The story of Memphis is one of five years and of three days. Five years was the length of the breather Boz Scaggs took from the studio after his previous album. Three days is the amount of time he spent recording Memphis. The two extremes are illustrative of the extremes of Scaggs’ career.
His previous album, Speak Low, found Scaggs in his “elegant” mode, offering jazzy, mostly lesser-known selections from Duke Ellington and Hoagy Carmichael, in polished arrangements. Although a stylistic departure, the album had the uptown feel of his sophisticated R&B-flavored work, including his platinum album, Silk Degrees. The other side of Scaggs has produced his earlier, more rough-and-tumble fare, like his self-titled 1969 album, recorded in Muscle Shoals, and the 1971 triumph, Moments, cut with The Who’s producer, Glyn Johns.
Memphis represents the best of both extremes, a set of 13 well-chosen soul tracks (including two originals), backed by legends of the music city that lends the album its title. Recorded at Royal Studio, site of Al Green’s greatest sessions, producer/drummer Steve Jordan captures an early ’70s vintage sound from a crew of classic hands, including Spooner Oldham on electric piano, Ray Parker Jr. on guitars, Willie Weeks on bass, the Memphis Horns, and string arranger, Lester Snell. The result is one of Boz Scaggs’ most satisfying collections of his solo career.
Many of the covers here are such obvious fits for Scaggs’ style, it’s surprising he hadn’t already recorded them some time in his history. “Rainy Night In Georgia” (penned by Tony Joe White, popularized by Brook Benton in 1970) is thoroughly inhabited by Boz, a performance drenched in weariness and resignation, in a beautifully subdued arrangement. The slow groove “Love On A Two Way Street,” taken to #1 in 1970 by The Moments, likewise, feels lived in by Scaggs, who reaches deep for one of the most affecting vocals on the album.
Given the setting, and Scaggs’ still-limber voice, an Al Green cover was an inevitability. “So Good To Be Here,” originally a 1976 album track, manages the Rev. Green’s understated optimism without feeling derivative. Jordan’s drumming, excellent throughout, is especially tasteful and effective here. The simmering “Can I Change My Mind,” a 1968 hit for Tyrone Davis, is a virtual blueprint for the era’s Memphis sound, ably revived by this band, featuring the rich Hammond work of Charles Hodges. In a rare misstep, the track is nearly derailed by an ill-suited spoken bit, but manages to recover.
Scaggs has recently toured with a veritable super group, Dukes of September, that includes Donald Fagen, making the presence of a Steely Dan song less unusual than it might otherwise have been, and this arrangement of “Pearl of the Quarter” finds a Southern soul only suggested by the typically icy original. Jimmy Reed’s “You Got Me Cryin’” shows Scaggs still in touch with his blues side, on a smoky, slow-cookin’ jam that lets the band show off their serious blues skills.
The two most unexpected and noteworthy covers come from the same source, Cabretta, the 1976 debut album by Mink DeVille. Boz has spoken of that band’s singer (and primary songwriter), the late Willy DeVille, as “one of the greatest voices … in all of rock.” The lead Memphis single, “Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl,” overlays the Drifters-at-CBGB feel of DeVille’s original with Delta funk. “Cadillac Walk” was written by Moon Martin, but was forever DeVille’s once he put his distinctive vocal sneer on it. Both tracks retain the swagger of the originals, while bearing Scaggs’ own stamp with his wry, knowing delivery. The pair of tracks add variety to the album, while paying tribute to one of Scaggs’ most worthy contemporaries. (In another cool act of class, Boz credits Buddy Miller for “the guitar part on ‘Cadillac Walk.’”)
Fans of Scaggs’ biggest hits may experience mild symptoms of withdrawal; the synth squiggles of “Lido Shuffle” are (wisely) swapped for horns, strings, and the mighty Hammond B-3. The advice to those who embraced his high-gloss mega-smash hits is to hear this master stylist in this more naturalistic setting. Every aspect of the album’s creation—from the soul-drenched studio to the honest-to-goodness fingers-on-strings musicianship—brings out the richness of Scaggs’ voice and interpretive abilities.
Memphis is an unexpected return to early form for Boz Scaggs. Here’s hoping for much more of the same from him, and without another five-year wait.