Working-class Scots Average White Band found R&B magic stateside with soul-music maestro Jerry Wexler
Blue Collar Soul
by Allen Thayer
“Robbie was the master drinker,” Average White Band lead vocalist/guitarist/bassist Alan Gorrie said about his bandmate, drummer and default bandleader Robbie McIntosh. “He could hold more liquor than any human being I’ve ever met.”1 But these hard-drinking and steady-funking Scots were no druggies; however, when Robbie and Alan were Cher’s guests at a Hollywood after-party thrown by millionaire Kenneth Moss, they did what the Angelenos did: they snorted what was so abundantly and generously offered. “Somebody gave him a nasty. It was as simple and stupid as that,” Alan explained about Robbie taking, evidently, heroin presented as cocaine.2 After feeling sick, Robbie, aided by his wife, returned to the Howard Johnson’s in North Hollywood to recover. A short time later, his bandmates found him dead in his room. It was September 23, 1974. Hamish Stuart (guitar/bass, lead vocals) explained: “What killed him was a heart attack, induced by the fatigue of an amazing week playing long sets, partying, and drinking, and ultimately, ‘The Other.’ I feel that ‘found dead of a heroin OD’ sounds so kind of, ‘here he is, lying in a corner with a needle out of his arm,’ when it wasn’t really that way at all.”3
Originally published in abbreviated form as “Blue Collar Soul” in Wax Poetics Issue 56.
Incredibly, five months later, their self-titled Atlantic album and its breakout (and uncharacteristically instrumental) single, “Pick Up the Pieces,” would top the pop charts. Confounding conventional racial stereotypes, resulting in transmissions of cognitive dissonance across the radio waves, these five White Scots became the blue-eyed—scratch that—green-eyed soul group for the blue-collar American soul scene, most of whom were Black. However, their ascension to ’70s soul staples was a couple years off when Robbie, the taskmaster and musical force behind the band, died of an accidental drug overdose. What’s more impressive is that AWB built on that momentum with their new drummer, Steve Ferrone, anchoring a drum-tight, jazz-inflected brand of soul and funk for fourteen charting R&B singles, nine Hot 100 singles, five U.S. top-thirty albums, multiple gold and platinum album sales, and three Grammy nominations. Average: certainly not; White: mostly; Band: most definitely.
North of Northern Soul
In 1972, six hungry and hustling musicians from Scotland came together in London to form Average White Band. Onnie McIntyre (rhythm guitar, backing vocals) puts it plainly: “We tried different things and it didn’t work, so let’s do what we want to do with guys that speak the same language and like to drink the same pints.” Growing up in Dundee and Glasgow, Scotland, the future members of Average White Band were disappointed to find that when they arrived in London (independently) in the late ’60s, soul music was not nearly as popular as it was back home. “If London was about the blues, Scotland was about soul,” said Robbie in an early interview.4 Onnie explains, “You gotta remember, ’67, Cream had [already] started, Hendrix had arrived in ’66 in London around the same time that we had, and everyone was trying to be the next guitar god. It was all about guitar players.”
“AWB was a personal dream I had had since my days at the Blue Workshop in Perth,” Alan said. In this sleepy, Scottish college town, there were not many opportunities for musicians to collaborate outside of paying gigs, which were fairly mainstream, so Alan started the “Blue Workshop” in 1966 as a place where local musicians with a taste for blues, jazz, and soul could get together and jam. “Jazz was not particularly popular [in Scotland], but it had an enthusiastic following,” workshop regular and future AWB band member Roger Ball (sax, horn arrangements, keyboards) recalled. “Like somebody would get the new album by Wayne Shorter and we’d get together and hear it.”5 Malcolm “Molly” Duncan (sax), the other half of AWB’s “Dundee Horns,” recalled his influences: “That’s what we would attempt to play in Scotland in the early days, steaming quintets and sextets.”6 Alan remembers an impossibly young Robbie McIntosh dropping in for a memorable session behind the drum kit. He was still in high school at the time. Meanwhile, about sixty miles away in Glasgow, you could find Onnie and Hamish gigging, dancing, or just hanging out at the Picasso Club, the underground spot for soul music fans. The club received packages directly from Memphis, Detroit, and New York via U.S. servicemen stationed nearby packed with the latest soul singles.
