“The next one of his tunes that really intrigued me was ‘Freedom Jazz Dance’, which I did in 1972 on the ‘Second Wind’ album…I was saying to Eddie, “What I can’t figure out is, how you came up with such an angular melody like that? It’s hard enough to play on saxophone, but on piano it’s out there!” He said, “Well it wasn’t supposed to be a tune man, it was actually a saxophone exercise… I said, “Blimey, you better write a lot more saxophone exercises then!” – Brian Auger
Michael J Edwards: You’ve been blessed to work with some amazing vocalists during your career, three of which you mentioned earlier, Rod Stewart, Julie Driscoll and Alex Ligertwood. Please expand on what each of these artists brought to the table? I believe Julie had been answering fan mail for The Yardbirds when you gave her a break?
Brian Auger: Yes that’s right yeah, but I didn’t know she was doing that at the time. I knew she was working with my manager who was Giorgio Gomelsky, and he had The Yardbirds and other bands on his agency. And I was called to play in a couple of recording sessions for Julie, and I heard this voice and thought, “Wow! What’s Julie doing?!” And I found out that Julie was looking to get on the road with a band, and had come down to a club in Richmond and sit in with some of the bands. But anyway, what happened was I was playing in Manchester at a place called The Twisted Wheel with the trio, and (John) Baldry came in that night and stood there in the front of the crowd. This was a Saturday night, and he came up to me afterwards and asked me, “Will you come and have a meeting with my managers on Monday morning?” So I said, “Sure!” What he and his managers said was this, “The Hoochie-Coochie men are completely out of control!” I had to laugh actually, because there were a lot of amazing stories about what was going on there.
But John wanted to go in another direction, and they asked me if I would be able to put a band together for him. We were probably going to need a guitar player anyway, because it’s a blues thing. So we got back together along with a guy called Vic Briggs at the time. I had Micky Waller on drums already, who eventually ended up with The Faces at one point, and Rod Stewart again, and the guy called Nicky Brown playing bass…. So there is all this kind of stuff going on; so I went and had the meeting and basically what they told me was, “Look, John has got to turn up at the right time and rehearse new material, and you’ll be in charge of making sure that he does.” So basically that was the beginning of the formation of The Steam Packet. We had quite some rehearsals in the beginning, just to be able to cover what everybody wanted to play. And there is nothing like that on the scene at the time when we went out, and it was an immediate hit.
Michael J Edwards: And there were no egos between Rod (Stewart) and the other singers?
Brian Auger: There were no egos between Rod and anybody else, simply because Rod was unknown at the time. He was just somebody who was dressed to the nines in the Carnaby Street way that flitted about in the scene. He actually sat in with my Trio at one point as I knew him, but there was nothing like that. I had to get really focused because I was driving the band, I was one of the only guys with a driving licence apart from our roadie. He drove the big truck and I drove The Steam Packet, so I was the first one out and the last one in, when we went out of town or anything. I had the job of dropping everybody off all over London… We had our differences, but you have to understand that we were young, I was probably about twenty-five at the time, Rod was probably around twenty/twenty-one, Julie was only about eighteen – we were young people man!
Michael J Edwards: From your Steam Packet and Trinity days which were your favourite recordings?
Brian Auger: Well basically Rod (Stewart) had a manager, I had a manager and John (Baldry) had a manager. And the managers argued amongst themselves – I could never understand this – as to which label any recordings would come out on. It should have been on John’s label man; he was the big guy, which would have been United Artists. Then when the band actually floundered and fell apart, we had no real recordings of what we have done. There were some pirate recordings that turned up, and I have a funny feeling that they might have been done by The Marquee. The Marquee had installed a studio over the club, which looked down into the club, and maybe they turned on the machines while we were rehearsing or whatever, I really don’t know. So I have collected a lot of things from when we did stuff that was recorded in different places.
I used to sing this song by Willie Mabon called ‘Just Got Some’, and Rod really like that, and at one point he asked me, “Listen I’m going to record ‘Just Got Some.” There was another song he mentioned but I can’t remember it; it’s actually on the compilation album though. And I think that of those tracks, that was probably one of the best things. But Julie did some really great stuff as well.
Michael J Edwards: Can you narrow it down to what your favourite track were from the plethora of recordings you made at this time?
