#496: Boz Scaggs, "Boz Scaggs" (1969)

In 1969, a white boy can make a soul record with an entirely white rhythm section and include nonsensical jabberings like this in the gatefold:

Later at the stand of pigs Luke feasts on a knuckle Elrod plays patty cake with a mint julep and a chuckle he grins Elrod as the day is long I can wait say Luke with a long swill Now that will do and we’ll have two more of the same Helen Keller was born here and she made sense smile you may be on radar and on and on to seven days and seven nights a yesful orgy

Practically Beefheart anarchy poetry. And butting up against the words (signed only with an “OOOXXX”): a nude Duane Allman shot from below, grinning in the middle of the woods and cupping his shadowy nethers. His hat a dark halo around his dirty hair. It’s 1969: the baby-young editor of Rolling Stone is producing your record and no matter how hopelessly square you look, you can still put soul on wax with a bunch of white musicians and slap a picture of yourself on the cover.

There is no expectation here; no one will look at you in your polyester and bad greasy haircut and feel the curious, exciting tingle of “funk” skitter like a dark animal across their mind. Will you get down? Will you make the right sounds, and make them filthy? It doesn’t matter, not quite.

All the better, then, when on the opening track Rog Hawkins comes in kicking, overlaying conga on high hat, keeping time better than a wristwatch. Funkier, too. Against all odds. One verse through and the bass slides into the mix: jackrabbit-hoppy, and playful. Lady background crooners, Jimmy Johnson’s licks poking in and out, and yes, Duane’s, too, like neighbors stopping in to say hello.

It shouldn’t work. Should it? It shouldn’t. That outfit, that sepia, that name: Boz. Seems like there could be a dozen wrong ways to pronounce it. Maybe it’s all part of the gag, the long game white boys are playing in 1969, taking what isn’t theirs, but could be. See how easy. See what soul after all.

But that’s only the first three minutes. It’s no surprise that kind of groove is hard to hold on to. You get bluesier, rootsier, more Opry than Apollo, more Hank than Sam and Dave. Mostly, you make people want to put on Mr. Dynamite, which is never a negative. You’d rather do the very same, is the irony. How’s a wooden if well-meaning white man supposed to make waves? It’s 1969. There are ways. And you still think you can find them, break through, all that.

For starters, toss the organ-driven waltz numbers out the window. There’s where your voice drips, utterly passionless, supremely on the beat in the absolute worst way. Sadie Hawkins slow-dance cover band nonsense. The wah-wah on Jimmy’s tepid downstrokes don’t help, either. And while you’re at it, take out, too, the carousel kiddie stuff, the sappy honky ballads. Come on, man. Pick it up. Make it funky. Don’t read the words—feel them.

Because later history might rediscover this record and frame it in a whole new context. Like maybe someone’s going to break through before you do. Maybe it’s the man who refuses to play any way but nude during studio time. Maybe you think of him fondly now, maybe you don’t. Surely you recognize his talent. His soul and his guitar seemingly cement-melded even when noodling, his fingers moving so quickly through the clouds of rank smoke around him they leave vapor trails.

Maybe decades from now you’ll be nearly 70 and they’ll stick this record, your eponymous sophomore effort, on the tail-end of a list, mentioning your white rhythm section and the stoned naked guitarist you hired instead of mentioning you, your talent, your drive. Maybe, your insecurities inflamed, your life reverse-magnified through the wrong end of a telescope, you’ll suspect you only made the list because of that kid producer. Of what his little music zine became. Of the job your son landed as a columnist in its pages. Maybe you’ll wonder. 

But most likely it won’t make a lick of difference. Your moments will have come and gone, tour buses and synthesizers and sharp sunglasses and suits. Your shell so hardened all the little things will ping off without you even noticing. Or at least the appearance of. What is success? Have I been? Could I have been? Maybe these questions will linger. Or maybe you don’t even read that rag. Maybe you’ll put another down payment on another stretch of rich Napa soil. But this all comes later. Or doesn’t.

For now, keep doing what you’re doing. Try for funky, land somewhere just off-center. Sing about love lost and gained again—classic stuff, relatable—then scribble aimless jabber for the sleeve. It’s 1969. You’ll get it wrong a hundred times before you ever get it right. And if you never do—if you find yourself forever wandering down brown streets in brown suits, groping for all the soul you know you’ll never have—don’t worry. Stick it out; time will tell. If all goes right, it always does.

—Brad Efford