wax Poetics
Average White Band. Photo by Keith Bernstein/Redferns via Getty Images.

Blue Collar Soul

Average White Band left working-class, soul-friendly Scotland to pursue R&B domination in rock-crazed London. But after their debut album failed to catch on, their label flew them to the States to record a follow-up, and then passed on it. Enter soul-music maestro Jerry Wexler, who heard them and signed them on the spot to Atlantic Records. After the disastrous accidental death of their drummer and lifeblood, the band nearly broke up, but based on the smash hit of the appropriately titled “Pick Up the Pieces,” the Average White Band continued on their path to success, keeping their collective dream alive.

published online
Originally published in Issue 56, 2013
By Allen Thayer

Average White Band, July 1973. (left to right) Onnie McIntyre, Robbie McIntosh, Hamish Stuart, Malcolm Duncan, Alan Gorrie, and (partly obscured) Roger Ball. Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images.
Average White Band, July 1973. (left to right) Onnie McIntyre, Robbie McIntosh, Hamish Stuart, Malcolm Duncan, Alan Gorrie, and (partly obscured) Roger Ball. Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images.

Ro-ràdh

“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) 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 coke.(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.

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 still 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.

Original lineup. (left to right) Robbie McIntosh, Malcolm Duncan, Roger Ball, Hamish Stuart, Onnie McIntyre, and Alan Gorrie.
Original lineup. (left to right) Robbie McIntosh, Malcolm Duncan, Roger Ball, Hamish Stuart, Onnie McIntyre, and Alan Gorrie.

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.(3) 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, referring to the workshop he cofounded in 1966 while at art school. Roger Ball (sax/arrangements) and Malcolm “Molly” Duncan (sax) were regulars, and Robbie made a memorable cameo one time, only fifteen years old. 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.”(4)

In 1971, Alan booked time at Denmark Street Studios with Onnie, Robbie, Roger, Molly, and Mike Rosen (trumpet). Hamish Stuart (guitar/bass) was not yet in the band. “The musical policy had been decided at those first sessions,” Alan said. “It was R&B, black music, which is what everybody liked.”(5) Their first formal gig was part of a festival lineup. The only problem was they didn’t have a name. “Monty Python,” Onnie begins to explain, “there was a lot of that kind of humor back then. We’d been using the phrase, average white man, for a while, 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 mentioned in an interview in 1973: “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.”(6)

Photo by Ian Dickson/Redferns via Getty Images.
Photo by Ian Dickson/Redferns via Getty Images.

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; and as a bonus they got his fantastic falsetto. (“Hell, I couldn’t believe it. I’d never heard white people sing like that. That guy’s got a black throat,” said Bobby Womack years later.)(7) “I had an unshakable belief that it would work, from day one,” Alan said, “with Hamish’s arrival, it was complete—and unbeatable!”(8) 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. “We just kinda brought back 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.”(9) 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 the newly solo (professionally and personally) Bonnie Bramlett (formerly of Delaney & Bonnie) who was looking for an affordable, funky band to back her on her debut solo album. Bonnie flew the boys out to Los Angeles for about six weeks in the summer of 1972. It was a dream come true for these five Scots to be making music all day 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.”(10)

N/A
N/A

Above Average Debut Album

Back in the U.K. after their stateside field trip, the band got booked to play Eric Clapton’s Rainbow Concert in January 1973, a seemingly indulgent engagement encouraging then-recovering heroin addict Clapton back into the public spotlight. Regardless the cause, Average White Band played an early and energetic set, catching the ear of an MCA representative, who signed them to a record deal. A deal’s better than no deal, to be sure, but MCA and most any U.K. label at the time had no idea how to promote or, more importantly, record the group. With their combined studio-session experience, they set out to self-produce their first album, Show Your Hand. “We’d come back from gigs and go straight into the studio still warm, and set up and do another track that night, and go home at four or five in the morning,” Onnie remembers.

Average White Band, 1974. (left to right) guitarist Onnie McIntyre, drummer Robbie McIntosh, singer and guitarist Hamish Stuart, saxophonist Malcolm Duncan, saxophonist Roger Ball, and bassist Alan Gorrie. Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images.
Average White Band, 1974. (left to right) guitarist Onnie McIntyre, drummer Robbie McIntosh, singer and guitarist Hamish Stuart, saxophonist Malcolm Duncan, saxophonist Roger Ball, and bassist Alan Gorrie. Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images.

“We were so much against the grain in London at that time, and, of course, the parent of that company over here in the States was a country label, MCA/Universal,” Alan says. Despite the album’s failure to catch fire, MCA arranged to send the Scots to the U.S. to record a follow-up album. “We then took [our demo] to the executives at MCA in Los Angeles, and they turned the record down—‘We don’t like the sound of this; we don’t know what to do with this,’ ” Alan says, paraphrasing the label execs. “The writing on the ‘White Album’ [officially known as AWB] is so far ahead of the Show Your Hand album. For once, every song on the record was bulletproof, but MCA didn’t get it. But that was great because it gave us the chance to bring it around to Jerry Wexler’s party one night in Los Angeles,” Alan explains. 

