You can take the boy out of Perth, put him on the world stage, applaud his dizzying success, and yet – hearteningly; wondrously, even – it seems you can’t take Perth out of the boy.
The city’s most celebrated musical son, Alan Gorrie – whose band of Celtic soul brothers not only conquered America, but also conspired to win the great Aretha Franklin’s respect – has been a long time gone from home, but his roots have never been forgotten.
Call him on the phone, the Perthshire burr’s still intact; email him and he’ll reply in St Johnstone blue type. The Average White Band’s front man is still Perth through and through, singing his home town’s praises no matter where his life on the road takes him.
“I’m a Perth positivist, and I talk it up wherever I go,” says Alan, who has lived in Connecticut with his wife, Jean, since 1976. “It’s a wee town with a big heart, and always hard to leave.”
It’s easy to forget in an age of downloads just what a massive deal it was to land a contract with Atlantic Records in 1974. It’s easy to forget in an age of downloads, TV talent shows and YouTubers just what a massive deal it was for Gorrie and his five compatriots – two from Dundee, two from Glasgow, the other from Montrose – to land a contract with Atlantic Records in 1974.
They joined a roster that featured not just a roll call of US soul – Aretha, Ray Charles, Otis Redding – but the wave of British talent that followed, which included Cream, Dusty Springfield and Led Zeppelin.
That success is currently being celebrated as part of a major exhibition about Scottish pop music, held at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.
It may be a long way from Tayside to the top of the US hit parade – farther still to the pinnacle of the American RnB charts – but Gorrie and his bandmates, for the most part, took it in their stride, even as global stardom ensued.
How they managed to do so isn’t hard to figure out. So often as Scots, we focus on our frailties, overlooking core strengths such as inventiveness, doggedness and groundedness. Gorrie had these, and a quiet self-belief, in abundance; a legacy, he believes, of his formative years.
“Perth has a particularly self-reliant kind of character as a city, and I suppose that instinctively rubbed off on me,” Alan says. “And it helped me shape my adult life to cope with the situations this nomadic and rather insular lifestyle has thrown my way.”
That itinerant lifestyle had already taken Gorrie to London by the time the Average White Band was formed in 1972. The six members had first met at a blues and jazz club, started in Perth by Gorrie and musical friends, called the Blue Workshop.
All six were veterans of Scotland’s remarkable RnB explosion in the mid-1960s, a time when Dundee was soul capital of the east coast, and Perth too had its own, more modest, scene.
“We were definitely the junior partners in the Tayside honours in that department,” says Alan, “but I was lucky to be a member of Perth's best group – The Vikings – who made their mark all over Scotland, merged with three of Dundee's best musicians, and made it to London with credit.”
Perth has a particularly self-reliant kind of character as a city, and I suppose that instinctively rubbed off on meLike so many Scottish musicians of that era, the Average White Band’s personnel were steeped in the black American music of Tamla Motown, Stax, Atlantic and Chess Records, and the Godfather of Soul, James Brown.
For Gorrie, growing up in Jeanfield, there were other influences closer to home. “My father,” he recalls, “was a fine pianist whose first love was classic piano jazz of the Fats Waller, Art Tatum era, and who, at weekends, played with the Salon Dance Orchestra.
“I would often as a kid sit at their Sunday afternoon rehearsals at the old Doo'cotland Hall on Jeanfield Road. He showed me what bandleading was all about.”
Those were valuable lessons, particularly in later life, as Gorrie and his bandmates fused Scottish RnB’s key elements – blues guitar, soulful voices and be-bop/jazz-tinged brass – with Celtic music’s strong emotional impulse, to find their own sweet sound.
Music aside, there are further character-forming clues if you delve a little deeper into Gorrie’s story. His paternal grandfather's business was David Gorrie & Sons, engineers & coppersmiths, in North Methven Street, until around 1954 when the firm closed after his grandfather’s passing.
This was a business where people made things with purpose and pride: functional objects with an understated beauty. Visit the Scottish Council on Archives’ website and you’ll find a photograph of an oval dyeing machine manufactured by Gorrie’s in 1927.
Wood burnished, copper gleaming, it’s a perfect marriage of function and form, bathed in light, almost a work of art. Each element is orchestrated by a variety of artisans and engineers - not unlike a band. When one reviewer described an Average White Band gig this summer as ‘finely crafted, well polished’, you imagine Gorrie’s grandfather would have been pleased.
Such artefacts are elegant reminders that Scottish towns, such as Perth, have not just been places of commerce but centres of craft, industry and enterprise.
