“Then I also started to find a lot of American organ players – Jimmy McGriff, Brother Jack McDuff, people like Don Patterson, Shirley Scott; and Richard ‘Groove’ Holmes, who actually recorded a couple of my tunes from the first ‘OPEN’ album.” – Brian Auger
Brian Auger is a British born piano and Hammond Organ player who has definitely earned the title ‘musician’s musician’. One would need to be a Time-Lord in order to accurately trace the longevity of his career. Known to many for his electrifying and impassioned keyboard solos and the varied bands he’s established such as The Steampacket, Brian Auger and the Trinity and the irrepressible Oblivion Express. He has played with, or alongside, a plethora of stellar artists from a myriad of genres: Blues, Soul, Funk, Rock, Mod, Pop and of course Jazz. Brian also has a healthy respect for Classical music and its historical composers. Now midway through his eighth decade on planet Earth, the Organ Meister, with extra-terrestrial hand speed is showing no signs of slowing down. Having recently signed to the visionary UK-based label Freestyle Records – lured by Freestyle Records’ A&R man, good friend and fellow organist, Greg Boraman – a whole new audience will soon be exposed to this legendary man, his distinctive sound and inherent passion for his art.
Michael J Edwards spoke with an ebullient and humorous Mr Auger across the waters in his home in Venice, Los Angeles about all of the above, as well as his numerous musical collaborations, his impressive career thus far, his recent introduction in 2014 to the ‘Hammond Organ Hall of Fame’, his motivation and boundless energy, playing alongside his children and of course his trademark eye-catching colourful shirts.
Michael J Edwards: Greeting’s Mr Brian Auger, it’s a genuine pleasure and an honour to be speaking with you. How is the weather there in Venice, Los Angeles this morning?
Brian Auger: It’s good today. It’s going to be just about eighty degrees today. So I’m hiding in the shade actually. But it’s good to talk to you man!
Michael J Edwards: So Why and when did you move out to Los Angeles?
Brian Auger: Well I moved out to America in 1975. And the reason I moved out was because all of my idols were American musicians, mainly from the black community here. I had followed them through my early days, and also through my teens and into my twenties. And when I came out to tour in America and play, which is around 1969, I think by osmosis I gathered such a lot musically from the environment that I felt I’d made quite a step in my understanding of what was going on musically. So basically I came out here for reasons like being able to play among my peers at the time, and a lot of my favourite players like Les McCann and Herbie Hancock were available to actually tour with, included getting calls from people like Earth, Wind and Fire to open for them.. It was crazy stuff for me! I remember once in Richmond, Virginia I was sandwiched between RUSH, who opened the concert and KISS – it was one of the loudest evenings I’d ever been in.
But basically that was it, I found the musical environment really kind of triggered a lot of things, a lot of ideas that I may have subconsciously clamped down on in Europe were let go. I decided if I was going to play and push the envelope of the kind of mixture of sources that I was playing from, then the US was the place to actually do that. So I came over and I think it’s been a fantastic kind of secondary education. I played with a lot of my Jazz idols and I’ve made a lot of friends over here… I like the fact that the Venice streets were full of all sorts of different varieties of people, and kids were playing in the streets and wandering around with boom-boxes; there was life on the streets unlike Santa Monica where I had moved from. It’s funny because now everyone wants to come to Venice. It started off being an artist hang out, a little bit funky, which I really liked. It has a mix of black, Hispanic, Asian and white; I mean everybody, rich, poor; the whole thing… a very wonderful and welcoming kind of place.
Michael J Edwards: Congratulations on being inducted into the Hammond organ Hall of Fame in 2014; you must be mighty chuffed?
Brian Auger: I was reminded of the quote by my favourite comedian of all time Spike Milligan when he was eventually given his lifetime achievement award in front of a load of showbiz people and a couple of Royals, was heard to remark, “About bleeding time!” (Laughs) I felt like that but I didn’t say it. I’ve only been playing Hammond for 45 years!