Brian Auger: I think ‘Season Of The Witch’ was an amazing thing. ‘Road To Cairo’ is one of my favourite tracks, and obviously ‘This Wheels on Fire’ – the way that developed was because we got one of the basement tapes that was sent to London by Bob Dylan, and by the time we got it, it had been to Manfred Mann and they had taken ‘The Mighty Quinn’. The only thing that was left that was of any interest to us was ‘This Wheels on Fire’, which was only a bass player playing a walking bass and Bob Dylan singing. The thing about it was, the lyrics were really out there, they were very psychedelic at the time. I thought what are we going to do with that? I didn’t think it was a single, like a Pop single, but Julie really liked it, so I took the acetate home – I’ve probably still got it at home somewhere – and played it through and sat there, and tried to put that back beat to it and that didn’t work. I also tried to make it a little more in the commercial style which I totally failed at. And I thought, “Well I like the tune, but it’s got to be a certain way. Whatever it is, I cannot get away from the walking bass, I can’t do it – The tune doesn’t work!
So what I did was I said, “What about a march, kind of like a New Orleans’ street march – a slow march.” And so I started to play it like that with just piano and thinking of the bass in my head. And I thought “Well, that’s the way to go!” So when I got in to the studio I put down the track with the bass, drums and me playing the piano, and then after that added the organ. And then there was a Mellotron standing in the corner. Then I thought, “Well, maybe strings might be good on this you know?” A Mellotron was a keyboard where the notes triggered tapes with instruments on them. The only thing was the tapes would actually loop and then stop and rewind themselves. I had to keep taking my fingers off the notes, and then jamming them back on to keep some kind of forward movement with the strings.
We got the strings on and then our brilliant engineer showed me this box, he said, “Hey Brian look at this!” It was about as big as a box of Cornflakes, with a great big knob on the dial on the front. I said, “What the hell is that!” So he said, “It’s a phaser.” And I said, “Well what does it do then?” So he showed me, and did this kind of rolling phase. (Imitates phaser sound) You could make it go as quick as you wanted by turning the knob. I said, “Put that on the strings and see what that sounds like.” And then Julie came in and put this vocal on that was incredible! And that basically was it; it gave it that really psychedelic kind of haunting thing to it. And there you go!
Michael J Edwards: Staying with The Oblivion Express, you’ve mentioned in the past that it was effectively a breeding ground/training school for musicians. Multiple members subsequently went on to impact on the music world within other groups – Vocalist Alex Ligertwood went to Santana; Robbie McIntosh (drums) and Steve Ferrone (drums) becoming the backbone to The Average White Band?
Brian Auger: Yes, Robbie was in The Average White Band, and then Robbie unfortunately tragically died, and Steve (Ferrone) was asked to come and replace him. Steve stayed with us for quite a while. And as you said Alex went to Santana, Jack (Mills) and Mully (Jim Mulligan) stayed with me, I went into the ‘Closer to It’ and ‘Straight Ahead’ phase, and on from there. So that was that. Alex, after we made the ‘Second Wind’ album had a lot of marital problems and his wife was very homesick and wanted to go back to Paris. And so Alex stepped out of the band basically for two years, and I happened to call him when we had got ‘Closer to It’ going on and ‘Straight Ahead’ going in the States – which were in the Rock, R&B and Jazz charts at the same time – and I called him at Christmas time to wish him a Happy Christmas, and I said, “What are you doing?” And he said, “Not much man.” And I said, “Would you like to come out to the States with us?” And he said, “I thought you’d never ask!” (Laughs) So Alex came into the band then, and came with us, and then he moved to the States. He joined the band at the end of 1973, but moved out to the States in about 1975.
Michael J Edwards: Would you concur that ‘Live Oblivion Vol 1 & 2’ have made an indelible mark on our Jazz psyche? Naturally they feature live versions, from another of my favourite ‘Oblivion Express’ albums ‘Second Wind’; the musicians excel and Alex’s vocals are outer worldly?
Brian Auger: I really can’t tell if they made an indelible mark on our Jazz psyche man, I have no idea. Basically what you’re looking at there is a band that has come into the States… We played probably on that tour in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington DC, probably down to Atlanta and come back through the Midwest through Chicago, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and out to St Louis, Kansas City, Denver; and then we’ve flown into Los Angeles. Now by that time we were all absolutely like playing, singing and raving at our height. So I decided that I really needed, whatever happened, to record the band at that point. So I beseeched RCA who saw the live material at that time as kind of rubbish, believe it or not! (Laughs) Anyway, I talked them into doing it and they did it; they allowed me to get the Wally Heider mobile and bring it down to the Whiskey (Club) and park it outside. Then they put up close circuit TV inside the club and the mobile truck so that we can all talk to one another, and we were all set to go.
Michael J Edwards: Please clarify who or what is a Wally Heider?