“I heard them for the first time at my friend Alan Pariser’s Laurel Canyon enclave of hi-fi equipment and high-octane fun,” Atlantic honcho and soul-music legend Jerry Wexler picked up the story in his autobiography. “I walked in and couldn’t believe what I was seeing and hearing… Their funk hit me where I lived, their tape was great, and I wanted to sign them on the spot.”(11) Alan continues the story from the following morning: “We went back up to that house the next morning, still hung over, and [Jerry] signed us literally on the spot. He said, ‘This is what I’m gonna do: I’m gonna send the tapes back to New York; I’m going to send this to Arif Mardin.’”

Hamish Stuart. Vocals & Guitar.
Hamish Stuart. Vocals & Guitar.
Onnie McIntyre. Guitar.
Onnie McIntyre. Guitar.
Alan Gorrie. Vocals & Bass.
Alan Gorrie. Vocals & Bass.
Stephen Ferrone. Drums & Percussion.
Stephen Ferrone. Drums & Percussion.
Roger Ball. Keyboard, Synthesizer, Alto & Baritone Saxophones.
Roger Ball. Keyboard, Synthesizer, Alto & Baritone Saxophones.
Malcolm (Molly) Duncan. Tenor Saxophone & Flute.
Malcolm (Molly) Duncan. Tenor Saxophone & Flute.

Putting the Pieces Together

In a matter of days, AWB went from major-label orphans to the newest member of the first family of soul, working the same recording studios as their idols (Aretha Franklin, Donny Hathaway, the Rascals, and Ben E. King) and matched with pioneering producers (Jerry Wexler, Arif Mardin, and Ahmet Ertegun) and peerless engineers in Tommy Dowd and, mostly, Gene Paul (Les’s son). “We were over the top when we got with Atlantic and worked with Arif Mardin; it was a dream,” said Alan. “We’d been looking for a producer, but we never expected someone like that. We’d tried to get Atlantic from the first.”(12) Jerry sent the boys to Atlantic’s Criteria Studios in Miami, where Arif was producing some Aretha Franklin tracks.

The boys were dumbstruck. Onnie explains the view as they watched these legends wrap up their session: “Our heroes and Aretha over there at the grand piano and all around: [Bernard] Purdie, Jerry Jemmott, Chuck Rainey, Hugh McCracken. So, we’re completely blown away. Alan takes out his camera, but he can’t take a picture because he’s shaking so much, and Arif comes over with a twinkle in his eye and says, ‘Next.’ ” Alan remembers, “Chuck Rainey’s stool was still warm when I sat down.” The plan was to record a couple new songs and then rerecord the majority of the songs from the MCA tapes. Of all the songs from the aborted MCA record, “Pick Up the Pieces” is the one that benefited most from the do-over. The album, AWB, better known as the “White Album,” elicited responses such as this one from Bud Scoppa of Rolling Stone: “If it wasn’t apparent from its first album (on MCA), it is from the second: Scotland’s Average White Band is one of the best self-contained soul units in existence.”(13)


Picking Up the Pieces

As Onnie describes, “we didn’t have any money, we’d lost our drummer, and the record had just come out. What do you do?” This question is made rhetorically with regards to the band’s state of mind the morning after Robbie’s accidental O.D. “We were in a mess. The only thing we could do was get back on the road to start earning money again.” Alan explained that “immediately everybody felt that if we break up now it would be a waste of McIntosh’s life and all his work—to just get this far and then buckle under just because that happened.”(14) AWB held auditions for a new drummer, but nothing clicked until Steve Ferrone, the English/West African friend of Robbie’s who had replaced Robbie in Brian Auger’s group, came through—not to audition, just for moral support, as he had only recently joined the harmony-soul group Bloodstone. The Scots immediately picked up on the chemistry as soon as Steve sat behind the drum kit. “It was an absolutely automatic choice,” Alan said. “He was the only guy that could do the gig. He’s the only guy as good as Robbie, only different in his own way.”(15)

It took some strong-arming from Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun, but Steve eventually joined AWB permanently as of January 1, 1975, just as the band’s Atlantic album demonstrated serious upward mobility on the charts on the strength of their breakout single, “Pick Up the Pieces.” The song entered the singles chart on the last week of November 1974 and by February it topped the heap. The album followed the single to number one, also in February of 1975. “It was a wise decision to release ‘Pick Up the Pieces’ [as a single],” said Alan reflectively, in 1975. “You’ve got to have a single if you’re a fairly new act and it makes all the difference to the album sales. We were glad that Atlantic wanted that track because it’s funky and it’s discotheque music and we know we play discotheque music.”(16)

Atlantic Records promo photo via Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.
Atlantic Records promo photo via Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.
Wax poetics

Onnie recalls this iconic hit’s moment of creation: “We couldn’t wait to get back to London to play it. We knew it was gonna go down well with the audience. It was an automatic dance record. We wanted to play it live; we never heard it as a record.” Arif commented about the band’s near-instant success with Atlantic: “Deep down inside I knew they were good. It was the same feeling I had with the Rascals. But, I was surprised that an instrumental was a hit.”(17)

