Average White Band cofounder Onnie McIntyre on the making of the album Soul Searching
By the middle of the 1970s, Average White Band had paved their own road to success among a crowded field of talented funk and R&B ensembles.
By the middle of the 1970s, Average White Band had paved their own road to success among a crowded field of talented funk and R&B ensembles. After putting out the classic platinum and gold-selling albums AWB (1974) and Cut the Cake (1975), they found commercial success once again with the release of Soul Searching in 1976. The eleven-song LP found the group evolving their sound by collaborating with new voices and sounds. As one of the few majority White groups to capture the richness and essence of soul music, they cemented their rightful place among their contemporaries.
The sextet was led by the soul-stirring vocals of Hamish Stuart and Alan Gorrie and the infectious, melodic grooves of Onnie McIntyre, Roger Ball, Malcolm Duncan, and Stephen Ferrone. The album would achieve gold-selling status and provide songs that continue to live on today as fan favorites as well as sampling material used by hip-hop royalty. I recently spoke with cofounding member Onnie McIntyre about recording Soul Searching.
Soul Searching is one of the classic albums from this period in music history. Leading into this particular album, what was the band’s focus to expand on the success from your previous albums?
Well, we wanted to introduce some new guests, and it seemed like a good album to do so. This was our third album for Atlantic Records. We already did AWB and Cut the Cake, so I thought it might be a nice idea if we could take some of the songs and ideas we had and make them have a beginning, middle, end, and an introduction. So this is where “Overture” came from on track one, side one. I just listened to side one the other day, and I’m looking at the album now. It is really great looking at the old photographs from back then. It brings back great memories. You’re always thinking about what songs you have and how you’re going to pace the record and what songs go where. Arif [Mardin] thought it would be nice to have a theme running through the album. This is where the idea came from for the album.
Did the band want to experiment more with this album or keep the same successful formula from the previous two albums?
We wanted to expand on it a little bit. We had a bigger horn section. And if you listen to “Overture,” you’ll hear some nice arrangements on there. Having nice arrangements on the records were part of the concept for this album. The strings and synth parts also had nice arrangements. We used synthesizers, and those were the early days of using synths. We brought in a guy named Ken Bichel to play on a couple of tracks, and a guy named Carlos Martin to play congas. We were fans of the Rascals growing up, and we had Dave and Eddie Brigati come in to sing on “Queen of My Soul.” They sang a big break-down chorus at the end of “Queen of My Soul.” It was really a lot of fun. Jim Mullen, a Scottish guitar player, was a friend of ours who happened to be in town, and he played on a couple of tracks. It was nice to add a little bit of flavor and bring in some old influences from old pals. It really depended on what the tracks needed at the time. We wanted to bring some diversity, and I think it worked. I think the album sold very well. It went gold right away.
Hamish Stuart teamed up with Ned Doheny to make “A Love of Your Own.” This song was a demo that I played on in L.A. We basically revised that and gave it the AWB stamp. When we got to New York, we couldn’t make the song sound right. So I went back to the original parts that I played on the demo and made it simpler. Our approach has always been minimalistic. We want to get to the heart and soul of the song and the listener. A perfect example of this would be “School Boy Crush,” which unfortunately wasn’t on this album, but it gives you an idea. It has humor in it, some basic parts, but manages to stay interesting, and that’s a difficult thing to do in music. First of all, it has to be a good song to keep you interested in the lyrical content. The lyrical content has to mean something, and hopefully it catches your attention. But the music has to compliment what the lyrics are saying as well. Our original drummer Robbie [McIntosh] had a thing that if you find the right part, stick to it; and the more you play that part, there is almost a hypnotic effect. If you drop out of that part, then the energy is lost within the track. With that in mind, we’ve always tried to approach our music like that, and I think Soul Searching has that all over it, but it was great using other influences as well. Roger [Ball] did the arranging on it. It was good to have Michael and Randy Brecker, Ronnie Cuber, and Barry Rogers playing on our album. If it doesn’t work, it can sound like a jumbled mess, but it sounds great if you can do it.
What was it like working with the legendary Arif Mardin during the recording process?
Arif was such a musical mind. He could see things very clearly. You have to have someone at the helm that can hold people down, because people have their own ideas and they want it their way. He was the ultimate producer for us. I think this album speaks for itself. Arif is all over it, but in his own imitable way, because you can’t hear him. He was the perfect producer, because he developed you to bring out your sound. He gave you the confidence to come up with your own ideas and execute them with passion. He was a lovely human being. It was all about capturing the moment. When you’re doing a live take, there is an atmosphere and energy inside of the room, especially when you’re bouncing ideas off each other and making eye contact with the drummer and if you’re going through a take, there’s energy to that. This is when you capture the sound of the band. This is what Arif and Gene Paul, son of Les, heard with us. Gene Paul was our engineer for this record. I always imagined Arif looking at a page, and he has the vision already inside of his head of how to connect the dots. He knew things bar by bar. He knew where everything would be. Musically, he could tell you if it was an A or an A flat. He could sit there and play the piano, but it would be from a technical sense. Theoretically, it was just a beautiful thing.
Who was responsible in crafting the melodies and arrangements for the songs off the album?