Michael J Edwards: So much to talk about, so let’s start in the here and now – 2015 sees you stepping out in a fresh and funky direction following your recent signing to the fabulous Freestyle Label. Please enlighten us as to how long Freestyle’s A&R man Greg Boraman had been courting you, and what appealed to you about the label?
Brian Auger: Well first of all Greg and I have known each other for many years. When I first came over to play one of the summer festival’s in England, he was kind enough to lend me his Hammond. One of these days I’m gonna actually give it back to him! (Chuckles) He spoke the same language that I do; in other words we speak fluent rubbish to one another all day. And a lot of the people that he followed I followed, and we’d talk a lot about music and this, that and the other. A very well versed man actually, not only in the musical sphere, but also the only ‘Edgware Road Horse Trough Snorkeler’ that I’ve ever come across actually in England.
I happened to have freed myself from all of the madness concerning record companies and everything else by that point, and I happened to be talking to him and he told me about he told me about Freestyle and everything. They seem to be a kind of niche company that have been going for about eleven or twelve years and managed to stay afloat. But they had all the organ band stuff going, and it wasn’t a situation where I would sit in front of the business affairs people and try to explain what my music was composed of. Everybody knew what it was, and they were ready to get going and do something with it. So we talked at length, and finally I decided that this would be a really good move for me right now.
Michael J Edwards: I believe two albums are in the pipeline for release later this year, ‘Back to the Beginning’ – The Brian Auger Anthology and Brian Auger’s Oblivion Express – ‘Live in Los Angeles’ (feat. Alex Ligertwood). Your thoughts on both these album releases please, and do tell us what your input was on the track selection for ‘Anthology’?
Brian Auger: Well basically, the offer really came down to releasing the ‘Live in Los Angeles’ album. Alex Ligertwood was my original singer in The Oblivion Express. So Alex and I have known each other for years and years; and when I came off the road for the first time in 1977 to take a break, after about sixteen years in the business, Santana who were a local band made him an offer that he couldn’t refuse. He was kind enough to actually call me and say, “Look Aug, I’ve got this offer from Santana, but if you’re going back on the road i’ll come with you.” I really thank him for being gracious enough to actually do that, and I said, “No, don’t be silly! This is a great opportunity for you – Go for it!
So in talking to Greg we offered that album (Live in Los Angeles), and in the middle of getting back together he suggested, “Look, it might be a good idea because you’re going out to a young audience, a new kind of Freestyle audience. What do you think about doing a compilation album, going right back to the beginning and then coming forward, using some of the earlier stuff, even your piano stuff, and giving a kind of link to your history. We’ll get that in the pipeline, and that will give everybody a taste until we release the live album.” So that’s exactly what’s going on right now. So I thought that was a very good idea.
Not only that, but he suggested, “What about vinyl?” And I said, “Well I haven’t eaten any of it for a long time!” (Laughs) And he said, “No! No! I mean there’s a whole market going on!” And I been aware of this because when we’d been out; we’d toured extensively, particularly in Europe and guys would come up to buy a CD from us and say, “Oh! You’ve only got CDs!” And I would say, “Yeah! What do you want exactly then?” And they would say, “Oh! Don’t you have any vinyl?” And I’d I say, “No I Don’t!” And they’d say, “Oh no! I only buy vinyl now!” So Greg suggested, “On the compilation, what about if we took a certain amount of tracks and we put them out on vinyl – What do you say to that?” So I said, “If you’ve got the market for it, I have no problem with that at all!” And as far as choosing the tracks, I said to Greg – because I know he knows my music backwards and forwards – I said, “Okay! You choose what you want, and I’ll take a look at it and i’ll tell you what I think..” And we swapped a few tracks backwards and forwards, but I think he’s hit the nail on the head man! And I’m very pleased with the tracks, and the way it kind of flows.
Michael J Edwards: The first-time listener would get a concentrated A-Z synopsis of your career and live performing essence from these two albums alone. Would you concur?
