By Lauren Wise
By New Times
By Amanda Savage
By Jason P. Woodbury
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Yet AWB garnered considerable criticism--chiefly, Gorrie feels, from white music writers--for daring to emulate American soul sounds. How, harrumphed the pundits, could a group of white guys from the U.K. think it could get away with passing as black?
"Record buyers would go to get the album and be directed to the soul sections," Gorrie remembers. "If they didn't know, they were a bit surprised to see six white faces on the back cover." The accusations startled the band, whose members by and large hailed from industrial urban areas in which rhythm and blues was a most popular genre. "We were playing what we knew and what we loved," Gorrie says with a sigh. "It didn't occur to us that we'd hear things about copping black music. It seemed to us that it was the American press just trying to stir up trouble, because the people bought the album, anyway. The music doesn't lie."
While the embers of this controversy began to lose their glow as the music endured the critics' complaints, another event was to devastate AWB. It happened in the fall of 1974. Although Gorrie attempts to relate the tale dispassionately, 20 years have not fully washed the pain away.
"Everything was going great," Gorrie recounts calmly. "We'd been playing to packed houses for a week at the Troubadour [in L.A.]. On Sunday--the last night--we'd finished, and we were in the mood to celebrate. Back then there were no bars open by the time we were done playing, so we took up this fellow's invitation for an impromptu party at his house in the Hollywood hills. Someone Mickey Finned [drummer Robbie McIntosh's] drink. At the time, it was assumed that all musicians wanted to be turned on, and there were those whose job, it seemed, was to spike drinks with drugs.
"Unfortunately, Robbie got a lethal dose. The autopsy showed it was heroin cut with strychnine." Gorrie pauses, and there's a very slight tremor in his voice when he resumes. "The guy who threw the party fled the country the next day. Eventually, he got some high-powered attorneys who helped him buy his way out of any legal problems. And Robbie was dead."
McIntosh's seat behind the drum kit was assumed by Steve Ferrone, an old pal from London and a veteran musician. It proved a comfortable choice: a friend with the same taste the others had for pure R&B. It was a fine irony, too, that Ferrone was black. Changing the band's name was never considered.
Atlantic Records' business suits prescribed studio work to combat the lingering pain of McIntosh's death. The group soon released a 45-rpm record as it continued to conjure material for another album. That single was "Cut the Cake," which did more than just revive the band's spirits--it became its second great hit, as did the identically named LP that followed. While "Cut the Cake" inspired party whistles at the discos, the moody ballad "Cloudy" rose to the top of the soul charts, and black radio also gave the funky, hook-filled "School Boy Crush" prime rotation attention.
AWB's next effort, Soul Searching, confirmed the band's status as much more than a purveyor of disco danceables. That 1976 album included "Queen of My Soul," an ode to music marked by a Brazilian beat; and "A Love of Your Own," the bluesy classic since covered by the likes of Millie Jackson and Melissa Manchester. Soul Searching went platinum and proved to be the band's all-time best seller.
A collaborative disc with Ben E. King, some top-billed touring and the gold, live double album Person to Person preceded 1978's Warmer Communications and the following year's Feel No Fret, a self-produced disc that featured a reggae-wreathed version of Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "Walk On By."
Yet despite the band's great successes, Atlantic decided to let AWB go.
"Things had deteriorated for quite a while," Gorrie remembers. "They wanted us to move away from soul music. Since we were a soul band, that was asking us to be something we weren't. Arista [Records] heard about it and made a bid for us. Our lawyers urged us to sign with them."
The band's Arista debut was Shine. Guided by label president Clive Davis and produced by then-hottest-in-the-biz David Foster, Shine was especially notable for a pair of lyrical gems: Gorrie's "Let's Go Round Again" and Roger Ball's "For You, For Love." While Shine fared well in the U.K., it sank stateside. Gorrie asserts that Foster's attempt to pasteurize the band's natural sense of funk for the increasingly glossy sensibilities of disco denizens swiped the urban edge from the band's raw sounds.
"They also tried to make us something we weren't," says Gorrie. "It didn't work." In retrospect, Gorrie would've preferred to have taken the time to find a label that would allow the band its hard-earned artistic license. Still, the lawyer-label shenanigans forever woke the band up to the realities of the business.
"Atlantic kept some great demos [which the label later packaged into its 1980 AWB greatest-hits collection] and the lawyers bartered and Arista washed our music to death," Gorrie says. "In the end, everybody made money but us." After a final album for Arista, 1980's Cupid's in Fashion, Ferrone, Stuart and Duncan left AWB for other musical pursuits. With the three major originators of AWB still intact, however, the band played--and plays--on. A recent addition is multi-instrumentalist/songwriter Eliot Lewis, with whom 1989's Aftershock album was recorded for Polydor-Europe. Drummer Tyger McNeil is the newest permanent member. Now AWB is in the midst of its U.S. tour, and Gorrie couldn't be happier with the early returns. "The new guys are great," Gorrie enthuses. "Eliot and I have been collaborating, returning to the formula that began with 'The White Album [AWB].' We do about a half-dozen of the old songs--always including 'Pick Up the Pieces' and 'Cut the Cake,' of course--but the rest is new. The response has been great, and the crowds are huge. The promoters had to add a second show in Chicago. Especially gratifying was that 90 percent of the audience was black. We grew up loving and listening to black music; how can we not be proud of that?"
Although the band is headed for a showcase showdown in front of a gaggle of major-label A&R reps in L.A. soon, Gorrie is frank about past experience and future prospects therewith.