Roger [Ball] was very talented as an arranger. All the horn and string arrangements were done by him. A lot of stuff depended on who wrote the song. Our main writers were Roger [Ball], Alan [Gorrie], and Hamish [Stuart]. Roger was more into music theory. We used to call him the professor. Alan and Hamish would come up with songs and, as the two lead singers, they had a very natural way of singing together. They didn’t work things out too much; it just came together naturally. They found each other’s parts very easily. If Hamish was singing one note, Alan would automatically sing the other harmony. They instinctively knew what part should be in unison and what part should be in harmony and what should be in solo voice. But obviously, Arif would help out conducting and keeping a close ear on what was going on. He oversaw everything, of course. There is a nice photograph inside the cover of Soul Searching where Roger is reading over a part and Arif is standing on the side giving his approval.
Can you describe the mindset that existed within the group during the recording of the album?
By the time we got into the studio, most of the songs were pretty much written. A lot of the songs came from jam sessions on the road, because you have to remember, we were on the road at least six to seven months out of the year. At sound checks, we would be hanging around and someone would come up with an idea for a song. Someone would play something and then someone else would play another part and everyone would just find their own parts. This is what a band really should be. It is the most natural way of working if you have the right combination of people. That is what happened with us. Alan and Hamish would work together to find their vocal parts. We had working titles for some of the songs on this album. Sometimes you have working titles until you get an idea for the song, and hopefully the mood of the song transposes into the lyrics and vice-versa. To me, songwriting is the idea of the song to begin with and how do you best show that off. We never had demos for any of our songs except for “A Love of Your Own.” We were on the road all the time. We didn’t have time to book studio time, and at that time people didn’t have home studios. The ideas were done pretty much as a band. For most songs, people would either write songs on their own and bring them in or bring in their ideas and we would discuss them as a band in a diplomatic fashion most times. If there were any tweaks to be made, Arif would critique the songs, and we would go from there.
Let me tell you a little secret. The photograph on this album cover wasn’t us. The art director had the studio set up with a big white cloth. They had some ideas of putting people in front of the white cloth. So they did and they took the picture with the shadows in the background. We tried to recreate that, but we couldn’t do it. It wasn’t as good as the original shot with those other people, so we went with their photo instead. They couldn’t get us to look right. Isn’t that funny? [laughs]
Take me through the making of each song on the album. What was the process involved in making the eleven tracks?
“Overture” was really Arif Mardin’s idea. He wanted a theme to introduce the album. This was based off of the song “Soul Searching.” Side two, track one was “Soul Searching.” So, being the title track of the album, they wanted to use the line “soul searching,” and that came into the song. There’s a theme in “Overture” where you can hear that line.
“Love Your Life” was a song where we had an idea for the groove. “Love your life, it’s a blessing” was the theme behind this record. Alan’s son was born around the time we made this song. It was sentimental, but we wanted to make it funky as well. Alan and Hamish played bass on that track giving it a two-bass sound. The horn section was on it, and everything was just so involved. Everyone contributed a little something to this track. I remember the rehearsal for this song. We were in Detroit, and someone had the idea for the song. Alan came up with the guitar part, and we built the song around that.
“A Love of Your Own” was written by Hamish Stuart and Ned Doheny in a couple of hours after a wild night in Hollywood. We were hanging out at a local watering hole next to the Troubadour on Hollywood Blvd. It was a wild night.
“Queen of My Soul” was written by Hamish when he was very interested in Brazilian music at the time. Obviously, he was listening to a lot of Brazilian stuff, and “Queen of My Soul” came from that experience.
“Soul Searching”—Alan and Hamish came up with this song. It was a very nice song. Alan came up with the piano chords, and he put together the lyrics for the song.
“Goin’ Home” was an instrumental idea borne from Roger’s main horn line. Everyone else came up with their own parts and we all received credit for it on the album.
“Everybody’s Darling” was written by Hamish and Roger.
“Would You Stay” was a blues idea that we all had. I remember rehearsing this one as well. We were doing rehearsal in New York before we went into the studio, and we did this for every song. We rehearsed it at Walter Booker’s place. Walter Booker had an old studio in his apartment. It was a great, big studio in the basement of his apartment. Walter Booker was the bass player for Cannonball Adderley. He rented out this place for us to use. This song reminds me of Walter’s old place.
“Sunny Days” was one of Stevie Ferrone’s songs. He came up with the melody idea, and we took it from there. It had a kind of happy, joyful sound to it. We put our AWB stamp on this record too.
“Digging Deeper” is really taking “Overture” and changing into the outro for the record. So “Overture” was the intro and “Digging Deeper” was the outro to end the album. Outside from “A Love of Your Own,” all these songs were homegrown by the band.
How do you feel about the legacy your music has left for future generations?
We got our inspiration and influences from African American rhythm and blues music. Artists like Sam & Dave, Marvin Gaye, James Brown, among others, from Motown and Stax Records. You use people as influences, and then add your own thing to it, which is what we did. We didn’t come up with anything new. It was just a different combination of sounds. We were White guys trying to play Black music, but I think our music speaks for itself. The fact that we were accepted into the mainstream of a culture was a great honor. I still have people come up to me and say, “Man, I can’t believe you guys were White.” Some of our first shows were funny because we would show up and you could see the facial looks we received. It used to happen a lot. When the record company put our first record out, there wasn’t a picture of the band; it was just a white label. The promo copies had no photographs as well, so radio stations assumed we were Black and played our songs.
Responses from Facebook
Leave a Response