By Jeff Moses
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There's not much one can say anymore to raise the hackles of Average White Band members, including co-founder and leader Alan Gorrie. Since the band was founded, in 1972, it's suffered a heaping helping of caustic criticisms, a long series of major-label woes and one profound tragedy. It's been more than enough to fell an ordinary music combo--but not, as it turns out, your Average White Band.
Ask Gorrie, however, where his band of blue-eyed soulsters has been hiding since the end of the Carter administration, and the Scotsman's voice begins to rumble and his rs roll in warning.
"The foreign press doesn't think we've been away at all," Gorrie says sternly. "We've a large and faithful following in England and Europe, and the music magazines there still cover us closely."
Now in the U.S. for a fresh go-round with a slightly revamped lineup, Gorrie and company hope to recapture the allegiances of the American audiences who danced and did the "Bump" in the wee Seventies to such AWB classics as "Pick Up the Pieces" and "Cut the Cake." But, warns Gorrie, AWB's is no garden-party oldies show.
"This is not a revival," the lead singer and bassist says during a telephone conversation from Minneapolis, where AWB was booked at the Princess Club. "Yet that's not to say we won't revisit some previous territory."
Those with a pair of dust-covered platform shoes nestled in the nether reaches of their closets will recall that old, gold ground with fondness.
Gorrie was running a compact little jazz club in his home country in the late Sixties--a Glasgow hot spot that was frequented by Britain's prime-time players--when the longtime urge to form an R&B ensemble peaked. While white American kids were still streaming West to sniff posies and prance about the intersection of Haight and Ashbury, Gorrie and lads were listening to the Spinners, the O'Jays and the assorted sweet sounds of Motown; Gorrie particularly followed the work of famed Hit City USA house bassist James Jamerson. By 1972, Gorrie and good-pal-from-home Malcolm Duncan--a tenor saxophonist--were roommates in London. At the time, Gorrie was attending an art school; he and classmate Roger Ball spent off-hours playing tunes by John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley in area jazz bands. Eventually deciding that their real art was music, Gorrie, who at the time was a keyboardist, and Ball, an alto-baritone sax man, enlisted Duncan and guitarist Onnie McIntyre to form an R&B group. All had been in bands, and all had a shared love of the Motown-Stax sounds drifting over from America. Their drummer, Robbie McIntosh, was already an experienced touring pro for soul stars from the U.S., including Ben E. King and Garnet Mimms. Another original member was trumpeter Steve Rosen.
A few shows into their experiment, however, Rosen was gone, replaced by another Glaswegian, Hamish Stuart. This seemingly minor adjustment actually fomented major and everlasting alterations in AWB. Rosen's departure (He wasn't hearing what we were," Gorrie says simply) left the band with a horn section consisting of two saxes, while Stuart added another guitar, plus tenor and falsetto vocals to complement Gorrie's own fine, floating tenor. The net result was an immediate meshing of unique sound and texture and nearly instant local success.
"It was as if we'd done this for many years instead of just a few months," Gorrie recalls. "We all had been in bands before, but none of us had experienced such magic." So swift was the transformation from fledgling group into a tight, popular unit that, in 1973, the members found themselves in the much-sought-after slot as opener for the post-Cream Eric Clapton during his resounding comeback concerts at London's Rainbow Theatre. A deal with MCA and AWB's debut, Show Your Hand, followed that same year. While that album didn't make it big in the colonies, it garnered the group a fervent following in the U.K. Successful stateside gigs at L.A.'s Whiskey A-Go-Go, however, convinced the band that it was getting the groove right.
But MCA didn't think so. The label had already made major inroads into the country-music kingdom it now rules, and it wasn't enamored of AWB's follow-up, hard-core soul sounds. It unceremoniously dumped the band, stranding AWB in L.A. with just a few pounds and a fistful of rejected, second-album demos.
"Yes, we were angry at their shortsightedness," Gorrie says. "But we Scots don't hide behind our kilts and whine. We move forward."
Their move was to crash a party at which legendary Atlantic Records A&R chieftain Jerry Wexler was in attendance. Wexler listened to the rough cuts and quickly signed the nervy Scotsmen. He sent them to record at the label's studios in New York and at Criteria Studios in North Miami, Florida. It was at this time, too, that Average White Band officially shortened its moniker to AWB and that the band's famous logo--a woman's bare bum forming the W in the newly abbreviated name--was created.
Its first product for Atlantic proved to be gilded in gold: AWB yielded the classic funk instrumental "Pick Up the Pieces," which soared to the top spot on the pop charts and, to the band's great pleasure, to No. 5 on the soul charts. It was nominated for a Grammy Award, as well--losing the Best R&B Instrumental kudos to "TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)" by MFSB. Other tracks from what became known as "The White Album" among AWB aficionados--especially the dueling tenor voices of "You Got It" and the lovesick blues of "Person to Person"--gave the band an album-oriented reputation.