The Average White Band: Benny & Us/Warmer Communications

Comprising the considerable talents of guitarists, bassists and vocalists Alan Gorrie, Hamish Stuart and Onnie McIntyre; the Dundee Horns themselves, Malcolm “Molly” Duncan and Roger Ball; and, by this point in their career, drummer Steve Ferrone, the Average White Band’s earthy brand of funk and their ostensibly punning moniker made them the toast of the US and the UK in the mid to late ’70s. Although not necessarily as well remembered as “The White Album” [sic] or Cut The Cake, their run of albums between 1977 and 1980 are full of invention, hooks and sweet, sweet melodies.

IN EARLY 1977 the Average White Band repaired to Florida to begin work on the studio follow-up to Soul Searching. However, the creative spark that had propelled the band through the past five giddy years was, if not exactly missing, proving somewhat problematic to rekindle.

“Atlantic needed another record and we were booked down at Criteria,” Onnie McIntyre explains. “It was great – it was the winter, we got down there with our swimming trunks!”

However, the party was not to last. “In the studio, it was like Alan, have you got any songs? No. Hamish, have you got any songs? No. Nobody had any material. And we’d rented a house on the water and we were sailing – it was difficult to knuckle down when you were at that age and had had that success.”

Principal writer Alan Gorrie laughs: “It was like walking through half-set toffee. Me and Hamish were sitting, slaving over a warm mixing desk, looking at faders, hoping that they’ll move themselves, in a muse-like direction, looking at each other, going ‘dur’.”

While the sessions were slowly grinding underway, the band was offered the opportunity to cut a track with ex-Drifters legend, Ben E. King. King had returned to the Atlantic fold in 1975 with his Supernatural Thing album, after a period in the wilderness in the earlier part of the decade.

Benny & Us was really Jerry Greenberg’s baby,” McIntyre remembers. “He had the idea of coupling us with Benny for ‘Star In The Ghetto’. He had Benny come down to Florida to see us. We did that track in a day and it went down well.” The experience was so enjoyable, that the liaison was made permanent; and the band relocated to New York to record a full-length album with King.

“Having done the single, and given we were having a difficult time making our next record, this was easy – we could do some covers, a few different things,” Gorrie recalls. “It was like bunking school! We had a lot of respect for Benny as he used to be play with Robbie, our old drummer – oh, and by the way, can we do ‘What Is Soul’ and ‘Imagine’? We could do the whole album in two weeks.” Stuart adds, “we had such a good time, we simply kept going with everyone throwing in suggestions for tunes and it accidentally became the next album.”

The New York they worked in, despite being heavily in debt and not that dissimilar from the streets portrayed by Martin Scorsese in Taxi Driver, was a hotbed of excitement and distraction. “As London was the place in the ’60s, New York was it in the ’70s,” Gorrie explains. “We all had a lot of fun and all got a lot of vibe out of New York during that period. It shows in the music. The city was the thumping, nighttime place to be, the era of Studio 54 and Xenon. Hamish and Steve went to those places.”

“It was a whole different thing,” McIntyre laughs. “Studio 54 was a phenomenon to go and ogle at. I went down there with my wife one night and I couldn’t get over the fact there was this woman dancing, dressed in a hat, but without any knickers and just stockings and suspenders. Everybody was coked out. Because it was so difficult to get in, it made people want to go in.”

It wasn’t just Studio 54, however. “There was a fantastic live music scene in Manhattan at the time,” Stuart recalls. “So we’d be out there, hanging out with other players and checking out the clubs. Dancing, carousing, you know, doing the stuff that unmarried twentysomethings do!”

Benny & Us was a marriage of old and new; the Atlantic of Ahmet Ertegun meeting the Atlantic of Jerry Greenberg. Greenberg was the hotshot who had just begun to head up the label. His A&R policy would see the addition of groups as diverse as Chic, Abba and Genesis.

“Being a musician also, the Average White Band was one of my favourite groups to work with at Atlantic,” Greenberg recalled in 2004. “Jerry Wexler signed the group and I was head of promotion at that time helping break ‘Pick Up The Pieces’ as a big pop record. Working with them, Ben E. King and Arif, on their album project was one of the best moments for me at Atlantic.” Their long-standing producer, Arif Mardin – who, of course, had worked with a hatful of legends from the mid-50s onward – provided an authenticity to the proceedings.

