COMING GO ROUND AGAIN – The 360band’s Hamish Stewart talks to SJF

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  • COMING GO ROUND AGAIN – The 360band’s Hamish Stewart talks to SJF

          Hamish Stuart’s name is a familiar one to seasoned connoisseurs of funk and soul. He rose to fame, of course, as a singer, guitarist and occasional bass player with arguably Scotland’s finest musical export, the Average White Band. That was during the 1970s when they became one of the world’s biggest R&B acts on the back of numerous hit singles (including the perennially popular and much-sampled ‘Pick Up The Pieces’) and several notable LPs. He stayed with the band until 1983 and then embarked on a solo career. He was also in demand as a sideman and in 1989 began a four-year period touring and recording with Paul McCartney (he appeared on five of the ex-Beatles’ albums, including the acclaimed studio opus, ‘Flowers In The Dirt’) and later, in 2006, he found himself working with the other surviving member of the ‘Fab Four,’ when he toured with Ringo Starr.

Today, at the age of 67, this affable Glaswegian could comfortably rest on his laurels and take it easy like The Eagles but playing in a band is a bug that he finds hard to shake off. As a result, Stuart is back in the groove with the 360band, whose nucleus comprises himself along with fellow former AWB members Molly Duncan (saxophone), and Steve Ferrone (drums). The trio’s debut album, ‘Three Sixty,’ is due for release later this month and is distinguished by the same kind of classy, soulful R&B vibe that infused the Average White Band’s best recordings back in the day. 

The idea of coming full circle was the initial thought,” says softly-spoken Stuart referring to the significance of the band’s name. “Or it could be just three guys over 60,” he quips, which he follows with a hearty, self-deprecating chuckle. He reveals that the 360band came about principally because of Steve Ferrone, who became a sought-after session drummer after he left the AWB. “He was being honoured in the drummer’s Hall of Fame in LA a couple of years ago,” explains Stuart, “and asked everybody who was in the Average White Band to play with him but only Molly and I could make it because the other guys had other commitments. We had such a good time that we said we’ve got to do this again.”



They eventually reconvened for some shows in the UK that focused on performing the AWB’s ‘Soul Searching’ LP from 1976 in its entirety. During that time an offer came in to make a record, which the trio couldn’t turn down. As it transpired, all three members had some new material ready. “Molly and Steve both had a song, and I had a bunch of things that I’d been doing,” reveals Stuart. “So we ran through it all and decided what we were going to do. We rehearsed for the shows in the studio we were recording in so we finished rehearsals and went into straight in cutting the record. We cut nine songs in four days and just had a blast. It was lovely.”

Stuart reveals that all of the music was recorded live to tape in the studio. He reveals that he’s a passionate advocate of recording in the traditional way with all of the participating musicians playing together in the same room. “It’s so much more fun to do that way,” he explains. “The whole spark comes from playing together. You get wonderful moments when everybody connects because the take is a one-time-only thing. You’ll never ever play it the same again. You might play better, you might play it worse, but the take is the take and I think that’s why there’s a lot of magic in the great records of the past that we revere and love. It was a moment when everything was right, everything clicked. Even if there’s one mistake there, it’s worth leaving the mistake because the rest of the thing is so right.”

Among the album’s standouts are ‘Mighty Fall’ and ‘Too Hip.’ The former is a tribute to boxing legend, the late Muhammad Ali.  “He was an amazing individual – bright, smart, funny and just a great spirit, so I had to write a song about him,” says Stuart. ‘Too Hip,’ by contrast, is autobiographical. It reflects on the early days of the Average White Band and in particular, focuses on the group’s early ’70s talisman, drummer, Robbie McIntosh, who died from a drugs overdose in 1974. “It really started off about the early days of the band and then it grew into a song about Robbie because he was the lynchpin of the band. So the song became a tribute to him.

McIntosh was irreplaceable, of course, and his tragic loss initially deemed irreparable but somehow, the group held it together and got back on track. Brighton-born Steve Ferrone (formerly of Bloodstone and Brian Auger’s Oblivion Express) came in to fill the vacant drummer’s chair.  “One of the great things about Steve was that we knew him anyway,” states Stuart. “He and Robbie had been very close friends, there were very tight, and knew each other from when they were both working the same places. They followed each other in and out of bands. So they had a connection and we all knew that and he just seemed like the right guy.”                           


