The Average White Band's Comeback Trail Runs Through Tucson.
By Tom Danehy
IT'S BEEN NEARLY 20 years since a sold-out, triple-bill concert at the Tucson Community Center brought together just about every black person in Tucson, along with a few of us melanin-challenged true believers.
It wasn't strange in those days for a concert to be held at the TCC, nor was it out of the ordinary for R&B acts to appear. What was strange was the makeup of the headlining act.
For when the lights went up on stage, there stood five guys whiter than the British royal family and a drummer who looked like the answer to the question, "What's wrong with this picture?"
They were dressed in what appeared to be their fathers' go-to-funeral suits, and when they said, in their thick Scottish accents, "Hello, Tucson!" 12,000 perplexed people wanted them to repeat the question. But when they jumped into the opening funky beats of "Person To Person," the show was on.
The Average White Band was hot in those days. Always bigger overseas than here in the U.S., they were in Tucson riding the crest of their third consecutive platinum album, Soul Searching. It was to be their last huge commercial success, although several subsequent albums sold reasonably well.
Originally dismissed as a novelty act--really white guys playing really black music--AWB won critics and fans over with soaring falsetto vocals and the tightest rhythm and horn sections this side of James Brown. After a lackluster debut album, Show Your Hand, AWB exploded onto the scene in late 1974 with the self-titled album best know for its all-white cover with the "W" in AWB forming a woman's backside.
That album featured "Pick Up The Pieces," one of only a handful of instrumental songs in rock history to hit No. 1. It also included the butt-bumpin' "Person To Person" and an arc of three ballads ("Just Want To Love You Tonight," "Nothin' You Can Do," and "Keepin' It To Myself") which may be the sweetest 10 minutes in soul music history. Rolling Stone called it one of the top soul albums of all time.
(I actually wrote a fan letter to AWB back then, thanking them for helping me get through college. I was on a basketball scholarship at Cochise College down on the Mexican border and the only two radio stations in town were a Mexican one and a country station. On a trip to a tournament in L.A., I picked up AWB, That's The Way of the World by Earth, Wind and Fire, and Fire by the Ohio Players, and played those suckers until my ears bled.)
With critics raving and the white album perched atop the charts, tragedy struck. After a triumphant appearance at L.A.'s Troubadour, the band went to a Hollywood Hills party. Drummer and founding member Robbie McIntosh drank some wine spiked with what turned out to be industrial-strength heroin. He OD'ed and would have been joined by lead singer Alan Gorrie were it not for the help of Cher, whose intervention has always earned my eternal forgiveness for all those infomercials.
McIntosh was replaced by Steve Ferrone, a black Brit who had been playing with Bloodstone ("Take To The Sky On A Natural High"). Ferrone was probably the best replacement they could have found, but the band never really regained the fire they'd shown on the white album.
Cut The Cake followed. It went platinum, the title cut hit the Top 10, and a follow-up ballad, "If I Ever Lose This Heaven," also hit the charts. But the cut on that album was "School Boy Crush," a slow groove which has been sampled by rappers Too Short and TLC. (James Brown, Parliament and AWB are the three most-sampled acts by rappers.)
The band hit its stride with Ferrone on Soul Searching, which featured the disco-tinged "Queen Of My Soul" and the funk anthem "I'm The One."
Later albums (including one recorded with soul legend Ben E. King) didn't fare as well. They pretty much got swamped by the disco wave, then (like most soul acts) were unfairly swept out to sea with the disco backlash. The band remained popular throughout the rest of the world, however, and once headlined a show in Rio which drew 500,000 people.
The original members broke up in 1982. Hamish Stuart joined Wings, which is a lot like death, except dead people don't have to listen to Linda McCartney do sound checks.
Gorrie went out on his own and the Dundee Horns--Molly Duncan and Roger Ball--did some studio work.
The band, without Stuart, reformed in the late '80s, but had a disastrous ride through the world of bad management and horrible record deals. They cut a couple albums which hit big in Germany, but never got released here.
AWB came through town a couple years back, playing Club Congress on a tour in search of a recording contract. They're back again, playing The Outback on Thursday, September 26. Tickets are $18.50 at the door.
Sharing the bill with AWB is Tower of Power, the San Francisco-based funk-soul band best known for its horn section. The TOP Horns have backed everybody from Huey Lewis to Elton John and helped produce a string of hits in the '70s, including "So Very Hard To Go," "You're Still A Young Man" and "Down To The Nightclub (Bump City)."
Tower of Power is notorious for being a blow-the-audience-away opening act. I've seen them open for everybody from War and Cold Blood in L.A. to Leo Sayer and Yvonne Elliman here in Tucson. In fact, they opened for Average White Band that night at the TCC.
Yogi Berra used to say about a popular restaurant, "Nobody goes there any more; it's too crowded." Similarly, Tower of Power used to open for everybody, then nobody wanted them on the bill because they had the bad habit of working the crowd into a frenzy from which the top-billed act would have to progress. I've been at more than one concert where people shouted out, "Bring back Tower of Power."
Well, they're back. Both TOP and AWB are expected to sprinkle in some new material along with their standards at the Tucson concert (which is expected to be a sellout). Smaller venue and 20 years later, it still promises to be a night of sweet soul music.
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