Above Average Power

The Average White Band, a Scottish funk/soul group, rocketed up the charts in the mid ’70s with "Pick up the Pieces." The band will be in the area for a concert at Patriots Theater at the War Memorial in Trenton April 18.

By: Daniel Shearer
   Smack dab in the middle of the ’70s, six Scottish musicians managed to land a soul-influenced instrumental tune on the pop charts. Nourished on a steady diet of R&B culled from the import racks, the Average White Band scored its first big American hit in 1975 with "Pick up the Pieces," which today remains a quintessential anthem from the era of butterfly collars and bell bottoms.
   More than two decades later, the band’s music provided the backbone for a slew of retro material from Janet Jackson, Bobby Brown, T.L.C. and Puff Daddy, all of whom sampled tracks from Average White. Lately, Hollywood producers have used AWB music in a number of films, notably Swingers, Bowfinger and Blue Streak.
   Back on the road after a hiatus during the mid- ’80s, the band will be in the area for a concert with longtime friends Tower of Power at Patriots Theater at the War Memorial in Trenton April 18.
   Guitarist and vocalist Onnie McIntyre, one of two founding members still touring with the band, traces soul’s enduring musical influence to one fateful day around 1964.
   "I was coming home from school, went to a friend’s house, and he played a record by James Brown called ‘Live at the Apollo,’" Mr. McIntyre says, speaking with a thick Scottish accent. "Knocked me out. Never been the same since. After that, all I wanted to do was play that kind of music, whatever it was.
   "We didn’t call it ‘funky’ then. We just knew this was something that we had to listen to. I bought every James Brown record I could get a hold of. Same with Marvin Gaye. The Rolling Stones did a cover of ‘Can I Get A Witness’ on their first record. We were saying, ‘Well who wrote it?’ ‘Somebody called Marvin Gaye.’ ‘Well let’s hear his album. See what’s going on with him.’"
   The Average White Band formed in 1972, comprised of members who had moved to London with various bands to break into the scene. Mr. McIntyre moved there from Glasgow, Scotland, encountering a scene fueled by glitter pop.
   "It was all about funny haircuts and sparkles, paint your face time," he says. "David Bowie had just come out with ‘Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.’ We really didn’t like that scene, so we tried to go back to what we had started out playing in our original bands, which was soul music."
   The band’s first album, Show Your Hand (MCA), released in 1973, achieved limited commercial success but helped the group land a contract with Atlantic. The following year, its next effort, AWB, marked the start of an international career that would result in more than a dozen albums and three Grammy nominations. Mr. McIntyre and the band spent so much time touring in the United States that they decided to move here.
   "’Pick up the Pieces’ was really a club hit before there was a term ‘disco,’" says Mr. McIntyre, who now lives in New York City. "It was very much a dance record."
   Considering the band took shape so far from the American sounds it sought to emulate, incredibly, the Average White Band didn’t sound average or white, for that matter. The band cranked out a succession of funk/soul hits: "Person to Person," "Cut the Cake," "Schoolboy Crush" and "Queen of My Soul." It even caught the attention of James Brown himself, who nicknamed his own backup band the "Above Average Black Band." The godfather of soul recorded his own take on AWB’s breakout hit, "Pick up the Pieces One By One."
   The band toured relentlessly during the late ’70s, recording Benny & Us (1977) with Ben E. King, Luther Vandross and the Brecker Brothers, Michael on tenor sax, Randy on trumpet. Then, in the early ’80s, Average White found itself facing an onslaught of disco and punk rock. The group disbanded in 1982.
   "I think a lot of factors were involved," Mr. McIntyre says. "By 1982, we had recorded 10 or 11 albums. We toured, and I think people had settled down a lot. The music scene changed quite a lot. We wanted to take hold and get our lives back on track again, because we spent so many years touring. But now we had families. Wives came over, and we had children and a home life, instead of 10 years living out of a suitcase, basically."
   After a few years off, three of the band’s original members — Alan Gorrie, who now plays bass and sings lead vocals; Mr. McIntyre; and sax player Roger Ball — re-formed the band and released a new album, Aftershock, in 1989. Mr. Ball has left the band since then, replaced by Americans Eliot Lewis, who plays keyboards and bass, Fred Vigdor on sax and keyboards, and percussionist Brian Dunne.
   "It was basically Alan and I who put the band back together," Mr. McIntye says. "Someone wanted to record us, and we jumped at the opportunity. We started doing shows to promote the record and we realized the audience was receptive and there was still a market for a live-show band. We did it for fun to begin with and have built it up since then."
   The band now spends as much as 140 days on the road each year, including numerous gigs with Tower of Power, a band that found prominence in San Francisco right around the time AWB made its big break. Fronted by sax player and vocalist Emilio Castillo, Tower of Power has recorded with an impressive list of stars, including Elton John, Carlos Santana, Aaron Neville, Lyle Lovett and B.B. King. The current Tower of Power lineup includes Mr. Castillo, lead vocalist Larry Braggs, Tom Politzer on tenor sax, Stephen Kupka on baritone sax, trumpeters Mike Bogart and Adolpho Acosta and drummer David Garibaldi.
   "We’ve always had a good relationship with Tower of Power," Mr. McIntyre says. "They’re friends of ours from way back. It’s a good bill that attracts a similar kind of audience. We always look forward to shows with them."
   In fact, Average White recorded its live 1999 album, Face to Face, during a concert with Tower of Power at the fabled Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco. In late March, Average White released yet another live album, this time a DVD recorded at the House of Blues in Los Angeles in June 2000. The band also is in the process of recording a new studio album.
   "I can’t imaging not touring and traveling," Mr. McIntyre says. "I like playing to a different audience every night. It’s part of what we do, and we’ve done it so long, it gets in your blood."
Tower of Power and Average White Band perform at Patriots Theater at the War Memorial, Barrack and Lafayette streets, Trenton, April 18, 8 p.m. Tickets cost $29.50-$36. For information, call (609) 984-8400. For tickets, call (800) 955-5566.