As with McIntosh, Ferrone (pictured above) brought his own unique feel, dynamism, and presence to the band. “Like Robbie, he was a force,” says Stuart. “It was probably about four or five months after Robbie died that Steve finally joined the band. Atlantic got us back in the studio because they felt that probably the best thing for us at that point was to move on and try to play something new, which was very, very difficult.” 

What resulted was the album, ‘Cut The Cake,’ which cast a veil over the band’s troubles by rising to #1 in the US R&B albums chart. It also yielded three hit singles, including the title track and ‘Schoolboy Crush.’ “There’s a couple of songs that aren’t quite as good as they could have been,” admits Stuart looking back at that album, “but there some good things came out of all that bad time. We may have taken our eye off the ball with some things but some great things came too and Steve is certainly part of that, like with ‘Schoolboy Crush,’ which are amongst those things which have lasted.”

Hamish Stuart relishes playing with his old compadre in 360band. “It was great playing with him again,” he enthuses. “The drums are so important to me because if they’re not right and there’s not somebody really pushing you and inspiring you, then you might just as well stay in bed or go home. I love playing bass with Steve as well. There’s a few things, like ‘Cut The Cake’ and ‘Schoolboy Crush,’ where I’m playing bass and he’s playing drums. I play very simply because I can’t play any better than that but it always fits very well with what Steve did. There are two songs on the new record where I play bass and we just clicked like no time had passed.”                   


Reuniting with AWB saxophonist Malcolm ‘Molly’ Duncan (pictured above) in 360band was also a thrill for Hamish Stuart. “Molly is a character,” he laughs.  “At the start of the band, musically it evolved around Robbie, but socially, Molly was the heart of the band. When we cut tracks back in the ’70s, Molly probably wouldn’t play on the basic track because Roger, the other horn player, would be playing piano, so we recorded with basic tracks with two guitars, bass, drums, and piano, and Moll would be the barometer in the control room. Making this new record, Moll was in the control room most of the time as well. So the new album had that going for it as well. And Molly’s sound is so great now. It was always great but now it’s matured so much. I played with him the other night at a gig in Edinburgh with my band when he came and sat in. And it was just wonderful. He’s playing better than ever and his sound is just great.”                          


Hamish Stuart (pictured above) was born into a musical family. “My mother and father were both singers,” he discloses. “My mother was a soprano and dad was a tenor. They sang in church choirs and my mother did classical recitals for the BBC. She also had a little vocal group that sang show tunes and toured with Jimmy Logan. So singing was like breathing around the house…it was always there.”

Despite the omnipresence of music in his life, it wasn’t until he heard a popular  beat group from south of the border in Liverpool during the early 1960s that a teenage Hamish Stuart aspired to be a musician himself. “When the Beatles came along, it was all of a sudden, okay, I can get a guitar and me and my mates can have a band,” he says. By the late ’60s, Stuart was playing in a band called Dream Police. “My oldest school friend Matt, was in the band with me and we made two or three singles for Decca and then the group fell apart,” he says. It was while he was with Dream Police that Stuart heard a record that changed his life. “I remember coming down to London and playing in a little club with Dream Police. The DJs, when they wanted to break, put on James Brown’s ‘Live At The Apollo Volume 2,’ so you just got 20 minutes of pure funk. I thought I want to be able to do that.”                          


With the demise of Dream Police, Stuart wanted to play R&B and his wishes were granted when he got a call in 1972 from fellow Scot, Alan Gorrie, of the newly formed Average White Band. Says Stuart: “I knew Alan and I’d heard about the band and was really excited about hearing them because Robbie was in the band. They’d cut some stuff and Alan said ‘would you come down and sing on them with us?’ I said yeah, absolutely, and boom, we were off.”

Initially the band recorded for MCA, but their debut album, 1973’s ‘Show Your Hand,’ didn’t make much of an impact. After that disappointment, they re-launched themselves via a deal brokered in the US with Atlantic Records in ’74 and recorded ‘AWB,’ which featured their evergreen funky instrumental hit, ‘Pick Up The Pieces.’ The band quickly became massively popular in America. “It was like taking coals to Newcastle,” laughs Hamish Stuart, amused by the irony of a Scottish band punting R&B in America and succeeding. “The first tour that we did, we opened for B. B. King in Washington DC to a mainly black audience. We went out and did our little 45 minute slot and they loved it. We were over the moon. We thought: ‘this is working, this is real, we’ve got it, we’re doing this right. With the audience accepting us, it was a watershed moment for us. We knew that we were on the right track.”          


