What were the chances a funky,sax-led instrumental would reach #1 on the pop charts and #5 on the R&B charts in the fall of 1974 and go on to become the all-time best-selling instrumental single? Probably about the same odds as six "Caucasian lads" from Scotland forming a hugely successful soul R&B band. The song, of course, was "Pick Up the Pieces," and the Scottish sextet behind the crossover smash was the Average White Band. Although Roger Ball's and Molly Duncan's inside-out horn melody and Hamish Stuart's unwavering rhythm-guitar line are front and center, the track's forward motion emanates from Robbie McIntosh's drums and, especially, Alan Gorrie's bass.
Gorrie, who co-founded the group and shared lead vocals with Stuart (with whom he sometimes swapped instruments), started on bass at age 15 in a neighborhood band. Inspired by his piano-playing dad and the forward-thinking lines of Paul McCartney and John Entwistle, Alan also dug the sounds of what was then Scotland's latest dance craze:Tamla/Motown. "James Jamerson blew my mind with his sound, feel, and non-root bass lines. From then on, R&B was permanently in my blood because it was bass-dominated music." The added influences of Booker T. & the MG's and James Brown led to the formation of AWB in London in 1971. Signed by MCA in 1973, the Average White Band released Show Your Hand before switching to Atlantic for a solid nine album run that ended with their breakup in the early'80s. "Pick Up the Pieces" exploded from their second record, AWB, a classic referred to by fans and band alike as "The White Album." Gorrie, who notes that AWB always included instrumentals in their sets, recounts the song's writing and recording process. "It was started one morning while writing the white album, in the house where we were living in L.A. Robbie got up and began playing a groove on the kit; Hamish woke up second and started playing his rhythm guitar line. I heard this and jumped out of bed to join in on bass. The next morning Roger brought in a written melody for himself and Molly and asked us to play the same grooveăand the song just came together. It was sort of our tribute to James Brown, with interlocking parts that never step on each other. In fact, I got the idea for the spoken-rhythm title over the V chord - 'pick up the pieces' - from James Brown's 'pass the peas."'
AWB recorded the song as a demo and then re-recorded the hit version when Jerry Wexler and Arif Mardin signed them to Atlantic. "We followed an Aretha Franklin session at Criteria Studios in Miami, which was a fairly religious experience," Alan laughs. "I remember sitting in Chuck Rainey's chairăand it was still warm!" The band selected from a few live, punch-less takes and overdubbed organ and percussion later. Gorrie fingered his natural-finish '59 P-Bass with flatwound strings, which was recorded direct and through a miked Ampeg B- 15. "My original demo part was similar but busier, with a lot more ghost-notes and accents, as was Robbie's drum part. But Jerry Wexler asked both of us to simplify what we were doing and leave more space. He said, 'Empty it out; it will make a bigger record.' And he was right."
The track begins with a four-bar intro, followed by the song's A section. Gorrie sets this up with a repeated two-bar phrase that becomes the main bass theme. "The key is that I always land on the downbeat of the tonic chord [Fm7], even though the melody and Robbie's drums often anticipate the last 16th of beat four. That was another of Wexler's refinements, because I would have instinctively pushed with them." Alan does push with the band on the IV chord in bars 13-14 (as well as in bars 27-28, 48-49, and 84-85). Section B mirrors A with the addition of Alan's cool, Jamerson-like walk-down in bar 32 (also in bars 51 and 87). C contains the tune's second section, famous for Robbie McIntosh's anticipation of the V chord on the last beat of bar 36. Listen in this section, and again at E and H, for Alan's unwritten B's on the G-string, which he subtly sounds by fingering the octave with his pinkie.
After the first and second sections repeat at D and E, F contains the sax solo. Here Gorrie increases his motion with a cool lick that adds chord-defining 3rds and 7ths to the first half of his two-bar phrase. "Onstage we like to take it up a notch during solos, so Arif let us get some steam going." Note also the late-in-the-measure fills in bars 63, 65, 68, and 69. "That's me going back to the type of busier part I originally played," Gorrie reports. Throughout F, the wide interval leap led Alan to pluck the low B~'s with his right thumb. G, H, and I restate the song's first, second, and first sections (A-C-A), with Alan grabbing the band's melody line for a unison ending in the final bar.
Following AWB's initial breakup, Gorrie recorded a solo album in L.A., collaborated with Nashville writers, toured and recorded with Darryl Hall, and helped compile Rhino's excellent 18-track collection Pickin' Up the Pieces -The Best of the Average White Band (1972 - 1980). A handful of late-'80s AWB gigs coupled with Europe's R & B revival led to a reforming of the band by Gorrie and Onnie Mclntyre with three new membersăin l992. The quintet recently released its second album "Face to Face" will tour the U.S. and abroad while writing for their third On the road, Alan sends his Fender Jazz Bass V into a Gallien-Krueger 400RB head and Hartke 4 x 10 and l x 15 cabinets. "It's great to be back playing to fans old and new 20 years after our hey-day," he says. "My ultimate goal is to make another album with the quality and integrity of the white album. If we can accomplish that, we can finally pick up the pieces and put a cap on it."
Excerpted from Chris Jisi's transcription courtesy of:
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