Jun 072024

Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.

Average White Band

The current iteration of the Average White Band, still featuring original musicians Onnie McIntyre and Alan Gorrie, recently completed their “Final” tour in the UK, although they have upcoming dates in the US. Nearly 60 years after they started jamming together and 50 years since the release of their breakthrough album, featuring their biggest single, the unit will move into Californian retirement.

The JB’s, Booker T. and the MG’s, The Memphis Horns, The Funk Brothers. Justly celebrated horn and rhythm sections. Driven by expert musicianship and camaraderie, they backed a thousand hit records. The Average White Band took an instrumental funk track to number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, recorded blockbuster records by soul legends including Ben E. King, and were sought after as session and touring musicians by the best in the business, among them Paul McCartney and Daryl Hall.  They were, of course, different from their heroes and predecessors, American-born legends all.

The City of Dundee in Scotland prides itself on its cosmopolitan ideals and its baked savories. It is a port city, launching ships and careers, but also receiving goods and ideas from around the world. The ability to get records straight off the boat, and without necessarily knowing much about the band other than whether you liked the sound or not, meant that The Beatles and The Rolling Stones appreciated the Blues more than some in the US, and that a group of Scottish musicians in at a Dundee art school in the late ’60s and early ’70s could jam along to the latest in R&B and funk, featuring their heroes in various guises.  Individually they gravitated to London, becoming valued session musicians (two of them are on Chuck Berry’s “My Ding a Ling”!), becoming a house band at Island Records, and eventually coalescing as a collective in 1972.

The band sounded like their funky influencers, but they looked different. The name “Average White Band” was an ironic nod to that. Many people who come across them, from James Brown to hip young YouTubers, initially express some surprise at the appearance of the original lineup, but appreciate the musicianship and artistry. They were not just white; they were Scottish White (white with a hint of blue), and some of them had ginger hair. A six-piece of offbeat funk drumming, five-string bass, rhythm guitar and the “Dundee Horns,” their breakthrough came with a memorable appearance at Eric Clapton’s comeback concert in 1973, after which they decamped to the United States, where they have been based ever since.

In 1974 they released their breakthrough “White” album, containing their biggest-ever hit, “‘Pick Up the Pieces.”  With both a guitar and horn hook, propelled by drums and bass, the song was a slow burn, but eventually broke through to make Number 1 in the Hot 100, which was (and is) unusual for an instrumental track, and was a hit throughout the world. It even inspired their heroes to record a tribute track, as the JB’s appeared as the Above Average Black Band. The song was a dance classic and was confident enough not to fade out but finish on the beat.

What could have been their moment of greatest triumph turned into a trial and tragedy. After a week of barnstorming at the Troubadour in Los Angeles, being feted by the glitterati of La La Land, the band went to a party where offbeat drummer Robbie McIntosh and bassist Alan Gorrie, getting into the spirit of the times by taking what they thought was cocaine, overdosed on heroin. It is an unfortunate feature of current society that partygoers are prepared for opiate overdoses, and often have reversal kits available, but that was not the case in 1974. McIntosh died and Alan Gorrie was kept alive by the intervention of Cher. The band survived and continued to evolve in various ways.

“Pick Up The Pieces” is now a standard. Despite the sophistication of the sound, the chord progression is relatively easy to pick up, and there are many tutorial videos on how to replicate the rhythm guitar, horns or drums or just keep the piece together. Although it occasionally appears on lists of sounds that people find bland or annoying, it has spawned many marvelous covers, often from jazz bands. It is a jumping-off place for improvisation and a sound that jamming musicians are familiar with. Here are five of the best versions.

Phil Collins Big Band – Pick Up The Pieces (Average White Band cover)

Average White Band signed with Atlantic Records in the US, and in 1977 provided the part of the spine for Atlantic Family Live at Montreux, a big band celebration of the label’s jazz work. Phil Collins used the arrangement for that concert for his own Big Band performance in 1998.  We can all have an opinion on Collins’ work, but his drumming here is amazing, keeping time at 105bpm over a supercharged series of solos and improvisations, indicating a band at complete comfort with itself. Big Bands have not been a commercial proposition since people started listening to jazz sitting down rather than on the dance floor, so to have a musician willing to make the investment in making this sound work is a gift.

The Jazz Avengers – Pick Up The Pieces (Average White Band cover)

Drummer Senri Kawaguchi started and keeps driving this band, notable for the inclusion of soprano, alto and tenor sax on the front line. This is an upbeat, fast version with less room for the dance floor but much more space for the jazz improvisation by the team, including some amazing slap bass from Juna Serita.

New Orleans Nightcrawlers – Pick Up The Pieces (Average White Band cover)

Notable for its horn and guitar hooks, what happens without strings? New Orleans bands can tell you, the sousaphone picks up the bassline and the trumpets catch the hook! This piece lays waayy back, keeping a languid pace but without sagging.

Erwin and Fire – Pick Up The Pieces (Average White Band cover)

OK then, it works without strings, what happens without horns? Musical Director and renowned nylon string guitarist Erwin Keiles picks up the horn hooks, and his keyboardist takes over the solos. With a number of well known session musicians from the funkier end of the market, this is a Latin-flavored dance special.

Live at Daryl Hall’s House – Pick Up The Pieces (Average White Band cover)

AWB bassist Allan Gorie spent some time working with Daryl Hall and his band. As we now know, relationships under such circumstances can end up being fraught. Not in this case. Long before the pandemic made recording in your basement studio a necessity, Daryl Hall was putting out YouTube videos of himself and his friends having musical fun. The pleasure on the faces of the musicians as they create and participate in a joyful recording is magnificent to watch.

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