Average White Band Aim To Spread Their Wings
By David Nathan
PERHAPS the classical premier example of what has come to be know as the 'reverse crossover' situation first emerged a few years back when a then on-the-rise English band started literally storming the R&B charts, bursting forth on the airways of US R&B radio stations and generally causing a sensation amongst black record buyers.
The group was the Average White Band (or AWB. as they've become known) and the song that did it for them was "Pick Up The Pieces". American audiences may not have been totally aware that prior to that smash (back in 1974), the group had begun to build a following for themselves in their home country with an album on M.C.A. which included their version of the Crusaders' hit, "Put It Where You Want It". But ever since that single established the group, there has been no stopping them and they have built up a strong following amongst both black and white audiences across the States to the point where their albums are almost always automatically gold.
Their latest set, "Warmer Communications" brought the gold home almost within a couple of weeks of release and it seems that platinum status is the next level for the band to reach for. Naturally, building and establishing the group hasn't been an overnight thing and indeed in the course of conversation with drummer Steve Ferrone and guitarist Onnie McIntyre (who in common with other band members hails from Scotland — Steve is from England), we learned that AWB has spent quite a large proportion of the last few years out touring: "In '74, we were gigging in both the States and at home but for both '75 and '76, we were out for approximately nine months of each year. In fact, it was only last year that we cut down a little and spent more time in the studios."
In fact, during 1977 the group were involved with three basic album projects: an album with the legendary Ben E. King ("Benny And Us"), their latest set and a 'live' album recorded in Montreux at the Jazz Festival. "We started working on the "Warmer" album in February — we laid down a couple of tracks and it was completed in December because of the intervening projects like the album with Ben. Usually, when we record it takes a couple of months. For this last one, it was kinda funny because when we first went down to Criteria Studios in Florida, we all just sat around looking at each other for the first two days! We jammed and eventually came through with a few things. We'd done about four or five basic rhythm grooves in fact, when Jerry Greenberg (the president of Atlantic Records) sent Benny down to record a song he had for him. And the whole album project sort of evolved from there. It was good for us because it gave us a breathing space because we'd done as much as we could in the studios on the basic thing for those first tracks for ourselves."
Naturally, the band had a few comments on the sessions with Mr. King: "Well, it was great for a number of reasons. Firstly, Ben E. has been an idol for a lot of the guys in the group since the beginning. He's a great guy and very easy to work with — no problem. And then, it was a new experience for us. The rest of the time when we're recording, it's our own material. But this time we got a chance to do other people's stuff and that included a few songs we'd always wanted to do like the Donny Hathaway song, "Someday, We'll All Be Free". In fact, the sessions were great because Ben would be learning the lyrics, whilst Arif (Mardin — the group's producer since they joined Atlantic) would be writing out the chord changes and we'd be actually in the studio starting on the rhythm. We wrapped up the whole project in about three weeks in all."
The group and Mr. King recorded the majority of the cuts in New York, which has been AWB's recording 'home' for quite some time now, and the group admits that "we were a little disappointed that the album didn't do better than it did. Maybe the public expected something different from us — you know, maybe all original tunes with Ben singing them. Who knows — but we all enjoyed the experience tremendously." In addition, the ensemble cut a medley of Ben's hits at the Montreux Festival which unfortunately won't be appearing on the 'live' album.
With AWB having established a firm foundation for themselves in the U.S.A., they now feel ready to broaden their horizons on an international level. "We've just completed our next album — which includes some basic ideas and grooves that were left over from the "Warmer" sessions — there was just a surplus of ideas which we couldn't use on that one album. We cancelled a proposed U.S. tour because — apart from changing booking agencies — we felt it was time to start doing some things outside the country. Plus we've signed an international deal with R.C.A. although we're still with Atlantic Records for the U.S. and Canada. So now, our main thrust this year will be in Europe, Latin America and possibly the Far East. We've already played a couple of things in Japan when we did an Australian/New Zealand tour a couple of years back and of course, we've done a few places in Europe. But it's just time to really establish ourselves in those countries now."
The group still has a strong following in Britain, something they've acquired without the benefit of consistent hit records but their presence may well further enhance what they've already achieved. There are certainly other directions that the group wishes to pursue too, in the future. "Basically, we all dig playing — what we get tired of is the road trip. Once we hit the stage, it's great. Audiences are fine and playing the music is what we all dig. In fact, when we're not out there, we miss just playing. But it's all the hassles that go along with the road that we don't particularly like. Living out of suitcases, in and out of hotels, on and off our plane (the group uses their own private jet to transport them when they're out on tour), making sure your laundry's done so you have clean clothes for the show. And then everyone thinks you have a party in every town after the show! A lot of times we just simply go back to the hotel and sleep! And then there's the food — you miss home cooking and the pleasures of family life — so it's not all wine and roses. So we probably may not tour quite so much, although to compensate, so that we will still be playing, we'll probably involve ourselves more with recording projects."
As it is, Steve does do some session work and as the band see it, "we may well get into producing other acts, maybe eventually having our own record label, things like that. There are certainly a lot of talented people we've seen in our travels that we'd like to work with, people we have a lot of respect for. So that's an area we'll definitely be dealing with." In fact, the group were involved with Herbie Mann on an album that came out on the latter's Embryo label last year by Jim Mullen and Dick Morrissey, featuring such noted session singers as Cissy Houston and Luther Vandross amongst others. AWB supplied a good deal of the music for the album itself and the album, (which unfortunately got lost as so many good albums do) was entitled "Up".
The group feels that their career is now taking a more decisive course since they acquired the services of a new manager, David Meintz. "David's been with us for just over a year now and he's been helping sort out a lot of things that were never really taken care of before. It's definitely a big help having someone now sho can go to the record company, for example, and let them know what we need to have done. Before, things just weren't as well organized, perhaps. But you do need someone there in your corner, because basically musicians don't like to get too involved in the business. We're more concerned with the creativity and the music. That's probably why most musicians do get ripped off — it almost becomes inevitable."
The guys also note that "a lot of people don't take being a musician as a serious career. Certainly, more people in the States respect it as a proper way of earning a living and generally, the arts are given more serious attention, with music schools and so on. But say in England, people still feel that playing music is just a pastime — they want to know what our 'real' job is! That may well be because there are more opportunities open to people in the States to get into it as a career and the way the industry is set up is so different."
That view may well be one of the reasons why "some of us wouldn't necessarily want to go back to England to live. Of course, we've talked about buying a little pub when we get ready to retire so we can just play when we want to! But we'll probably still be spending a lot of time in the States. We feel that basically things are moving in the right direction. Naturally, we want to be able to get to that platinum status but you know, the way things are going, it's going to get to the point where people will only settle for something ridiculous like an album going moonrock — you know, ten billion sales!"
That may not be quite round the corner but it's for sure that if the record industry invented any kind of new terminology to exemplify achievement of any kind, the Average White Band would be up there in line to get it because they've certainly succeeded in bringing their music to a wide spectrum of music buyers.