Such was their renown in the US that James Brown, one of Stuart’s heroes, paid them a backhanded compliment, releasing  a record called ‘Pick Up The Pieces One By One,’ though it was jokingly attributed to the Above Average Black Band. “We didn’t know quite how to take that at first,” laughs Stuart. “We felt like it was a snub at first. We heard that he felt like we were ripping him off but he came round to realising it was more of a homage to what he and the JB’s were doing. We learned a lot from those guys.”          


They also gleaned much from their producer at the time, Arif Mardin (pictured above), who had previously worked with soul legends Aretha Franklin and Donny Hathaway. “He was an absolute gent and a joy to work with,” remembers Stuart.  “He was a lovely man. When Steve and I were making the new record, we said Arif would have liked this and wished that he was still here. We knew we were in good hands when we worked with him. It was total trust. I remember saying to him once, ‘can I redo that line, I think I’m a little sharp there,’ and he said,  ‘no, no… it’s a beautiful blue note.’ He was so inspiring. He was wonderful.”                       


In the ’70s and early ’80s, Stuart and Steve Ferrone worked together with Mardin on Chaka Khan’s first five LPs and then later, in 1989, after the Average White Band had bitten the dust, he was asked to work with one of his musical heroes. “Paul McCartney’s manager, who I knew, called me up out of the blue one morning when I was having my breakfast. I was living in LA and he said,’ hi, I’m working with Paul McCartney and he’s putting a band together. Do you want to come over and have a play?’ Shocked but excited, Stuart agreed to take part and spent several years on the road with McCartney (above). “I loved singing with Paul, we both enjoyed that experience. It was great and I never imagined I’d wind up working with him.”

Several years later, he wound up playing with another Beatle – Ringo Starr. “It was a different experience,” reveals Stuart. “There were more people involved. I’d do two songs, Billy Squire would do two songs, and then Rod Argent from the Zombies would do a couple. Ringo would do his songs and Sheila E  would do some. The responsibilities were much more dispersed within the group, whereas with Paul he was out front and we were the rhythm section, which was the same with Ringo, but we had more of a feature. Every individual that was in Ringo’s All Stars had a feature. They were smaller shows too. Paul’s shows were huge stadium productions and as it went along, they got bigger and bigger. We played the Maracana (in Brazil) with Paul in front of a quarter of a million people. But with Ringo, the biggest audience we played to was like 10,000 and the smallest was a couple of thousand.”

Stuart recalls his time playing with Ringo Starr’s All-Stars with great affection. “Ringo’s a great joker, he’s so funny,” he laughs. “He talked to the audience and it was hilarious every night. It was like being with a lounge act. It was so much fun.”                                  


Asked to single out the most memorable moments of his career thus far, Hamish Stuart considers that his tenures with both Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr are highlights though they are eclipsed by his recollection of the time when Motown great, Marvin Gaye (pictured above), joined the Average White Band on stage. “Marvin Gaye was a huge fan of the band,” he discloses. “He invited us out to his house for dinner. We came into the kitchen and he was in there in his sweats cooking and then we had a gig a couple of days later, which he came down to. As we were about to go on stage, I said to him, ‘we do ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’ as our encore. Would you come up and do it with us?’ He said ‘yes, of course’ so I said when we get out there, I’ll take the first verse and you take the second. When we were on stage, he sidled up to me as we were playing a little vamp in between the chorus and the second verse, and said to me, ‘what’s the first line?’ He had forgotten the words so I had to give him the line. But that was a great moment because we were at the absolute height of our popularity in LA at that time and the place was going nuts. We had his American tour manager from Fresno, California, called Gary Smith, and he had a very slow delivery like John Wayne. He came backstage after and said, ‘boy, you guys were going down a storm but when Marvin came on stage, the whole place came unglued, man.'”

Stuart laughs heartily at this happy recollection but admits his main focus now is the present and 360band. “We just want to get this one out and get it rolling and see what happens,” he says.  “Hopefully it will be received well. We want to reach as many people as we can. We don’t expect to set the world on fire but I think it’s a really good, solid album. The songs are good and the playing throughout is great. All the guys who came and played  with us – Steve Pearce, Adam Phillips and Danny Cummings with Jim Watson and Ross Stanley on keyboards – they’re all top players and they played great.”

There probably won’t be any 360band gigs this side of Christmas due to Steve Ferrone’s commitments (he’s going out on the road with rock star Tom Petty) but come 2018, they’ll be raring to play live. “We were looking at getting out either January or February, and if not that, it will be April, May,” says Stuart. In the meantime, there’s the 360band’s classy debut album to savour.