Hamish recalled witnessing the Stax/Volt Revue in Glasgow during that legendary European tour: “I saw the Stax Revue in 1967. It was amazing. Otis [Redding], Sam and Dave, [Steve] Cropper and Booker T. It was the whole package. It was absolutely amazing. All of that stuff became really important to me.”7 The various future members of the band were swirling around in a dynamic intersection of young Scots passionate about these imported, Black music styles: blues, jazz, and soul. “The Scottish rhythm and blues scene at that time was very vibrant and very, very dedicated,” Gorrie explained, “because within it you had all three aspects: the guitar guys were into the blues, the singers amongst us obviously were into soul music, and the horn players were all into be-bop/R&B-jazz of the Cannonball Adderley kind.”8 “The record that blew everyone’s mind was James Brown Live at the Apollo,”9 Onnie added.
According to Alan, AWB was a natural extension of the workshop, “where jazz and R&B met seamlessly. It was simply a matter of time and availability of the right personalities—a case of serendipity once everyone involved was finally in London—and, of course, the fact that it would always require the ‘lynchpin’ of Robbie McIntosh before my dream could become a reality.”10 Soon after his startling cameo at Alan’s workshop, Robbie made a name for himself drumming for a top-shelf Scottish soul band, the Senate, that backed touring acts like Ben E. King, Solomon Burke, Big Maybelle, and he’s even captured on wax backing Garnet Mimms on a rare, live album recorded on tour in Europe. “[Robbie] blew everybody away when the Senate played in Glasgow… From that time I’d wanted to work with Robbie, and he was the reason I eventually joined AWB,” Hamish recalled.11 “By the time AWB formed he was all of eighteen, having spent two years with Brian Auger [on the first three Oblivion Express albums 1970–’72], which had taken him into a much deeper jazz and fusion territory,” Onnie says. “At the time we started the band, Robbie had the most experience in the shortest time of all of us. In two years, he’d learned what took us five years. He’d had a major crash course, but he was so ready. Robbie brought with him a wealth of experience, which steered the band’s direction, and his influence here cannot be overemphasized.”
Alan knew who he wanted on his team, but everyone was never available at the same time. While Robbie was riding high playing a hybrid of jazz, funk, rock, and soul with Brian Auger’s Oblivion Express, Onnie and Alan were two-thirds of Forever More, making what Alan jokingly described as “speculative landscape music.” Hamish was with the Dream Police; and Roger, Molly, and Mike Rosen (trumpet) were getting regular session work in London, gaining a name for themselves as “the Dundee Horns.” Everything converged at Island Records, where sometimes together and sometimes independently, everyone did session work, eventually earning the nickname “the Team,” playing on everything from Johnny Nash’s I Can See Clearly album to Herbie Mann’s London Underground sessions.
In 1971, Alan booked time at Denmark Studios with Onnie, Robbie, Roger, Molly, and Mike Rosen (Hamish was not part of the band yet). They recorded three original songs. “The musical policy had been decided at those first sessions,” Alan said. “It was R&B, black music, which is what everybody liked.”12 They were collectively so pleased with the results and the effortless musical and social cohesion within the group that they resolved to start a band. “We thought those sessions might produce a single, but when we’d finished we realized it was so good that we ought to form a band of our own. It was a question of waiting, though, until everyone was free and that took a long time,” Alan said.13 They found a manager in Robin Turner via Robert Stigwood, Eric Clapton’s manager, who in turn pulled in the soon-to-be-knighted actor Stanley Baker to finance the project.
“Chris Blackwell at Island [Records] had used the Dundee Horns on a session and was so impressed with them he asked if they had a band together,” band manager Robin Turner said. “They gave him the tape of those early recordings and brought them into Island. But Island seemed more interested in getting them as a house band to do sessions, since they’d been doing this for some time.”14 That might have been a perfectly reasonable and exciting prospect for these players, but following the demo session, it was clear to all involved that they needed to give this band a fighting chance. Their first formal gig came buried in a festival lineup, the festival being produced by Stanley Baker’s company. The only problem is they didn’t have a name.