Brian Auger: Well there you go, I would think so. Back at the beginning it was all like that, and it came way through to now which is highlighted in the ‘Live…’ album.
Michael J Edwards: For the record, what is your preference, playing live or recording a studio session?
Brian Auger: Well, I suppose I could make a living just from playing stuff in the studio, but I’ll probably have to play a lot of stuff that I didn’t want to play. My preference has always been as a live player to play to people, and that’s what I enjoy more than anything else. The studio environment is a very different environment and has shifted… You have to understand that the first album I made was on a four track machine believe it or not, the one with Julie Driscoll and her big band in 1967. And I remember distinctly thinking, “Well I don’t know what they’re thinking about here – four tracks to do all this stuff on. Then we heard that in ’68 that they were going to switch to eight track machines, and I went, “Wow! That’s going to be fantastic!” And it suddenly went double again in ’69 – sixteen track machines! And a lot of us stood around going, “Sixteen tracks, what the hell are we going to fill that up with! A lot of those tracks are going to be empty!” Because we thought that we would go in the studio and play live and that would be it.
So it progressed rapidly to twenty-four (track), and if somebody had told me at that time that I’d be recording into a computer – whatever that was! Given my perception of what computers looked like at that time i.e with tubes running everywhere, I would have said to them, “Have you gone mad? If you have, join the club!” So I’ve seen this progression of the technology come to incredibly amazing places now. It’s been quite a ride.
Michael J Edwards: I believe you were a much contented piano player until you had an epiphany on discovering Jimmy Smith’s album ‘Back at the Chicken Shack’ album, which led to your transition to the organ and subsequently the Hammond B3?
Brian Auger: I had an epiphany in Shepherds Bush Market, and I’m glad that they’ve cleaned it up since then! My record store was a place called WG stores, and the amazing thing is it’s actually still there! And when I was about eleven/twelve years old my older brother Jim – who was really the guy who turned me onto The Goons – his Jazz collection of 78s was what I listened to from about seven or eight years old; he turned me onto all that. And he decided to get into this huge Ferguson radio, and he said, “Right Brian you can have this! I’m going to get a nice small modern table radio. And this had a huge dial on it, a great big knob on the front, and a great big orange notch with all the stations. So what I did is I rigged up an antenna or an aerial out of my bedroom window, and while I was dialling around at about one o’clock in the morning trying to avoid waking my mum and dad up, all of a sudden I heard, “This is the American forces network in Germany, we present ‘The Jazz Hour’.” And the Stan Kenton Orchestra came on… Oh man! And they played the most amazing array of artists, so I heard The Four Freshmen, The Hi-Lo’s, I heard Oscar Peterson’s first hit, ‘Tenderly’, and all these saxophone players, as well as Count Basie and Ellington – It was heaven!
I used to go down to my WG stores and asked for the Oscar Peterson record. I’d say, “Have you got any Oscar Peterson?” And they’d say, “Who’s he!” And I’d say, “He’s got a big hit, it’s called ‘Tenderly’. Then they got all the books down and catalogues and went through everything for half an hour and then said, “No, where did you hear that then, because it’s not released over here yet?” I was about twelve or fourteen years old at this time and I used to work during the school holidays and I’d get a few bob together and invest it in the latest records. Anyway, the years went by and I would now and again pluck up the courage and go in and ask them for something that they didn’t have. And they’d go, “Oh no, not you again!” And at one point I was looking through the window and the guy beckoned to me to, “Come in!” And he held up the Oscar Peterson 78 of ‘Tenderly’ and said, “Is that what you’ve been asking for?”
Anyway, what they did later on was that they had speakers outside and they would play music through them that you could hear around the stalls in the market. And I was wondering around many years later – I was doing very well on the Jazz piano circuit at the time – and suddenly I heard this sound. And I couldn’t place it, and I thought, “Oh my God what is that! That’s so exciting! It’s like ridiculous!” So I rushed inside and I said, “What the hell is this? What are you playing?” And they pulled the cover up from below the counter and they showed me the cover to Jimmy Smith’s ‘Back At The Chicken Shack’ album’, which I think was the first Blue Note release by Jimmy Smith in England. So I said, “Wrap that up!” And I ran home.
