Ohio Players,

Average White Band

New Regal Theater, December 9

When I first heard about New Regal Theater’s “battle of the bands” between the Ohio Players and Average White Band, I chuckled. What battle? It would be more like a slaughter. The Ohio Players were among the founders of funk; what could a bunch of Scottish copycats do but dodge the dust thrown in their faces? In a recent radio battle of the bands on V-103 FM based on listeners’ calls, the Ohio Players had whipped AWB. Their vicious rhythms and sexy, drawled vocals won call after call. They could smoke any blue-eyed soul band, no matter how good, with just a guitar riff and a “wellll” from lead singer Sugarfoot.

When I entered the New Regal I felt a strong surge of anticipation, in myself and the audience, for the Ohio Players. But when AWB took the stage and the audience recognized the melody from “I’m the One,” they applauded eagerly. By the time AWB performed “A Love of Your Own,” with original lead singer Alan Gorrie crooning the ballad like the smoothest white-boy mack you’ll ever see, I realized something was up. Women screamed, and most of the crowd got up and sang every word of the song. A few cymbals, and the fans recognized “School Boy Crush,” jumping to their feet and yelling “Go ‘head! Go ‘head!” Onstage AWB were stiff, and the rhythm section was less than tight, but they’d obviously forged a strong bond with the audience.

The Ohio Players swiftly established who plays authentic funk, however. Their first song, “Skin Tight,” showcased a triple-guitar unison solo. “When’s the last time you heard a real band?” yelled original member James “Diamond” Williams from behind his drum set. “Everybody uses tapes, samples, we don’t use none of that shit! Everything that you hear is live!” And from “Funky Worm” to “Sweet Sticky Thing”–the chorus of which was introduced a cappella–the Ohio Players were slick and tight. They were also slightly uninspired. The audience bounced their heads along but mostly stayed in their seats. You might have expected Leroy “Sugarfoot” Bonner’s swaggering vocals, grimacing, and prancing alone to elicit more of a response. But something was missing. The show had been stolen.

“Crossover” has come to mean black performers tailoring their acts to reach white audiences. But the opposite, white acts crossing over to black audiences, was at a peak in AWB’s heyday in the 70s. After the free love 60s, the times were tolerant, and integrated groups like Sly and the Family Stone glimpsed the possibilities of influencing both black and white audiences. People like Hall & Oates, the Doobie Brothers, and Teena Marie started popping up on black radio. And they produced consistent hits, not just single novelty tunes. They didn’t just jump on the disco bandwagon either, like so many mediocre 70s white acts. These white people cultivated a black following with sincere, soulful singing and lyrics that consistently hit a chord in the black community.

Hall & Oates, who first hit with “Sara Smile” and “She’s Gone,” dripped with soul. In Daryl Hall’s singing you could feel his hurt. You could tell that the duo had studied the Motown sound and Stax closely. Later on, in the early 80s, “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)” caught the attention of black audiences again. But then the group blew up on MTV and started putting out white-bread songs like “Maneater” and “Kiss on My List.” The MTV-era hits had soul, but it was diluted; the rhythm was a little too fast, and the duo’s glossy new image smacked entirely too much of long-haired white-boy posing to interest black audiences anymore. The Doobies were a little hippie-ish, but lead singer Michael McDonald’s crooning was all soul. “What a Fool Believes,” “Minute by Minute,” and the later duet with Patti LaBelle, “On My Own,” are still played on urban contemporary radio.

Teena Marie, a tiny white girl who was a protege of Rick James, never even took a crack at white audiences. She knew her passionate, husky singing, a mixture of Janis Joplin’s fire and Gladys Knight’s soul, was made for black radio. Her duets with James, “Sucka for Your Love” and “Fire and Desire,” and “Portuguese Love” and “Square Biz” made her a black-radio mainstay. She knew how to wring every drop out of a song, and she did it with heart and sincerity.

Today, singers like Michael Bolton and Madonna attempt to capture the essence of black music and style, but they get no props with black audiences. Glaring mimicry, empty singing, and plastic images don’t make it. They’re condescending and weak. There has to be some interest in black culture beyond stealing every nuance and appropriating it for white audiences.

Average White Band was one of the few white acts that crossed over to black audiences consistently enough to rate a standing ovation 20 years later. “A Love of Your Own,” “Pick Up the Pieces,” and “School Boy Crush” are dusty-radio staples. In Chicago at least, the blue-eyed soul band built a strong crossover following on black radio play, at skating rinks, and at “steppers’ parties.”

Stepping has played an important part in Chicago’s black social scene since the 60s, and steppers’ parties–nights when clubs play stepping music exclusively–are still very popular. The Ohio Players’ music was made for all-out dancing, but few of their tunes can be used for stepping, except maybe “Sweet Sticky Thing.” The rhythm of AWB songs, on the other hand, suits the beat-dependent movements of skate/dancing, of gliding into big wheels and crossing into crazy-leg gestures. Stepping–a stylized progression of the bop–calls for cool, swift action; it’s complemented by songs that are slow but have a strong beat, like “I’m the One” and “School Boy Crush.” AWB is more a part of the past for black audiences than the Ohio Players.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Steven D. Arazmus/Paul T. Chan.