“Monty Python,” Onnie begins to explain, “there was a lot of that kind of humor back then.” Monty Python, for those readers raised under rocks, was a British surrealist comedy show from the 1970s. “We’d been using the phrase ‘average white man’ for awhile,” Onnie says, “as this friend of ours from the British Foreign Service had just come back from Kampala, or someplace, and would say, ‘It’s too hot for the average white man.’” Alan explained in an interview: “The name of the band started out as an ‘in’ saying among us, you know, we’d be listening to a track and say ‘not bad for an average white band.’ I guess it just stuck from there. It wasn’t appropriate to the music we were playing, which made it all the more pungent as a name.”15
Soon after the first gig, Alan let Mike Rosen go and tapped Hamish to join on guitar/bass and, most importantly, to complement his own lead vocals, as they were lacking harmony vocals, a key ingredient to some of their favorite groups like the Spinners and the Temptations. As a bonus, they got Hamish’s fantastic falsetto, earning the following comment from soul music journeyman Bobby Womack: “Hell, I couldn’t believe it. I’d never heard white people sing like that. That guy’s got a black throat.” 16 Alan’s master plan was shaping up better than even he could have expected and “with Hamish’s arrival, it was complete—and unbeatable!” Alan said. “I had an unshakable belief that it would work, from day one.”17 The band quickly stood out among the other groups gigging around London with their tight, soulful sound, and “club promoters liked us because people would dance and go to the bar, so that helped us.” Without a popular soul community to tap into, the Average White Band created their own scene. “People came to see us that were desperate for something fresh and dynamic and vibrant as opposed to stoned and hippy-ish,” Alan says today. “We were flying in the face of all that, because we didn’t really like that stuff so we formed our own clique right away. We became the meeting place for the nouveau soul-heads in London. We figured we’d just make our own scene, and almost as soon as the band started, that’s what happened,” Alan explains. “We just kinda brought soul music to London, which hadn’t been into soul music.”
Alan may have brought all the band members together, but when they were playing, Robbie, the youngest by a few years yet with the most professional experience, was firmly in charge. “Robbie had an arranger’s mind. He really pulled the whole thing together. And it was quite a shock at first ’cause I’d never had anyone say, ‘No, don’t play there. Don’t play with the other guitar,’” Hamish recalled in an online interview. “That’s when I really started to grow up and really consider the relationships between the two guitars, the drums, bass, keyboards, horns and all the rest of it. It was a big starting over for me. The learning curve was pretty steep at that point in time.”18 When asked who got the band whipped into J.B.’s-level tightness, Onnie doesn’t hesitate to credit Robbie: “He had the experience and he would throw his sticks at you if you didn’t [play right]. And we learned a lot of lessons from Robbie that still apply.”
An American friend of the AWB’s then manager Robin Turner, Bruce McCaskill—who was Eric Clapton’s tour manager and who would become the band’s future manager—recorded an early rehearsal and played it for Bonnie Bramlett, the recently solo (professionally and personally) blue-eyed soul singer, formerly with Delaney & Bonnie. She was on the lookout for an affordable, funky band to back her on her debut solo album. Bonnie flew the boys out to Los Angeles for six weeks in the summer of 1972. It was a dream come true for these five Scots to be making music all day long and hanging out with some of their musical idols. “Freddie Stone [from Sly and the Family Stone] came down,” Onnie remembers. “We met Joe Sample from the Crusaders. Bobby Womack played guitar on one of the album tracks. We got to play with these people, and it really opened our eyes to a lot of music. We went out to L.A. and came back with armloads of albums. We started playing some of the material we picked up in Los Angeles in our sets…” Onnie has stated that both “Work to Do” and “Put It Where You Want It” “made their way into the AWB repertoire during this time.”19 They also met the songwriter (and sometimes performer) Leon Ware, whom they befriended and collaborated with on the song “This World Has Music,” during the sessions for Bonnie and later recorded for their debut album.
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