Brian Auger: bridging the gap

Lin Bensley meets a cornerstone of British R&B, jazz and rock who crossed over long before the term entered the record biz lexicon. At nearly 80 he's still pounding it out on the Hammond

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Born two months before the outbreak of World War II, Brian grew up in London during the Blitz.

“I grew up with a pianola in the house and my father had a collection of piano rolls. Apparently at the age of three my elder brother had already shown me how to hook up the piano rolls, stand on the pedals that drove the machine, and to pedal away like a demonic cyclist to make the music play. I spent most of my time playing the extensive library of music my father had assembled; operas, there were many… Carmen, Aida, Madame Butterfly, Faust, I Pagliacci etc, etc. There was also some ragtime and other pieces by Beethoven, Debussy, Verdi and more”.

In 1944 the family home was destroyed during a bomb raid and though no one was hurt, Brian was evacuated to Leeds for two years to live with another family who fortunately owed a piano. It was here he began learning to play by ear those melodies he had memorised from watching the paper rolls on the pianola. Upon returning home he continued to pursue his broader his tastes in music.

“My brother Jim (13 years older than me) had a collection of jazz records and I became a very young jazz fan. I heard Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Count Basie, Jelly Roll Morton, George Shearing, etc, etc. I loved the way the music swung and I already wanted to play like that. Later when I heard Oscar Peterson play I became a great fan”.

At a tender age he was soon entertaining friends and family at parties in the neighbourhood where people would often pass the hat around. Within a few years he was gigging regularly in West End clubs where he soon started to draw a celebrity audience including the likes of Billie Holiday, and it was not long before he became a regular fixture at Ronnie Scott’s in Gerrard Street.

“Ronnie Scott was not only a great tenor sax player but also a very funny guy. When I played the club he would always ask me ‘Briars [his nickname for me], any new jokes?’ We would exchange the latest jokes and have a good laugh to start the evening. But, when he was in a really good mood, he would get up on stage and come out with some really funny stories. I had just entered the club one evening (this would be in the early 60s) and stood at the bar when Ronnie began addressing the audience: ‘People see my name outside on the club and think that I am a millionaire. Nothing could be further from the truth. My family was so poor that just after the war they had to buy my school clothes from the Army Surplus Store. Then you can imagine how embarrassed I was having to go to a London East End Jewish school everyday dressed as a Japanese Rear Admiral!”

The Yardbirds’ single ‘For Your Love’: ‘I did a rolling intro with the harpsichord thing and left thinking these guys are nuts, I mean, who’s going to buy a pop single with a harpsichord on it? And of course it went to number one’

Auger first came to wide public attention in 1962 with the Brian Auger Trio – occasionally augmented by John McLaughlin.

“John and I used to play together regularly in the early 60s. Almost every weekend we were playing clubs and also for the American servicemen on their bases in England. I got a contract to take a band into the Pigalle Club in Piccadilly and included John in the line-up. After the contract was up we kept in touch.

Auger won the Melody Maker jazz poll in 1964 and soon after The Brian Auger Trio evolved into the Brian Auger Trinity and in the following year when he first heard Jimmy Smith he decided to switch to a Hammond B3. Such was Brian’s standing among fellow musicians by now that he was often recruited for session work and was invited to play keyboards on The Yardbirds’ single “For Your Love”.

“When I arrived I said ‘Where’s the organ?’ and they said ‘We don’t have an organ – just a harpsichord’. So I did a rolling intro with the harpsichord thing and left thinking these guys are nuts, I mean, who’s going to buy a pop single with a harpsichord on it? And of course it went to number one, so what do I know?”

Auger and the Trinity soon secured their own recording contract with Columbia Records and released a number of singles including “Fool Killer”, “Kiko” and “Green Onions ’65”. 

“I made some test recordings for a notable con man and erstwhile manager, Giorgio Gomelsky. At this time I was approached by Long John Baldry who asked me if I was interested in putting a band together with him which became known as Steampacket after the Mississippi riverboats. John wanted me to include an unknown Rod Stewart who he referred to as his ‘protege’. I enjoyed working with Baldry, who was, on his night, obviously the best English bluesman with fans like the Beatles, the Stones and Elton John”.