Brian Auger: Wally Heider was a big recording guy. He was one of the first guys to rig out a truck with a couple of sixteen track and a couple of twenty-four track machines in it and really great engineers that knew how to run other stuff into a club and mike up the stage for live recording. It was a new thing and he was the best, so he was obviously the guy to get hold of. A couple of things I can remember about those albums was that we were ready to go on Friday night and suddenly Alex said to me, “Oh, where’s Steve?!” I said, “I don’t know, he knows that we’re starting at this time.” Anyway he got really hairy and the manager came up to me and said, “Get that effing band on the stage, what the hell’s going on! I said, “I can’t Mario, Steve’s not here!” Well Stevie had been out with a couple of ladies and drinking the night before, and got stuck in traffic coming back in on the Friday night.
And so he arrived out-of-breath about forty minutes late exclaiming, “Oh I’m so sorry John! It was the traffic!” And I said, “Steve, for God’s sake man let’s get on and start it! What are we going to start with?” And he said, “Let’s start with ‘Beginning Again’. So Steve went up there, and everything was rearranged, and all of a sudden he starts the tune, and he’s so adrenalined up from rushing, that when I listened to the tempo my boots went grey with worry, because I thought, “Jesus, I don’t know whether I can play that fast!” But anyway when I listen back to backtrack he is absolutely blazing! So what can I say man. That’s one thing. The other thing was, probably a year later or so we were in a hotel in New York and we were playing at the Bottom Line, and I was leaving the hotel… And as I was walked down the corridor I heard the intro to ‘Maiden Voyage’ coming from this room! (Laughs) It wasn’t part of the band or anything, it was someone who was playing the album; and I heard the intro to ‘Maiden Voyage’ on it and I thought, “Woah!” And I said to the person who was with me, “How funny it is listening to that!” Those were the only two things I can tell you about those live albums.
The funny thing was, I wanted to do a double live album right away. RCA said, “No! No! No! No live stuff!” They were not very helpful. But then when they discovered the ‘Live…’ album went really good, then they said, “Oh, whatever you’ve got in the can belongs to us anyway.” And I said, “How’s that?” And then I read my contract, and I went, “Damn! Yeah, we have to give it to them!” So they said, “Well, what have you got?” And I said, “Well I’ve got enough maybe for a double.” And they said, “Alright, give us the double then!” I said, “Well you didn’t want the double! We would have done that right at the beginning!” You have to understand that RCA basically was a Country label; I mean their big star was Elvis. They also had Waylon Jennings and John Denver; people like that were the mainstays. The staff and business affairs guys were elderly, maybe in their early fifties. And at one point when the ‘Closer to It’ album, which they didn’t want to deal with, and they didn’t want me to come to the States to play, and I did, gambling that something might happen, and it did man! The album got out of the box on its own! (Laughs) It was ridiculous. And they asked me to come back and talk to the President because the album had gone on the R&B, Jazz and the Rock charts.
So the president asked me, “Well what kind of music is this?!” I can remember saying, “Well, it’s a mix of things.” So I said to him, “Look over at CBS now there’s a guy called Herbie Hancock. He’s got an album called the ‘Headhunters’. You’re giving up on this album, and you’re asking me for another one, and we’ve got almost 200,000 pieces of products sold, but he’s got 500,000 pieces of products sold! And he’s got no vocals on his album either!” And this is the great thing man, to give you an idea of what we’re dealing with, some guy pipes up from business affairs and he says, “Oh yeah that album, that’s just a flash in the pan!” (Laughs)
Michael J Edwards: Can you enlighten us about your version of Eddie Harris’ ‘Freedom Jazz Dance’?
Brian Auger: Oh yeah! I loved Eddie Harris man, and I had done a version of ‘Listen Here’, which I loved actually. I did that in 1970 on the ‘Before’ album. Julie and I, when we first went to the States, we were on Atco, Atlantic, and they were really hip label, they were great; and I wish we could have stayed with them but things went the way they went. Plus I had a lot of friends there, so when I was in New York I would walk over and go up and see some of them. There was a guy called ‘Big M’, Mario Medious who was their (Atco’s) publicity guy; he was funny as hell man. And we made a great friendship between us, and he eventually took me out to some black clubs I could not have gone to on my own. (Laughs) He was known everywhere! Anyway I knocked on the door, and he said, “Come in!” And I opened the door, and he’s playing ‘Listen Here’, and talking on the phone saying, “Yeah! He’s here right now man!” And he hands me the phone and he says, “It’s Eddie Harris!” And I said, “What!” So I said hello to Eddie, and Eddie says, “Oh man! Thank you so much, it’s the best cover that I’ve heard of that tune man!” And I was like, “Well that’s wonderful, thank you so much! It’s an honour!” – And we kind of made friends.