From the opening, the Ned Doheny-penned ‘Get It Up For Love’, earlier covered remarkably by David Cassidy and later spectacularly by Tata Vega, the tone is set – it’s an urban album on the cusp of disco. It really is something of a lost gem, in the pocket, taking the group out of their usual crowd and placing them in the disco milieu. There is a deep joy in the detail here; the session singers that were to so enliven the first records of Chic were drafted in – Debra “Diva” Gray, Robin Clark (wife of Main Ingredient/David Bowie guitarist Carlos Alomar) and, before his own superstardom, session avatar, Luther Vandross. “His group were the shit at the time, the cats”, McIntyre remembers.

“We were all fans of Luther’s and pushed him with Atlantic whenever we could,” states Stuart. “Also, I’d done a few backing vocal things with him and the ladies on the Chaka albums and other bits and pieces. They were a real joy to work with! We’d just get in there, run the song past him a few times, he’d figure out the parts! There were all these ideas flying around and then, presto!”

Stuart always felt AWB were really a backing band on the album, which gives it a different bite entirely to the rest of their catalogue. The album was a blast; the good feeling coursed through the vinyl. Mardin brings all his years of experience to ‘A Star In The Ghetto’; the string arrangements are lush and gorgeous – the fusion of past, present and future all rolled into one. Roger Ball’s cosmic synth at the end of the track elevates it to another level. ‘The Message’ offers a genuinely greasy funk for approval. The publicity still with Duncan, Gorrie, King, Stuart, McIntyre, Ball and Ferrone in a line is a picture of laid-back happiness.

“That was a wonderful experience because Benny really is a terrific character and a phenomenal artist,” Stuart recalled. “Loved Ben E. – living history! Ah, the Drifters stuff. ‘Stand By Me’ – that’s all he ever needed to do. He called me a few years later when the movie Stand By Me came out overwhelmed that he had a hit yet again with that song and he was back again!”

Atlantic production legend, Arif Mardin, interviewed for these notes, added that “Benny And Us was wonderful. At that time, the pairing of a well-known star R&B singer and younger Scottish counterparts made a great combination.”

Benny and Us was released in July 1977. The album didn’t ignite in the manner that King, AWB or Atlantic had hoped; although, to reflect the group’s status, it reached No. 33 in the US charts. It was trailed in the US by the single ‘Keepin’ It To Myself’/’Get It Up For Love’, with ‘A Star In The Ghetto’ and ‘Fool For You Anyway’ being lifted also for singles. None was to make the Hot 100. In the UK, ‘A Star In The Ghetto’ was the sole single release but was quickly forgotten as the world pogo’d to then new sensation, punk or listened to Giorgio Moroder’s strange robotic dance beats created for Donna Summer.

Benny and Us didn’t get much exposure in the UK, maybe because some of the songs were too new to be covered,” Gorrie recalls. “It was certainly the right time for us to make that record.”

This period was rounded off by a legendary performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival in summer 1977, where the group were joined by a stellar cast including Herbie Mann and Arif Mardin for a big band version of ‘Pick Up The Pieces’. “Ah, The 30-hour version of ‘Pick Up The Pieces’!” Gorrie laughs. “It was time and a half, because it was past midnight!” Did the band ever tire of playing their unofficial theme tune? “Sometimes!” Stuart exclaims, “but, happily, we were stuck with it. It’s still a damn fine tune!”

In five years the band had travelled from hard-working obscurity to be at the very zenith of their careers; respected by their peers, loved by their fans and commercially viable as well. In the year Charlie Mingus played for the last time, AWB were jamming alongside luminaries such as the Brecker Brothers, Sonny Fortune and Herbie Mann.

“That was one for the memoirs, definitely!” adds Stuart. “What a week! We played and we played and then we played some more.”

To add to this head of steam there was some more, ahem, work to do. “Then we dragged Benny off to do three or four more dates in Europe,” Gorrie recalls. “We played at the Lyceum in London: Mick Jagger was there. The cruise with Montreux and that tour – it was probably only about three weeks, but it seemed to last all summer.”

Energised by the experience, the group returned to the material that they had begun to cut in Florida earlier in the year, which was to become Warmer CommunicationsWorking again with the legendary Mardin, AWB continued to refine their smooth groove. In the interim, Mardin had been involved with the soundtrack to a downbeat film that had ushered in America’s latest obsession – disco. Saturday Night Fever had turned its star, John Travolta, and its principal songwriters, the Bee Gees, into world-famous superstars; and Mardin was hot – white hot.