The full line-up of Steampacket included Vic Briggs (guitar); Micky Waller (drums); Richard Brown (bass) and vocalist Julie Driscoll, whose striking appearance as much as her distinctive voice and phrasing made her stand out from other female singers of the era.

In retrospect, Steampacket have been dubbed the first “supergroup”; an uncanny epithet when one considers the band’s reputation rests solely upon its live performances with no studio recordings ever being made due to contractual complications.

“I eventually left Steampacket after a month in a club called ‘The Papagayo’ in St. Tropez, because John was drinking excessively and could only show up for two of the four shows we had to perform, and Rod had already left the band in a fit of pique when he found out that John had agreed to to go to St. Tropez without him. Julie and the band did the last two sets and nobody complained”.

The Trinity: …a deliberate melding of blues, folk, rock and pop and Motown whilst heavily influenced by Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. ‘I tried to bridge the gap between the jazz and rock scenes’

Back in London in the summer of 1966, Auger reformed The Trinity with the addition of Julie Driscoll. Their music was a deliberate melding of blues, folk, rock and pop and Motown whilst heavily influenced by Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. “I tried to bridge the gap between the jazz and rock scenes”.

Later that year, while playing one night at the Cromwell Club in Chelsea, Auger was introduced to newcomer Jimi Hendrix by Chas Chandler who suggested the guitarist might sit in. Auger readily agreed, and following a brief discussion they launched into “Hey Joe”. Asked if he passed the audition, Auger ruefully commented “He certainly did, and I think he scared some of the notable guitarists in the club, namely Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Alvin Lee”.

In 1968, Julie Driscoll with the Brian Auger Trinity released their debut album Open, which enjoyed chart success as did their single, a cover version of Dylan’s “This Wheel’s On Fire”. The band proved even more successful in Europe where they headlined the Montreux Jazz Festival and also played the Berlin Jazz Festival and attracted a loyal following.

Though their second album Streetnoise, showcased their talents to better effect as well as Julie’s songwriting ability, it fared less well in commercial terms. Undaunted, the band undertook a promotional tour of America which did reap its own rewards while further enhancing Auger’s reputation as a keyboardist. Julie, however, never happy with the media attention, left soon after to record her first solo album before joining her future husband Keith Tippett in his avant-garde experiments.

Befour was released in 1970. In typically prescient Auger style it now sounds like a cosmopolitan primer for world music before world music was invented

One further Trinity album, Befour, was released in 1970. In typically prescient Auger style it now sounds like a cosmopolitan primer for world music before world music was invented. Who else would have dared to include material by the likes of Sly Stone, Fauré, Traffic, Herbie Hancock, Eddie Harris and Albinoni on the same album? The answer – no one; the world was still too square-shaped for Befour which may go some way to explaining why it was so unjustly ignored.

Considering his options, Auger disbanded the group in order to pursue his jazz/rock leanings in earnest and so Oblivion Express came into being with Jim Mullen (guitar), Barry Dean (bass) and Robbie McIntosh (drums) with Auger handling keyboards and lead vocals. Both the self-titled debut and the follow-up A Better Land display an original and innovative flair hitherto missing from Auger’s earlier recordings that some may have felt relied too heavily on cover versions. Auger, to his eternal credit, had the chutzpah to seek new musical directions, allayed with his inbred funkiness that the likes of say Keith Emerson or Thijs Van Leer or Jan Hammer could never quite emulate.

For the third album, Second Wind, it was all change, with Jack Mills replacing Mullen who left to join Vinegar Joe, and Godfrey Maclean taking over the drum stool from McIntosh who departed to join the Average White Band. Maclean brought percussionist Lennox Laington with him to the audition and Auger hired him on the spot. And, well aware of his limitations as a lead singer, Auger invited Alex Ligertwood to take over vocal duties; his powerhouse presence adding a further dimension to the sound.

Regrettably Ligertwood was forced to quit some months later upon moving to Paris at a time when Auger had decided to commit the band to touring America on a regular basis. It was often a gruelling experience, with Auger being forced to meet many expenses out of his own pocket and running precariously into debt as they criss-crossed the country supporting Herbie Hancock, ZZ Top and Led Zeppelin, among others.

It was only when they reached Cleveland and found favour with local radio station WMMS (The Buzzard) one of America’s most influential commercial stations, that RCA finally took notice and began to promote the band with the positive result that both Closer To It and Straight Ahead broke in America.