“My memories growing up,” says Alan, “were of a place as a real market-town with weekly inundations of farmers and estate factors to St John's Square, and the business they brought every Friday to the local hostelries and hotels, plus our place as a major whisky town, with Dewars, Bells and Gloag's as the big three brands rapidly becoming major international players.”
Something of this entrepreneurial spirit was at play as Gorrie sought commercial success. As other bands knocked record company doors, Gorrie did things differently, booking London’s Denmark Studio for a session with his Blue Workshop buddies.
The end product was so good they formed a band that eventually would have Gorrie share vocals, guitar and bass duties with the fabulously ginger afro-ed Hamish Stuart. They were backed by the metronomic rhythm guitar of Onnie McIntyre and the tight, unified playing of horn players Roger Ball and Malcolm ‘Molly’ Duncan.
Underpinning it all was their talismanic drummer, Robbie McIntosh – in Gorrie’s view, the linchpin of the band – a man whose playing had an inherent groove and subtle precision that was, as Duncan once wryly noted, unusual for a guy from Dundee.
All they needed was a name. As Alan recounts: “It stems from a saying by Montrose friend of Molly Duncan's, Rab Wyper, that something might be "too much for The Average White Man..." in response to various situations or climates, and it was suggested that we just change the last word to give ourselves a cool tongue-in-cheek name.”
Word spread. MCA came calling, liked what they heard and a well-received debut album won them a goodly fan base. Gorrie, though, sensed their initial rush of British-based success wouldn’t last, and so the band set its sights on the land that inspired them.
Their manager borrowed money to take them to the US where one night at a Hollywood party, he slipped a demo tape to Atlantic Records chief Jerry Wexler. Wexler was hooked. The band relocated to New York and released a second album that reached No. 1. It was the first of many with the renowned producer Arif Mardin.
Those were memorable times, which saw the band rubbing shoulders with the great Aretha. “One of our first riveting moments,” recalls Alan, “was when we were wheeled into the studio at Atlantic Records to begin the finished versions of the album, and she was finishing up a vocal take which we got to watch from the control room. Pure magic!
“Then, months later, we celebrated with her at producer Arif Mardin's home in New York as we were nominated for our first Grammy, and she was receiving one on the same night. She really was the best of the best, and the gold standard and influence to several upcoming generations of would-be courtiers.”
Soon the Scots courtiers would become kings: even now, hearing the groove on their million-selling breakthrough single, Pick Up the Pieces, can still amaze. It was as huge a hit that few saw coming: a funk instrumental – originally a B-side – played by six Scotsmen with no lyrics other than a shout.
A series of hits followed until a split in 1983; all of their success achieved without the totemic McIntosh, who had died at 24, only months before the breakthrough.
While some UK critics were thrown by the band’s success, Gorrie was unfazed, having harboured an unshakeable belief that things would come good: “A combination of obvious talent, a feeling that we were really prepared, determined, dauntless – and then several kismet strokes of luck and timing helped put the ball in the net for us.
“A look back tells me that these strokes usually only come to those with the first three qualifications already in their back pocket.”
The point can’t be overstated. Of all musical genres, soul is the one where it’s easiest to spot a fake, but funk fans, such as the 22,000 who attended one rapturous early gig in Washington’s Capital Center – where the band were the only white people in the auditorium – took the group to their hearts.
So too did the hip-hop generation, making the group one of the most sampled acts in history, opening up a fresh audience since the band’s return with a new line-up in 1989.
“That made a vast difference, says Alan, “in a fallow period during the late 1980s and early 1990s when a dip in RnB music taste was a foe, and the subsequent notoriety that the sampling brought to our brand regenerated the interest and respect that has seen our huge revival.”
That new lease of life has been enormously satisfying for Gorrie as he fronts the new line-up with McIntyre. He remains refreshingly grounded – and grateful – despite the ups and downs.
“We’ve weathered those through the knowledge that the music we have is fairly bulletproof, says Alan, “and that it can withstand the vagaries of fashion and taste over several decades, as long as it's played with the same dedication to form as it originally was.”
That dedication to form, and the influences that shaped Gorrie, are still at play, one continuing thread. Listen closely, you might sense his grandfather, his gentle, rhythmical hammer pounding on copper; his bandleading father, his fingers falling flat on the keys; his long-departed friend, his drumbeats shaping the band’s sweet sound; each of them somehow present, as if watching from the wings, nodding their tacit approval.
The Average White Band are among the artists showcased in Rip It Up: The Story of Scottish Pop at the National Museum of Scotland, Chambers Street, Edinburgh, until 25th November.
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