The Bee Gees and AWB had worked in tandem with Arif Mardin before – AWB were recording Cut The Cake at the same time the Gibbs’ hit upon the groove that became Jive Talkin’. Was there any resentment that another group of ex-pats had leapt to the limelight?

“We weren’t really keen on the high voice thing, nobody was really enamoured with that,” McIntyre laughs. “We were purists as far as R&B goes. We only listened to real soul and R&B; we were very true to that original art form.”

“Arif and the Bee Gees were good pals,” Gorrie recalls. “We were renting one of their houses making this album, so it was all very much ‘in the family'”.

But there was, of course, tremendous pressure for AWB to ‘go disco’. “Oh yeah, absolutely!” McIntyre laughs “You couldn’t get played if it wasn’t. There was a pressure on everybody to come up with something that fitted into that format. It ruined a lot of careers, I’m sure. Suddenly what you did before has to be narrowed down to a certain formula.” “There was always pressure on us to ‘do something’, but we did try to follow our own path as much a possible and we did try consciously not to ‘go disco – that was the trend,” Gorrie adds. “Everybody else was doing it very successfully. We couldn’t become Chic, we couldn’t be the Bee Gees – they had a much easier time of doing that thing than we did – we were still trying to be a pure soul band, and that is one of the reasons why it became hard to get the same success at the end of the ’70s than it was in the earlier half of the ’70s.” Hamish Stuart: “I hated disco! It killed us as far as airplay was concerned because suddenly we were too ‘dancy’ for the stations that didn’t play ‘disco’ and not dancy enough for those who did!”

There was general relief that Warmer Communications was finished at all. “It was a difficult album to cut,” McIntyre recalls. “We kind of ran out of steam half way through. It wasn’t one of my favourite records – it stood up enough, but it could have been better if we’d had more material and had more time to spend on it.” Hamish Stuart thinks similar: “It was a difficult time for us creatively. We were stalling a bit and needed a break from the treadmill.” Gorrie adds: “It’s never been one of my favourites. There are some nice moments on it, but it’s not one that I would pick up and play. An album had to be made – we had to do three every two years – which was fine if we’d been a jazz group where we could lump some covers together and quickly record live. But when you were doing what we were doing and creating everything from scratch and then trying to put quite layered and complex arrangements to things, it wasn’t a quick and easy process – it took more time and thought than anyone had bargained for.”

Hearing all this, you’d think you were in for 45 minutes of misery. Sure, it’s not their greatest work, but it is full of understated gems that were simply out of step with the times; While ‘One Look Over My Shoulder’ occupied familiar Roger Ball horn-driven ground, Stuart’s ‘She’s A Dream’ had the lightest of touches.

Stuart is especially proud of that track: “I was becoming very interested in Brazilian music at that time and that was my second attempt at the style, after ‘Queen Of My Soul’. It had lots of great elements – Onnie’s solo, Roger’s beautiful horn parts and Mike Brecker’s flute. He said he’d been playing a lot of flute at home so we got him at the right time! I think it’s also the best lyric I’d written up till then, too.” One of the album’s highlights was their tender version of James Taylor’s In The Pocket standout, ‘Daddy’s All Gone’.

Onnie McIntyre: “We were always fans of James. He’s soulful in his own way. It was a song that struck a nerve with us. Some of us had kids and we were on the road all the time, and the song really struck home.”

The pun in the album’s title is all but lost now as the album appears on Sony. It derived from Hamish Stuart commenting on Atlantic’s absorption into the huge Warner Communications Empire. “The terrible corporate syndrome had begun to creep in,” McIntyre sighs. “By that time, Jerry Wexler had left and the lawyers and bean-counters begun to take over – it was all about the bottom line, whereas before it was all about the music.” To confuse matters further, it was the first album released under a new deal with released on RCA in the UK. Taking an altogether smoother approach, it was full of the “reverence and development” that Arif Mardin was later to call AWB’s trademark.

Although Warmer Communications may not be one of the group’s favourite recordings, it has liberal doses of zing and pizzazz. It is also easy to see quite how out of step it was with the times, sounding like it could have been recorded at any point in the preceding 10 years. 1978’s anomaly is our pleasure now, as it doesn’t sound dated in the slightest.

© Daryl Easlea(Columbia Records), 2005

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