“The funny thing was that Alex wasn’t in town, so I had to sing myself on those albums. I only sing in emergencies, but they went on to become the biggest albums”.

Things could only get better, and in 1977 he was voted number one organist in Contemporary Keyboard magazine, while the following year he reunited with Julie to record Encore “for old times’ sake” for Warner Brothers. The album opens and closes with two mesmerising Al Jarreau numbers, “Spirit” and “Lock All the Gates”.

“The first time I heard Al Jarreau, I stopped the car and called the Sausalito radio station to find out who was singing. It turned out that Al was on the same label as myself … Warners. So I called them and ordered a box of 30 to give to all my friends”.

In 1990, Auger recorded Super Jam at the invitation of former Spencer Davis drummer Pete York who had also roped in Dick Morrissey (sax); Roy Williams (trombone); Harvey Weston (bass) with Zoot Money and Maria Muldaur sharing lead vocal duties. Recorded live in Stuttgart for the TV series Villa Fantastica, the resulting album proved a pleasurable romp through a collection of jazz standards and movie classics.

“The whole project was dreamed up by Pete York and produced by Michael Maschke. I had known Dick Morrissey since we were 18 years old, Zoot Money since the 60s. We had a great time and Maria turned out to be a sweetheart and all in all it was a tremendous experience”.

In 1989 he received a call from Eric Burdon who was looking to form a six-piece outfit for an extensive world tour. “It sounded like the Steampacket days all over again. We were keen to put a band together and update some of the arrangements and make it really like a great modern band and really nail everybody”.

Auger’s son Karma joined the band as drummer for their European tour and also proved a useful sound technician when Auger was asked by Burdon to produce and record a double live album. It turned out to be a real tough assignment, but I think we got something worth saving”. Auger is ever the master of understatement: Access All Areas is a jubilant reworking of past glories and crowd pleasers repeatedly spurred on by Auger’s intoxicating vamping.

From time to time Auger has reformed Oblivion Express in collaboration with Karma and his daughter Savannah. “Five years ago we did a European tour with my daughter Savannah singing, and we were able to recreate those numbers from the earlier albums. The audience loved it. The band loved it”.

In 2012 Auger released Language of the Heart, comprising seven tracks written and arranged by Auger and Tea, the electro-pop duo featuring Phil Bunch (keyboards, percussion) and guitarist Frank Balloffet. The recordings are always blissful and never bland as Auger alternates between Hammond B3, Fender Rhodes and Korg M3 piano, perfectly demonstrating that a passion for making music has always been his raison d’être; a man for whom commitment is never an issue.

“Phil and Frank called me and asked if I would be interested in making an album with them. As we had already worked together before I didn’t hesitate. As we began recording I realised that I needed some guitars. So I called my old friend Jeff (Skunk) Baxter who is always ready to help out, and the great Julian Coryell. Julian’s dad once told me ‘You should hear Julian, he’s better than me!’ Working with Karma and daughters Ali and Savannah was a wonderful experience, and Julian was in a band with Karma and bassist Nick Sample – Joe Sample’s son”.

Never one to rest on his laurels, last autumn Auger completed an 18-date tour of Europe to promote his new album, Full Circle, recorded earlier in the year at Bogies Bar, Westlake Village in California.

“The music director of Bogies contacted me to say he was launching a new project – namely to present a different jazz piano trio each night for a week and would I like to open. I agreed and asked to make sure that we had a decent piano, tuned and ready to go. I then called Dan Lutz – a great upright bassist and bass guitarist. I then spoke to Karma about whether we should record the evening. We decided against it because we had only one afternoon to rehearse the tunes. In the end Karma recorded the show without telling us – ‘in case we might get a couple of good tracks’ – I’m so glad he did. We ended up with the only piano-jazz album I have ever made”.

Brian Auger has been dubbed the Godfather of Acid Jazz – “whatever that means”, he says. His fans call him “The Tiger,” and at 79 he burns as brightly as ever. He’s lost nothing of his appetite to delight and dazzle while there are people willing to listen.

Brian Auger’s formidable straight-ahead jazz chops were evidenced amply in the 2016 CD issue Back To The Beginning …Again: The Brian Auger Anthology, Vol. 2 (Freestyle 116), including a burning rendition of “Love for Sale”.