Arif wasn’t the only person who was surprised by this unusual single. Fred Wesley, James Brown’s bandleader at the time, comments via email, “I remember when it came out, and I remember us thinking that it kinda had that James Brown sound. [James] was always jealous when somebody did something that sounded like him. He always reacted to that.” The “Minister of New New Super Heavy Funk” had good reason to be jealous. These foreign (and mostly White) funkateers rode their own version of Mr. Brown–styled funk to the top of the pop charts, something the Godfather never managed to do. With Fred’s help, James released an interesting and obscure single under the name A.A.B.B. or Above Average Black Band called “Pick Up the Pieces One by One” that is rumored to be James Brown’s retaliation for AWB allegedly ripping off the obscure J.B.’s instrumental “Hot Pants Road.” Sure, the song has more than passing resemblance to any number of James Brown jams, but then again, most funk groups in the early ’70s were biting James Brown’s style. Onnie doesn’t hesitate to confirm the prime influence for their big hit: “‘Pass the Peas’—I mean, ‘Pick Up the Pieces’ really came from that actually, that alliteration.”

‘Pick Up the Pieces‘ really came from ‘Pass the Peas‘ actually, from that alliteration.

Scots Got Soul

The question I’ve yet to answer, and pondered by everyone from James Brown to Jerry Wexler or anyone who’s seen Swingers or felt a soulful groove sampled in a favorite song: how in the hell could these five White Scots (apologies for the omission, Steve) be so damn funky? Evidently, being Scottish has a lot to do with it. “The slums of Dundee aren’t pretty places to be,” Alan has said. “They produce tough people who demand tough music. The same is true of the American ghettoes.”(18) Onnie adds that “Scotland is very much a working-class country: they don’t have royalty like England; we treat everyone the same.” When asked if Scottish music and culture influenced the band, Onnie explains that “Robbie was a pipe-band drummer, Alan’s dad played in a Scottish dance band, my mother played Scottish dance music, and Hamish’s parents were singers in a Scottish [vocal] group.” In a rare, early interview, Robbie commented, “People up there relate very easily to soul music, and as far as I’m concerned that’s the only direction I ever want to follow.”(19) Robbie’s quote is triumphantly, yet sadly, prophetic, as that’s exactly what he did during his final months, managing against all odds to achieve his wildest dreams. “We’re not out to be superstars,” he said, “just to be a good, working band. In fact, the biggest compliment you could pay us is to say that our sound is in the same bag as James Brown or the Temptations.”(20) 

Notes
1. Clarke, Steve, “The Average White Band: Up From the Ghetto,” Creem (reprinted courtesy of New Musical Express), June 1975. 
2. Ibid.
3. “Average White Band,” Beat Instrumental, August 1973.
4. Rounce, Tony, excerpted from page 12 of liner notes for Show Your Hand + How Sweet Can You Get + Average White Band Reissue, Edsel EDSD 2030, 2009.
5. Charlesworth, Chris, “Average White Band,” Melody Maker, March 8, 1975.
6. “Average White Band,” Beat Instrumental, August 1973.
7. Charone, Barbara, “The Spirit Is High as the Average White Band Go Out to Haunt the Strip,” Sounds, May 1975.
8. Rounce, Tony, excerpted from page 12 of liner notes for Show Your Hand + How Sweet Can You Get + Average White Band Reissue, Edsel EDSD 2030, 2009.
9. Hansen, Chris, “Hamish Stuart’s Highland Soul,” WholeNote Online Guitar website, undated. 
10. Rounce, Tony, excerpted from page 12 of liner notes for Show Your Hand + How Sweet Can You Get + Average White Band Reissue, Edsel EDSD 2030, 2009.
11. Jerry Wexler and David Ritz, Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in American Music, (New York: Knopf, 1993) pp. 280-81.
12. Charlesworth, Chris, “Average White Band,” Melody Maker, March 8, 1975.
13. Scoppa, Bud, Album review of Average White Band: Average White Band, Rolling Stone, October 10, 1974.
14. Clarke, Steve, “The Average White Band: Up from the Ghetto,” Creem (reprinted courtesy of New Musical Express), June 1975
15. Ibid.
16. Charlesworth, Chris, “Average White Band,” Melody Maker, March 8, 1975.
17. Charone, Barbara, “The Spirit Is High as the Average White Band Go Out to Haunt the Strip,” Sounds, May 1975.
18. “Average White Band,” Beat Instrumental, August 1973.
19. Ibid.
20. Ibid.
21. Mandel, Howard, “Average White Band: Vanilla Soul,” Down Beat, April 8, 1976.

Drag left & right to navigate channels
  • Documenting the music trailblazers, cultures and stories that shape the sounds of yesterday, today, and beyond.

    DiscoverDiscover
  • Joining the dots.
    Groups of articles that bring stories to life.

    DiscoverDiscover
  • Explore classic, rare, or forgotten records.
    Digging on your desktop.

    DiscoverDiscover
  • All of our mixes, playlists, and podcasts in one place.

    DiscoverDiscover
    powered by
  • Documenting the music trailblazers, cultures and stories that shape the sounds of yesterday, today, and beyond.

    DiscoverDiscover