PICKIN' UP THE PIECES 19 YEARS AFTER "CUT THE CAKE," AWB IS RISING AGAIN
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.
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.
"Who knows what these labels are thinking?" Gorrie wonders. "It's hard to underestimate the intelligence of most labels, anyway. Atlantic was great until the end, and Arista was a nightmare. Polydor flat dropped the ball on Aftershock. The album did great in Holland and Germany, but they didn't print enough of them or promote as they should've. We got the old 'black treatment'--you know, less money spent in promotion."
Gorrie is especially forthright about last year's Pickin' Up the Pieces, Rhino Records' "best of" collection of AWB music.
"It's terrible--a real half-ass job--as is most of the Rhino stuff," states Gorrie. "There are too many tracks , and they did a shoddy job of mastering. We were barely consulted--it was more like, 'Hey, we're doing this and what do you think?' When we strongly suggested some changes, they said, 'Well, you know, we really don't have to consult you, anyway. . . .'"
Gorrie sighs. "You know," he says, "there's one area where the labels have got our number. They are business people who know that, in the end, musicians will play. There's no buzz like being onstage; no drug is better--same for in the studio. They know that, so the bean counters will usually win. We've got to hope that there's a label who will let us do what we do. We can't compromise. If we can keep it in the funk and find that soulfulness in the lyric, we'll be all right."
And if things don't work out?
"Hey, lad," says Gorrie, "Scots aren't known for retreating.
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