Eventually what that led to was dabbling in the organ and thinking about that, and then finally succumbing to the Flamingo organ circuit where the boss who used to run it, Rik Gunnell, kept telling me, “It’s about time you bought an organ Brian, you’d be a natural!” I said, “I’m a Jazz piano player man!” And it’s really funny how one’s mind can change over a short period, because about six or seven months after hearing Jimmy Smith, I finally decided that I’ve got to save up my money and get myself a Hammond organ. Things really took a big change in my life at that point; that was one of the turning points.
Michael J Edwards: How old were you when you bought your first organ?
Brian Auger: That would have been late ’64 early ’65, so I would have been about twenty-five years old.
Michael J Edwards: You’ve been the backbone to a variety of inspirational bands during your career from The Steampacket, featuring Rod Stewart, to Brian Auger and the Trinity, featuring Julie Driscoll, and the various incarnations of Oblivion Express with the irrepressible Alex Ligertwood on vocals. In what ways did these bands allow you to express yourself differently?
Brian Auger: Well first of all, you have to understand that I’m coming from playing Jazz piano, and I’m starting to play organ, and what I’m discovering is that it’s no use trying to play Bill Evans’ very close harmonic stuff with the left hand and then soloing with the right-hand on the top manual (keyboard), because there’s so much harmonic stuff going on anyway from the Hammond that that stuff kind of sounded like mud. So as far as the left hand was concerned I had to really revamp that and play much simpler interpretations of the chords. Then with the right-hand stuff, I don’t know what it was but I just took to it like a duck to water, and I loved all the things that Jimmy (Smith) did.
Then I also started to find a lot of American organ players – Jimmy McGriff, Brother Jack McDuff, people like Don Patterson, Shirley Scott; Richard ‘Groove’ Holmes, who actually recorded a couple of my tunes from the first ‘OPEN’ album. What The Steampacket gave me was this; it made me play and realise that these tunes I was playing – everything from straight up Jimmy Smith stuff and brother Jack McDuff to open the show, then Julie would choose like Tamla Motown things and things from Donovan and people like that – it made me aware of the fact that these things were accompaniments for singers and they had to be put together in a different way. And the great thing about it was to conserve the feel of the Motown stuff, which was nearer to my heart, but also the other things that we were doing.
Then Rod (Stewart) would come on and do a lot of impressions of Motown artists, and then he’ll go into a straight Blues thing and Marvin Gaye things. Then John Baldry would do straight Chicago blues and some Gospel. So I’m handling this whole kind of spectrum of music, and realising that unless these things have the right feel, it doesn’t matter how clever you want to be in the background, it just messes everything up. So I had to basically reel myself in for a couple of years. But what that did was it gave me a really good education of the kind of things that were playing, and I also managed to narrow down, in the middle of all that, the kind of things that I wanted. So it actually pointed the way to the next band which was ‘The Trinity’.
And what I wanted from The Trinity, was that I was trying to find a drummer like (Bernard) Purdie or like James Jamieson from the Motown sessions, and then using my jazz harmony a little bit more with straight out solos when I’m giving you everything I’ve got. Then Julie (Driscoll) stepped in as well, so we had a great singer, and I could handle her material really well, and do some new arranging for that. And we chose things with lyrics that were kind of positive as far as we could – And so one band spawned the next one. And then on from the Trinity which broke a lot of ground for us; we were the first band of that kind to headline a lot of the European Jazz festivals including the most conservative one which was the Berlin Jazz Festival. We had to follow Dizzy Gillespie! (Laughs) I was just at home among all the Jazz stuff that was going on. I went around and spoke to all sorts of people and I was impressed… Dizzy said to me, “Hey guys! You should come and play with us man, come and jam with us!” I thought, “Oh my God! I can’t believe this!”