The next one of his tunes that really intrigued me was ‘Freedom Jazz Dance’, which I did in 1972 on the ‘Second Wind’ album. I met him a little bit later in Germany on a TV broadcast, and I was saying to Eddie, “What I can’t figure out is, how you came up with such an angular melody like that? It’s hard enough to play on saxophone, but on piano it’s out there!” He said, “Well it wasn’t supposed to be a tune man, it was actually a saxophone exercise in Fourth that I’d written, i.e four intervals on the piano.” That made me laugh, and I said, “Blimey, you better write a lot more saxophone exercises then!” And he said, “Yeah! You’ve got to play a lot more of my tunes man!” (Laughs)
Michael J Edwards: There’s a couple of fabulous live recordings and this tune, one is a 1971 recording on Melody Varieties, and the other in San Francisco on November 29, 1975. What do you recall of either of these illuminating recordings?
Brian Auger: Ha! Ha! Nothing! There is one recording we did, the first time we ever played it in 1971, on a radio programme in France; I think it was Europe Numéro Uno. Jim Mullen was on that, Barry Dean, Robby McIntosh, it was the early (Oblivion) Express. The thing I remember about that was that Errol Garner was also playing on the same programme, and he said, “Hey man! You should come over and jam with us!” And Errol was another guy I was just really crazy about, and he had that style where his left hand was so irregular, he really didn’t need the bass player, but it must have been difficult for anybody to like keep that going you know.
The only guy who could play like that was Errol Garner and sometimes switched into that was Dudley Moore – an old friend of mine Dude. He was a superb piano player man, a great musician, and a funny, funny guy.
Michael J Edwards: The dynamic of Oblivion Express has obviously changed since its reformation in 2005, incorporating Derek Frank on bass, your son Karma on drums and daughter Savannah Grace on vocals? Do you get that warm fuzzy feeling playing on stage with your offspring?
Brian Auger: Absolutely! And you have to understand that the level of musicianship that is actually demanded means that they may be my offspring but they don’t get a free pass to the Oblivion Express by any means.
Brian Auger: Oh boy yeah! That was because I came to London to play the Jazz Café and a lot of young kids came up and asked me, “Are you going to play ‘Indian Rope Man’?” And I wondered what the hell it was that they were talking about. And then I went into a disco at one point, and that kind of changed my mind about playing new stuff. And I suddenly realised that it was one hell of a track! So I thought about it and I went, “I need to do something to it.” And I was playing some different things and at one point I put on some James Brown, and there was a track called ‘There Was A Time’. And the groove on that was like I could not believe, and I thought, “That is the groove for ‘Indian Rope Man’!”
Anyway, the story goes… somebody went out to India in search of a Guru, like a lot of people did, not realising that everything you need to know is in you, if you can actually sit down and calm down enough to get to it. You don’t really need to go to India, because they will tell you exactly that, so you’re stuck with it. You either with these people decide that you’re going to throw in your lot with them and do as they say, and they’ll try and guide you along those paths, or you don’t. And I think it was a reaction – ‘Indian Rope Man’. I think Richie (Havens) really didn’t like whoever he was with there, and ‘Indian Rope Man’ was one of those things.
I decided to do it, and people have kind of apprised me of who it was. An Indian Rope man/Guru is a great guy who said that, “You should not pay money for information on how to get yourself, and how to meditate.” He said, “You can always tell who the wrong people are; they’ll come to the West and they’ll assemble huge amounts of money that’s got absolutely nothing to do with that.” Anyway, I decided that it doesn’t matter about the lyrics, it’s one person’s view, but the tune is what I was after more than anything else. I did a little part in middle where I gave some solos, like the kind of James Brown thing; and I took the brass line and played that too in the tune. It was one of my favourite things to play actually.
Michael J Edwards: You play a myriad of musical styles from Jazz to Blues to Soul, to Funk to Jazz Fusion. Which is your preferred genre?
Brian Auger: Well, I have to smile when people ask me that, “What is your music?” And I have to tell them about an interview I saw with Duke Ellington, my hero, which was on BBC2 believe it or not at one point; and he was being interviewed, and he was asked, “So Duke, “What kind of music do you like?” And he said, “There’s only two types of music basically, good and bad!” And that was another one of those points I will never forget! (Laughs)
Michael J Edwards: Please give us the lowdown on the introduction of a young Jimi Hendrix to your band? How was he as a man, and a musician?
