Tonight, when most of you —if you're lucky!—will be watching the episode that comes before the penultimate episode of The Good Place (don't tell me what happens), I'll be at the Fox Theatre, awash in the sweet funk/soul sounds of what remains of one of my favorite groups of all time, the Average White Band.
Many years ago, I wrote a column about how the white album by AWB kept me going during my two years of playing basketball at Cochise College, down on the Mexican border. At the time, there were only two radio stations in the area—a country/western (accent heavily on the western) station in Douglas and a Spanish-language station across the line in Agua Prieta.
Occasionally, at night, you could pick up the signal of 50,000-watt KMOA-AM out of Oklahoma City. It was like that scene in The Buddy Holly Story where Gary Busey and Don Stroud were trying to get an R&B station out of Shreveport, Louisiana, or someplace. However, the signal strength waxed and waned with weather conditions. One night, I was giving a friend a ride into Bisbee and on the way back to the college, I turned on KOMA and I heard this wailing saxophone. I said to myself, "My God, that's Maceo Parker," although I had no idea why a pop station in Oklahoma would be playing something by James Brown's legendary horn player.
It turned out to be Malcolm "Molly" Duncan of Average White Band doing his famous sax solo on "Pick Up the Pieces." Not long after, my team was playing in a tournament in Southern California. I went to Tower Records, bought the 8-track and played it to death. It remains, to this day, my favorite soul album of all time, just ahead of Marvin Gaye's What's Going On.
A few other things you should know:
1. The album Average White Band has the band's famous logo AWB, with the bottom of "W" forming a woman's buttocks. The original members of the band were all from Scotland. The album went to Number One on the Billboard charts.
2. The single "Pick Up The Pieces" also went to No. 1, knocking Linda Ronstadt's "You're No Good" out of the top spot.
3. "Pieces" is one of only a handful of instrumentals ever to hit No. 1. Some of the others include "Frankenstein" by Edgar Winter, "The Hustle" by Van McCoy, and "Gonna Fly Now" (the theme from Rocky).
4. The group got its name when Bonnie Bramlett of the husband/wife musical act Delaney, Bonnie & Friends heard them playing some funk song and said, "That's not your average white band."
Delaney and Bonnie had an interesting schtick. They would play shows and famous people who happened to be in whatever city they were in would sit in. My friend and I went to see the band at The Palomino, the famous cowboy venue in North Hollywood. Sitting at the back of the stage, strumming a guitar, was Eric Clapton.
5. I'm always careful to use Average White Band, because, to some people, AWB also means Afrikaner Weerstandbweging, a South African neo-Nazi separatist political and paramilitary organization that uses a three-pronged swastika-looking thing as its logo.
6. Right as the band was about to hit it big, the 24-year-old drummer, Robbie McIntosh, died of an accidental drug overdose. After playing a gig at The Troubadour in L.A., they went to a party in the Hollywood Hills. McIntosh and singer Alan Gorrie both took what they thought was cocaine but turned out to be white heroin. McIntosh died but fellow partygoer Cher walked Gorrie around and kept him conscious until help arrived. Gorrie will be singing onstage tonight.
7. By weird coincidence, the aforementioned Maceo Parker performed last Friday night at the UA's Centennial Hall. Back in 1975, he and other members of James Brown's back-up band did a response song. It was "Pick Up The Pieces, One By One" by AABB (Above Average Black Band).
8. AWB is one of the most-sampled groups ever. "Sampled" used to be hip-hop for stolen, but then the lawyers got involved, and now it's hip-hop for shared revenue. Rick James actually got half of all the proceeds from M.C. Hammer's "U Can't Touch This." Of course, James then went on to kidnap and assault women, go to prison and then die way too young, but that "Super Freak" groove lives on forever.
This is actually crazy, but the AWB song "School Boy Crush," with its slow-funk bass line and jingling bells (really!) has been sampled by 152 hip-hop acts. The best is probably "Microphone Fiend" by Eric B. and Rakim. "Pick Up the Pieces" appears in at least 54 hip-hop songs.
9. While "Pick Up The Pieces" is their most famous song, do yourself a favor and listen to "Person To Person," their best vocal effort. Hamish Stuart's soaring falsetto is so amazing, it almost makes me want to forgive him for leaving AWB to join Paul McCartney and Wings. Can you imagine going from the hottest soul band in the world to singing back-up vocals on "Silly Love Songs?"
10. Molly Duncan died of cancer last October. Gorrie and Onnie McIntyre are the only two original members of the group who be performing tonight. All things considered, that's enough for me.