When Boz Scaggs was a boy, Memphis, Tenn., meant a few simple things: a visit to his grandmother’s house, his father’s family history, that catchy Chuck Berry tune that sometimes came on the radio.
Years later, as he honed his musical tastes, the “Lowdown” author realized just how vital the city was.
“I didn’t have any sense of it being a place I had to be,” said Scaggs, who will perform Monday at the Bryce Jordan Center. “I didn’t really place it at the time that it was anything terribly special, although during the next few years, as I came to listen to more and more of the music I loved — traditional blues and R&B — I started to see how much of it was coming through Memphis.”
Recently, Scaggs gave the city a musical valentine with “Memphis,” a roots-drenched album that came out in March on 429 Records. And he plans to delve into that effort next week as the opening act for Rod Stewart. Scaggs’ performance also will tap into cultural history: He and his band recorded the tracks at the city’s Royal Studios, which proudly advertises itself as the “Home of the Memphis Sound.”
So what is that sound, exactly? Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell, the son of former producer Willie Mitchell and the head engineer on Scaggs’ album, has something approaching a definition.
“Raw, gritty and soulful,” he said. “Heavy kick drum, lot of bass, organ sprinkled on top, seasoned with horns.”
Or maybe a list of songs that emerged from Royal Studios over the years could provide a definition: “Tired of Being Alone” by Al Green, “I Can’t Stand the Rain” by Ann Peebles, “Love Is After Me” by Charlie Rich, plus sides by Rod Stewart, Keith Richards, Ike and Tina Turner and others.
The studio, which opened in 1957, offers modern digital recording, but it also allows artists to record the old-fashioned way if they choose. For the “Memphis” album, Scaggs and his band not only used vintage tape machines but also played instruments that have been in the studio for decades.
The album begins and ends with Scaggs originals and features 10 covers in between, running the gamut from Steely Dan’s “Pearl of the Quarter” to the traditional folk ballad “Corrina, Corrina.” When it was released, it drew praise from critics — Rolling Stone labeled it “sublime,” while OurVinyl declared that “you can virtually still hear the great sessions of Al Green seeping through each track of this release.”
Scaggs, who recorded at Royal on a suggestion from drummer-producer Steve Jordan, said the studio’s vintage reputation helped energize the recording process. Even though he and his bandmates had booked more than a week of studio time, they ended up blazing through the basic tracks in just three days.
“On the one hand, you just relax because it feels so comfortable and warm, and on the other hand, there’s a feeling of ‘Wow, a lot of great things have happened on these instruments and in these walls,’ ” Scaggs said. “You’re sort of inspired to do your best.”