Graded on a Curve:
Boz Scaggs,
Silk Degrees

It took seven albums, but blue-eyed soul man Boz Scaggs hit pop paydirt with 1976’s Silk Degrees. If you were alive and had ears during America’s Bicentennial Year you’ll remember the Boz was every bit as hard to avoid as Fleetwood Mac.

But why would you want to avoid him? Silk Degrees is a small landmark in music making, and what’s all the more remarkable is that nobody saw it coming. Scaggs was a journeyman with a long pedigree dating back to the mid-sixties and stints with the Other Side, the Steve Miller Band, and Mother Earth, and his solo career wasn’t exactly the stuff of which legends are made—his highest charting solo LP before Silk Degrees coughed and died at #81 on the Billboard Charts, and it was a smash hit compared to the five that came before it. I doubt many industry folks were betting their Andrew Gold royalty checks on Scaggs delivering an LP that would go five times platinum.

But after much tinkering with the formula Scaggs finally got it right on Silk Degrees, which veers from Little Feat-school boogie to deep-dish soul to pseudo-disco to lithesome funk without breaking a sweat or seeming to overreach. Boz does it all on this one, and while I prefer the upbeat material to the pair of ballads, he (mostly) pulls them off as well. I don’t know what he was snorting at the two studios in Hollywood where this baby was recorded, but he somehow managed to utilize El Lay studio talent—including three of the members of benighted Toto—to produce an LP that doesn’t sound like yet another example of sterile El Lay studio product.

Even the big production on such numbers as the very pop “What Do You Want the Girl To Do” and the discofied “What Can I Say” works; the former because Boz infuses his every last word with soul, and the latter because, well, Boz infuses his every last word with soul. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that the arrangements are every bit as likeable as the melodies on both songs. If you hate pop and you hate disco you’re likely to hate both of them, but if you hate pop and you hate disco I can only worry about the state of your immortal soul.

The ballad “Harbor Lights” is every bit as moody as its title but does nothing for me; “We’re All Alone,” on the other hand, is a classic example of seventies easy listening at its best. As for “Georgia,” it would be one of the best songs ever about the state of Georgia if it weren’t in reality a song about a girl. In any case, it’s as bouncy an example of soaring popcraft as you’re likely to run across anywhere. The horn arrangements are impeccable without sounding canned, the piano playing is great, and the band works up a groove that is surprisingly deep for a pop tune. And the same goes for the dance-floor friendly “It’s Over,” which is as compelling an argument for the positive effects of the Disco Trickle Down Theory as any I’ve ever heard.

“Love Me Tomorrow” has a Caribbean lilt to it and—I mean this as a compliment—reminds me a bit of the white suit era Bee Gees. You gotta love that funky percussion! As for “Jump Street” it’s a boogie number for the ages; Boz slurs his words and gets all excited, the great Les Dudek plays some nasty slide guitar, and the piano sounds like it’s coming from a juke joint somewhere in rural Louisiana. And the false ending proves that despite what Mr. F. Scott Fitzgerald said there are second acts in American life. This one reminds me of Little Feat at their best, and Lowell George would no doubt have been proud to call it his own.

My faves are of course the hits “Lowdown” and “Lido Shuffle,” which were hits because they deserved to be hits, which is more than you can say about lots of the Numero Uno’s being produced by the ersatz-country rock mafia in the City of Angels at that time. “Lowdown” has one of the greatest bass lines ever, some of Scaggs’ slyest and warmest vocals, and a disco beat that never subsumes the song’s funkadelic groove. We would have to wait until Rickie Lee Jones’ “Chuck E’s in Love” to hear another song quite as understatedly funky as this baby. “Lido Shuffle,” on the other hand, is a hands in the air rave-up that doesn’t so much shuffle as do the boogaloo. The horns and the synthesizer aren’t just salad dressing, the backbeat is formidable, and when Scaggs sings “Lido” he means “Lido,” whatever “Lido” means. This is a down and dirty juke jointer in a tuxedo, and white soul has rarely sounded as defiantly danceable.

Silk Degrees is a great album, disco touches and all, because the Boz has soul, a dumptruck’s load of it. And when it comes to bringing the funk he just can’t help himself. Lots of folks will always prefer Scaggs’ less commercial earlier work but I’m not one of them because Silk Degrees is less a case of selling out than selling up. Reaching for the masses isn’t always fatal and Silk Degrees is the proof. I’ve spent years arguing that Randy Newman and Warren Zevon were the only two people capable of emerging from the fleshpots of LA with their dignity intact. I’m happy to introduce Boz Scaggs to what may be the world’s most exclusive club.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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