Tenor saxophonist and co-founder of the Average White Band

Born: August 24, 1945;

Died: October 8, 2019

MOLLY Duncan, who has died aged 74, was a Scottish tenor saxophonist who achieved fame with the Average White Band, the Dundee-rooted funk group which achieved huge transatlantic success in 1974 with their hit single Pick Up the Pieces and the same year’s second album AWB. Both records reached number one in the US Billboard charts.

The group were so convincingly steeped in the virtuosic American soul sound of the time that it became a matter of constant amazement, even to soul aficionados, that they were mostly a bunch of white men from Scotland. Duncan and alto saxophonist Roger Ball – known collectively as the Dundee Horns – were at the heart of an upbeat and evocative sound which brought Average White Band huge success during the 1970s.

Their third and fourth albums Cut the Cake and Soul Searching were top ten US hits in 1975 and 1976, respectively, as was the title track of the former. The group released nine albums – including Benny & Us, a 1977 collaboration with Ben E. King – before sharply declining success come the turn of the 1980s led to their split in 1983. In the latter half of the 1970s, however, they were a consistent presence on the Billboard R&B chart, while they scored both a British hit and enduring fame in commercial disco circles with Let’s Go Round Again (1980).

Following AWB’s split, Duncan became much in-demand as a session musician, first for blue-eyed soul groups like Johnny Hates Jazz and Curiosity Killed the Cat, and then with Tom Petty, Eurythmics, Buddy Guy and Feargal Sharkey, while Mark Knopfler personally selected him to play on Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms. During his time in AWB, artists he performed with included Marvin Gaye.

Malcolm Duncan, who was known affectionately as Molly by all who knew him, was born in Montrose in 1945, the second-eldest of four siblings. His father was a respected architect, and Molly followed in his footsteps (as did Alex), moving to Dundee to study the subject at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art. Although he was diligent enough to get through the course, he divided his time with playing saxophone in jazz bands at night, and after his education he moved with close friends Ball and Alan Gorrie to London. There, he and Ball joined James Litherland’s short-lived progressive rock group Mogul Thrash.

By the time the Scottish trio – alongside old friends Owen ‘Onnie’ McIntyre, Robbie McIntosh and Michael Rosen (who was soon replaced by Hamish Stuart) – founded AWB in London in 1972, Duncan had already met and married his Lancastrian wife Jeanie (nee Stancombe); their only son Dan was born in 1971. Following AWB’s success the family moved to the United States, and the middle-class town of New Canaan, Connecticut, for eight years, where the Duncans became known for parties thrown for friends in the music industry.

Following AWB’s split, the Duncans moved back to London, until in 1997, Molly and Jeanie – who managed a number of hotels used by the music industry – decided to slow down their enjoyable but very busy lives and relocate to Majorca. In 2000, however, Jeanie died after a cancer diagnosis. Some years later Molly met a German woman named Christine and moved with her to the town of Bocholt in Germany, close to the border with the Netherlands, a country he loved visiting.

After a one-off appearance with Average White Band for Atlantic’s 40th birthday in 1988, he took no part in the group’s 1989 reunion, and never officially played with them again; however, earlier this decade he, Stuart and Steve Ferrone (the late McIntosh’s replacement in 1974) had started playing and recording together as the 360 Band, and dates were scheduled for later this year. Duncan also recently produced Scottish funk band James Brown is Annie.

During the 1990s Molly also collaborated with his son Dan – who is now a club DJ and producer – on the drum ‘n’ bass project Intense, also performing with the D’n’B producer LTJ Bukem; the trio played the Montreux Jazz Festival, a venue which AWB had previously performed.

“Without a doubt he was the most positive and generous person I’ve ever met,” remembers Dan. “He would never judge people, he was a great storyteller, and his nickname in Majorca translated as ‘sunshine’, because that’s the kind of person he was. He was as much like a brother as a father to me.”

Hamish Stuart also makes a brotherly comparison, and he credits Duncan with sharing his expertise in jazz music. “For me, he was the heart of AWB, because of the way he anchored the rest of us musically and socially,” he says. “He was very laid-back and with a dry sense of humour, and he was a quick study when it came to playing great solos.”

Molly Duncan died at home in Bocholt of lung cancer, and is survived by his son Dan and partner Christine.