Michael J Edwards: And this was mid or late 1960s?
Brian Auger: This was 1968. And Don Ellis – who we loved actually, me and Julie – did all these incredibly funny and strange time signature things, and had a big orchestra there, and got booed at that time! I couldn’t believe that you know. So he came on the stage with us and plugged his trumpet in to an amp and played on one of our sets. I think I’ve still got somewhere in the archives a tape that. He became great friends with us. There were a lot of barriers being broken down that year, and that band led eventually to Oblivion Express. When I started the Oblivion Express, I realised that we’d had a lot of success. We had a number one single and album in the top five in most of the countries in Europe. And I said to myself, “Well if I’m gonna go this way and push the envelope now and make it more jazzy, or try to push this music forward and develop it as far as I could, maybe I’m wading against the commercial tide, and as far as the record companies were concerned I was heading the quickest way to oblivion.”
So I called the band ‘The Oblivion Express’ and told everybody, “This is kind of like a school here you know – I’m not going to tell you what to play, but I’ll tell you what not to play if it’s not working. But I’d like you to write and suggest songs.” We attracted Robby McIntosh on drums, who was in the first Average White Band line-up; Alex Ligertwood went to Santana and Jim Mullen, one of my favourite guitar players still, who is a fantastic guitar player. So the band for different reasons kind of fell to bits in 1972. I did some rehearsals, and invited some people inside and listen to them. We had Godfrey Maclean on drums from Guyana, Lennox Langton from Trinidad on Congas; and Barry Dean stuck with us on bass. Jack Mills came in, a phenomenal rhythm guitar player; and I decided to go into the studio and cut ‘Inner-City Blues’ – we just cut it live! And when I heard that, I said, “Oh my God, got to go back in and cut something else!” And so we ended up with the ‘Closer To It’ album. I called it ‘Closer To It’ because that was the destination that I was looking for with all this music swirling around in my head. And I finally thought, “Well that’s it! Or that’s closer to it anyway.” It was followed by ‘Straight-a-Head’ after that and the rest of it, so that’s how that went.
Michael J Edwards: You explained how the name Oblivion Express came about; can you expand on how the names for The Steampacket and also The Trinity came about?
Brian Auger: Well basically with The Steampacket at the time if somebody played with great passion and verv and skill, people would say, “What’s this guy like? and you’d say, “Oh man he’s a ‘steamer’, you’ve gotta hear him!” So that would give you an idea of what the musician was like, and there were lots of steamers that were around that time. But a steam packet basically gave the idea of one of those riverboats that went up and down the Mississippi, giving it the Blues edge and tinge of the place where Jazz started. And so that name came up out of somewhere, but basically it was a package of talent. It was an unknown Rod Stewart at the time, an unknown Julie Driscoll, and a more or less unknown Brian Auger, because I’d only won a Jazz Melody Maker thing – a Reader’s Poll or something. But is was a package where John (Baldry) was the household name, and there was nothing quite like it as a package. All of a sudden there it was The Steampacket – a package of steamers. A steam packet had that idea of Jazz and New Orleans and the Mississippi all kind of rolled into it. So that’s how that one came up.
The Trinity was much easier, because I’d started The Trinity as an organ trio. I was looking to get away from a trio, because what I was playing had Jazz in it but it wasn’t a strict kind of Jazz thing. So, ‘The Trinity’, all it meant was a union of three. And basically that’s really how I saw the rhythm section and the organ situation in it – A union of three people man who played as one, but something came from it that was more than the sum of its inhabitants.
Michael J Edwards
In Pt.2: Julie Driscol, Herbie Hancock, the classic Oblivion Express Live albums and more!
Back To The Beginning – Brian Auger Anthology
Brian Auger’s Oblivion Express feat. Alex Ligertwood – Live in Los Angeles