Brian Auger: Well basically, I got a call from Chas Chandler, who was the bass player of The Animals at the time. The only thing I didn’t like was that his manager was Mike Jeffries who I thought was probably the biggest crook in the music business. He was quite a scary character actually, anyway, aside from our friendship that never really impinged on any of that. When Chas called me and said, “Would you like to come to the office and have a talk with us, I want to talk to you about something important.” I said, “Okay.” So I presented myself and Chas was there, and he says listen Mike and I have brought over this amazing guitar player – And you have to understand, I had just started The Trinity with Julie Driscoll a month or so before that, so I was already ready to go, and I knew what I wanted to do – And he says, “We just saw this amazing guitar player man, he is absolutely incredible, and we want him to front your band.” So I said, “Look, I’ve just put my band together. Julie Driscoll fronts my band, and I’ve got a guitar player, Vic Briggs. What am I supposed to do, fire those two people before I’ve even heard this guy?”
He said, “No, he’s something special.” I said, “Yeah, fine, but I have an idea of what I want to do. But I tell you what; we’re playing at The Cromwellian on Friday. If you want to introduce him to who’s who in the music business, that’s the place to be.” I think (Eric) Clapton was there and maybe Beck was there and Alvin Lee. People like Dusty Springfield and Lulu used to frequent the place and tonnes of other bands…And so I said, “Bring him down and he can sit in with the band.” So they did, and we got to the break, and they brought Jimi up and introduced him, and he seemed like a really nice guy. He said, “Can I sit in?” and I said “Sure! What do you want to play?” And he said, “If I show you this sequence of chords, do you think you can play that?” And he showed me this sequence of chords; I didn’t know what it was or whether it was a tune, but I thought, “Wow, that’s really cool!” And it was the chords to ‘Hey Joe’! (Laughs) And so I said, “Well fine! You want to play on that, well give me a tempo then.” And it was a medium kind of slow groove…So we slip into the groove and I thought, “Holy Christ! This is something else!” (Laughs heartily)
He’s a Blues player, but he’s actually way beyond that; he’s also a great showman. It made me realise that with most of the British guitar players you could still hear the roots of where they came from fairly well, but with Jimmy, this was a unique voice of its own. And so we played a couple of tunes, but it was one of those evenings where you thought, “Wow!” He used to turn up at other places like ‘Blazes’ and ‘The Bag of Nails’ and sat in, and we became friends and we used to hang out. A lot of people would go back to Zoot Money‘s place on the way home in Baron’s Court in London and hang out all night, playing records and carrying on, such as Andy Summers, The Animals; Brian Jones at one point, he was out with The Stones. And Jimi Hendrix lived upstairs, and of course he would come down and we’d just ‘Do Mad’ as usual. So that was basically the introduction to Jimi Hendrix. And then I was in New York in 1970, and I get a call from John McLaughlin who I played with when we were both about eighteen years old, and played on the Jazz scene every week. Then John asked me to come down and listen to the mix of the ‘Devotion’ album. It was a very psychedelic actually. And he said, “I know you’re going to like this!” And I recorded ‘Dragon Song’ from that album.
While we’re listening to this in comes Jimi with his girlfriend Sophie. We greeted one another and listened to the music. And Alan Douglas and his engineer started to treat him like this was the new kid on the block and you’re finished, to the point where I thought, “Well I don’t want to even hang out with these people!” So I said to Jimi, “Do you want to come outside and talk to me?” So we went outside and in the light I could see he wasn’t in good shape man – his skin tone was grey, and his girlfriend’s was the same! And he asked me, “How long are you going to be in town?” And I said, “I’m only going to be here for a few more days.” And he said, “Can you stay and make an album with me?” And I said, “Jim, I’d love to do that, but I’ve got all these contracts… How long do you need?” And he said,” Oh well, another month!” (Laughs) I said, “Well, I’d love to do that but I don’t think I can, they would probably sue me and put me in jail!” He said, “We’ll never mind man, come and see my studio tomorrow.” Which I did, I went around and saw him.
But he didn’t look too good, and at one point he pulled some silver paper out of his pocket and took snort of what was obviously heroin and handed to his girlfriend. And then she paused, and he said, “Oh, sorry Brian… here!” And he offered it to me, and I said, “Jim, listen, you got to stop doing that shit because it will kill you.” He said, “Yeah! Yeah! Yunno! The thing is my Brian; I need a lot more people around me like you.” Then after about six months of that he was gone. What a complete waste of an amazing talent! And I was very sorry about it because I thought that at some point we would have hooked up and made some great music.
Michael J Edwards
In our final part 3: Brian talks Lenny White, Tony Williams, Earth, Wind & Fire, Tubby Hayes, Mozart and more!
Back To The Beginning – Brian Auger Anthology
Brian Auger’s Oblivion Express feat. Alex Ligertwood – Live in Los Angeles