Thursday, August 25, 2011

Average White Band: Scotland's Funkiest Export

When funk music ruled the charts in the 1970s, Average White Band were one of the baddest R&B/funk outfits on the scene. Just looking at them you'd never imagine they could produce such monster funk. The Scottish sextet played like they were born and bred in one of America's funkiest hotbeds, spots like New Orleans, Detroit, Memphis and Philadelphia. AWB created a particularly potent brand of blue-eyed funk and soul and were significant figures in the funk revolution of the '70s.

The first song that I ever heard by Average White Band was their sizzling instrumental "Pick Up The Pieces" (1974), and I swore up and down that it was a track by James Brown's legendary band the J.B.'s and wound up having to eat my words when I found out who was really playing. It was clear that AWB were heavily influenced by Brown's super-syncopated, kick-the-doors-in funk style. But the band went beyond just being pupils of the Godfather's funk; they absorbed it and then charted out their own path--laying the funk back down with their own original flair and style.

Average White Band never faked the funk; they were no poseurs or some novelty act.  And man could these cats play! Their grooves have been recycled on numerous hip hop and R&B records, and they have influenced several bands in their own right, including the Brand New Heavies and Level 42.  And AWB could bring it on the mellow cuts as well. Check out "A Love of Your Own" and "Cloudy" for confirmation.

Average White Band was formed in Glasgow, Scotland in 1972 with the original lineup of Alan Gorrie (bass, vocals, keyboards, and guitar); tenor saxophonist Malcom "Molly" Duncan; rhythm guitarist and vocalist Onnie McIntyre; Hamish Stuart (guitar, bass and vocals); drummer Robbie McIntosh; and keyboardist/saxophonist Roger Ball. In addition to James Brown, some of the band's other influences included the Isley Brothers, Marvin Gaye, Sly & the Family Stone, Donny Hathaway, the Bar-Kays and Al Green; and you can hear these influences throughout AWB's oeuvre.

Their first album, Show Your Hand, was released in 1973. The album is a solid collection of R&B tracks, but it failed to generate much interest. However, their follow-up LP, AWB (released in August, 1974), was quite a different story. The album, which was produced by legendary producer and arranger Arif Mardin, was a massive success and put the band firmly on the map. The band kicked off the album with "Pick Up The Pieces." The  track was a smash on both the R&B and pop charts, climbing all the way to number one on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart. It is the band's most recognized song and is now widely regarded as one of the top funk songs of all time. Another standout track from the album is the Tower of Power-style funk burner "Person to Person." The album contains several other great cuts and went on to become a million seller.

The band was riding high with the enormous success of AWB, receiving love from both critics and record buyers alike. However, tragedy struck the band before they could fully enjoy their newfound success. Drummer Robbie McIntosh died from an accidental heroin overdose while at a Hollywood party on September 23, 1974. While still mourning the death of McIntosh, the band started working on their third album, Cut the Cake, recruiting black British drummer Steve Ferrone as McIntosh's replacement. The band members managed to pull themselves together and came back funkin' harder than ever with the release of Cut the Cake in June of 1975. The album is a cracking collection of funk and R&B tracks.

The percolating title song launches Cut the Cake with a bang. On this track, the band doesn't miss a speck of funk. It's chock full of sassy guitar licks and tight horn lines. On the album's track list, "Cut the Cake" is followed by "School Boy Crush," a slow, wickedly funky groove with a sinister bass line that effectively captures the butterflies and slight sense of terror a young kid experiences upon his first crush. And the sleigh bells are a nice touch, playing up the song's childlike vibe. Gorrie and Stuart's vocal trade-offs are epic and add so much to the track. "School Boy Crush" is a funk classic and has been sampled by a slew of hip hop and R&B artists, including Janet Jackson, TLC and Eric B. & Rakim. Other highlights on Cut the Cake include the irresistible "If I Ever Lose This Heaven," the James Brown-inspired "Groovin' the Night Away" and the beautiful ballad "Cloudy," where Stuart delivers an impassioned vocal performance.  Cut the Cake was a big seller and rose all the way to number one on the R&B charts and number four on the pop charts. The band dedicated the album to McIntosh's memory.

In 1976, AWB came back strong with their fourth album Soul Searching. On this album, the band scored another great ballad with the gorgeous "A Love of Your Own." It's one of the great slow jams from the '70s. When this cut came on at parties back in the day, cats would  scramble to find a fine young lady and try to get a slow dance. The biggest hit off the album was the smooth and breezy "Queen of My Soul," which went to number 21 on the R&B singles chart. And of course, AWB brought the funk again on this album. "I'm the One" is a laid-back funk groove with a super-cool horn arrangement. Even though the album didn't have any huge hits, it still went  gold.

In the late '70s, AWB's record sales began to drop off, and their audience dwindled, a fate shared by many other great '70s funk and R&B acts near decade's end. However, the band has continued to produce great music over the years and still tours with a few lineup changes. And the band retains an extremely loyal and dedicated fan base. AWB left an indelible mark on funk and R&B music, and their legacy remains strong today.

AWB funk things up with a live performance of "Cut the Cake" on Soul Train in 1975.

AWB put some extra stank on the funk in their live performance of "School Boy Crush" on Soul Train in 1975.