Scotland is probably the last place on Earth you’d expect to find music suitable for a Sunday cruise down Whittier Boulevard. It’s about as far removed from Philadelphia, Detroit, Los Angeles, Chicago, Memphis, and the other soulful cities of America as it possibly could be, and yet it is the birth place of one of soul music’s most legendary groups; The Average White Band. Okay, I know what you’re thinking, The Average White Band, really??? Doesn’t exactly sound like music you’d want to listen to, but let me tell you that these funky White boys from Scotland are anything but average. Like their American counterparts Kool & The Gang and The Ohio Players, the AWB took their Jazz-playing abilities and used them to give birth to their own unique sound, which is much more soulful R&B than it is Jazz. Taking cues from James Brown’s legendary band The JB’s, the Average White Band’s sound focused on the groove, as evidenced by one of their biggest hits, “Pick Up The Pieces,” which hit #1 on the Billboard Pop Charts, and #5 on the Billboard R&B Charts in 1974. The group also proved its range by producing soulful ballads as well. Ask any Lowrider about “A Love of Your Own,” and they will agree. The group has even made its mark in today’s music scene, having been sampled countless times by a variety of Hip Hop’s biggest stars. Everyone from Rakim, Public Enemy, Ice Cube, Too Short N.W.A., and De La Soul has borrowed from this amazingly talented group. Much like War, this group has been equally embraced by Whites, Blacks, and Latinos, and enjoyed success on a world stage. So how do a group of Scottish-born Jazz players become so successful and influential in the world of Soul and R&B?
The band’s initial beginnings stem from a like-minded enthusiasm for R&B and Soul music, as original founding member Alan Gorrie had built a workshop in Perth, Scotland for aspiring players in the genre in 1966. This “Blue Workshop,” as it was known, would become the early introduction place for Gorrie and what would become the horn section of the group; seasoned players Roger Ball and Malcolm “Molly” Duncan, also known as the “Dundee Horns.” Meanwhile, in neighboring Glasgow, Scotland, soon-to-be-AWB members Harnish Stuart and Onnie McIntyre began gigging at The Picasso Club, which had become known as the city’s premier Soul and R&B Lounge, and a place where Scots could dance to the latest American Soul records. Gorrie and McIntyre found themselves working together as “The Scots of St. James,” playing backing gigs for U.S. touring artists who could not afford to bring their own bands overseas. London would prove to be a uniting thread for all the original members in 1970. Alan Gorrie, Roger Ball, “Molly” Duncan, Onnie McIntyre, Harnish Stuart, Robbie McIntosh, and Mike Rosen begin working as a collective, forming the unofficial house band for U.K. record label Island Records. Johnny Nash’s iconic ode to optimism, “I Can See Clearly Now” features the band as backing musicians. Feeling an instant chemistry, Gorrie booked studio time in 1971 for the group to record three of their own records, and while they did not yet have a name, the band certainly had a sound. They decided to officially become a group, finding financial backing from an actor named Stanley Baker, in 1972. Members of the group perform behind Chuck Berry, and the entire group lands a booking for the Lancaster Jazz Festival later that same year. The group decided to christen themselves as “The Average White Band,” as a nod to the catch phrase “too much for the average white man,” which was used by British diplomat Rab Wyper. 1973 would prove to be the group’s official introduction to the world, as they landed a spot on Eric Clapton’s highly-anticipated comeback performance, The Rainbow Concert, where they earned rave reviews from those who saw the show; particularly from MCA records, who signed the group immediately.
Now that they had a deal, it was time for the group to begin recording, which they did with 1973’s “Show Your Hand,”, which receives favorable reviews from the critics but fails to earn commercial success. The group decides to move to the U.S. to record their follow up record, which is turned down by MCA, leaving the group in limbo. Not knowing what to do next, the group learns that Atlantic Records guru Jerry Wexler is throwing a party, and decide to crash it, feeling that if he heard the music, he would give the group a deal. They were right, and Wexler signed the group immediately, and sent legendary producer Arif Mardin to the studio to work with them. The result was the group’s 1975 breakout album, “AWB,” which achieved Gold sales of over 500,000 copies. The album contained the hit “Pick up the Pieces,” which went to #1 on the Billboard Pop chart and received a Grammy Nomination for Best R&B Instrumental Performance. The success was long awaited, but bittersweet at the same time, as the group had lost drummer Robbie McIntosh to a heroin overdose just prior to the album’s release. New drummer Steve Ferrone was brought in for the group’s next album “Cut The Cake,” an album the group dedicated to Robbie’s memory. The album’s title track earns another Grammy Nomination, this time for best Rhythm and Blues Vocal Performance, and the album hits #1 on the Billboard R&B Chart, thanks in part to standout album cuts like “Schoolboy Crush,” and “If I Ever Lose This Heaven.” The group’s first Platinum album “Soul Searching” is released, containing the hit singles “Queen of My Soul.” and “A Love of Your Own.” The group released a live album entitled “Person to Person” as a follow-up to “Soul Searching,” to showcase their live abilities to those listeners who had not yet gotten the chance to see the group in concert. The group released an album with soul legend Ben E. King entitled “Benny & Us” in 1977, and subsequently was chosen to form the core of the Altlantic All-Stars at the highly-regarded Montreaux Jazz festival. “Warmer Communications” was released in 1978, and the album featured the hit “Your Love’s a Miracle.” The group also tasted success the following year with the album “Feel No Fret,” which featured the group’s own spin on a remake of “Walk on By,” and the pimp-strut beat of “Stop the Rain,” a song that sounded as good in 1979 as it does today.
The Average White Band is still touring and releasing music today, in a career that now spans over four decades. One of the only groups to ever achieve the highest standards and accolades in Pop, Jazz, and R&B music simultaneously, the genius and impact of this legendary group cannot be overlooked or ignored. Standout songwriting, and melody and rhythm arrangements define this diverse group as much as its keen sense of groove and soul. They remain one of the most respected and accepted groups to ever hit the stage, and the individuals who have comprised this group over time have been asked to record with a who’s who of musical greats. Although the soul and substance of this iconic group cannot possibly be limited to one album, check out their greatest hits album “Pickin Up The Pieces: The Best of the Average White Band,” it’s a great place to start.