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)
“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.’”
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.
1. Clarke, Steve, “The Average White Band: Up From the Ghetto,” Creem (reprinted courtesy of New Musical Express), June 1975.
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
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.
21. Mandel, Howard, “Average White Band: Vanilla Soul,” Down Beat, April 8, 1976.