say, and I was able to do that here.”
Mostly, Memphis provides a showcase for Scaggs as a vocalist. His easy, unencumbered style has been refined over the years, but on this album Scaggs explores different approaches. “One thing that happens over a long career is you start developing your own style, and it becomes somewhat distinctive,” he says. Once that’s established, you start learning to use your voice in different contexts.”
Following a pair of jazz standards albums — 2003’s But Beautiful and 2008’s Speak Low — Scaggs seems to have become a more nuanced singer. “With standards, the expression is much more critical than perhaps it might be in a blues vein or an R&B vein. You have to use your voice more as an instrument in the band, and you find you have to develop a broader range, and more expression in every range,” he says. “That was the most challenging thing, developing that part of my (singing). In that way, I feel more confident. I’ve learned more as a vocalist, from a pure technical standpoint, and that was important to this record.”
Scaggs plans on touring in support of the new LP for much of the rest of the year, and he remains particularly proud of Memphis, which has generated some of the best notices of his long career. “This one was really special to make, and it couldn’t have been done anywhere else,” he says. “Working with so many fine and wonderful folks that make up what the spirit of Memphis is about to me it’s the kind of experience you always hope to have when you make a record.”
7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Orpheum, 203 S. Main. Tickets: $39.50-$59.50. On sale at the box office, all Ticketmaster outlets, ticketmaster.com or 800-745-3000.