What they say…
“A tremendous talent, with a wonderfully warm personality – he deserves all the accolades!”
For over 50 years, Brian Auger has been a musician’s musician. Jazz pianist, bandleader, session man, Hammond B3 innovator, and key player in the rise of jazz/rock fusion, Brian has done it all and then some. An incredible gentleman with one of the most varied careers in music, he has incorporated jazz, early British pop, R&B, soul and rock into an incredible catalog that has won him legions of fans all over the world.
Auger’s unique musical career started at a very early age, learning to read notes and copy the player piano in his family’s house in London. By the age of eight he was being invited to play at all sorts of parties, but aside from playing the pop tunes of the day, Brian’s ears lit up when he started listening to his older brother’s record collection with names like Count Basie and Duke Ellington. With his fondness for jazz piano came a gig in London on the West End, and from there the self-taught musician started playing regularly, drawing a number of big name artists who were touring London, such as Billie Holiday.
Playing in clubs, Auger won the Melody Maker jazz poll in 1964 and became a commodity in swingin’ London’s burgeoning music scene. Auger was particularly intrigued with technique, and, in 1965, when he heard Jimmy Smith albums, he decided to get involved with the Hammond B3, an organ few British musicians could play, largely because the bulky instruments were virtually non-existent in England. Around this time, the Yardbirds called Auger for session work, resulting in the song “For Your Love” which went straight to number 1 and kickstarted the Yardbirds recording career, as well as making Brian an in demand session man around London.
In 1965, Brian’s exposure got a huge boost when he got call from Long John Baldry, asking him to put a band together. Auger rounded up guitarist Vic Briggs, and John got Rod Stewart. Brian also recruited a young, mod singer named Julie Driscoll. The band had a wide range of influences; Julie was into a range of things from Nina Simone to Motown, where Rod was a mix of Chicago blues and Sam Cooke and Long John was straight Chicago blues or gospel. They called themselves Steampacket. Sadly, Rod’s manager, Brian’s manager and John’s manager feuded over whose label the record should come out on, so they never really recorded anything and the outfit collapsed in 1966 after only one year. However, a live concert video exists of Steampacket playing the Reading Jazz and Blues Festival in 1965, and it is truly a rocking’ experience today.
After the band broke up, Brian decided to focus on various musical styles and founded the Brian Auger Trinity, a combination of blues, Motown and Messengers. In November 1967, their first album, Open, was released in France, and the French just went crazy. As Brian explains, “All of a sudden we were booked at the Montreux Jazz Festival as the headliner in 1968—no rock-jazz band had ever done that, these were pure jazz festivals. Following that, we got the Berlin Jazz Festival the same year—one of the most purist of all.”
The next album, Definitely What, was Brian’s solo album and was released the same year that Brian and Julie’s hit “This Wheel’s On Fire” went to number 1 in England. After the success of that track, the Trinity obtained a large following, particularly in Britain, with Julie being the lead vocalist. Her soulful voice and mod look, made her the “it” girl of the moment and one of the poster girls of the mod years.
Streetnoise, the third album, was done in 1969 in preparation of Auger’s first US tour which was “a musician’s dream!”, as Brian fondly remembers. Creating their own works, along with a take on the Jose Feliciano version of “Light My Fire”, it all fell together: to this day it is considered one of the Trinity’s finest albums, and contains a number of stand out tracks. The euphoria of the American tour soon dissipated however, when the manager’s mis-management dealt Auger a big blow upon returning from the U.S. Brian was handed a bill for 5,000 UK pounds by manager Gomelsky, and that was the end of that. He did one more album with the Trinity called Befour released in 1970, but recorded without Julie, as she had decided she needed complete rest after the trauma of the Gomelsky fiasco, and her promising career never recovered.
Brian wanted to continue with cutting-edge music, so the Oblivion Express started up in 1970. Versatile Jim Mullen asked to be the guitar player and Barry Dean was selected as bass player, with Robbie Macintosh (who later found fame with the Average White Band) as the drummer. Brian initially did the vocals, but fearing he wasn’t up to par, then asked Alex Ligertwood to join as lead singer. Alex joined up in ’71, after Oblivion had already done one album, A Better Land, so Ligertwood’s first album as vocalist for the Oblivion Express was Second Wind.
The band collapsed suddenly when Alex moved to Paris where his wife preferred to live, and MacIntosh was hired by AWB. In preparation for a European tour, Auger got Godfrey Maclean on drums and conga player Lennox Laington and magically Jack Mills appeared. The new line-up of Oblivion Express rolled into the 1970s, cutting Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” as well as originals “Light On the Path” and “Happiness Is Just Around the Bend” on the Closer To It album in 1973. Believing in his music, Brian contacted his agency to see if they could book a tour of America. They could, and Brian went into credit card debt to finance it, in spite of label RCA trying to dissuade him.
The tour was a success, and Closer To It was followed by Straight Ahead, which also landed on both the R&B and jazz charts. The Express opened for Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters, ZZ Top, Led Zeppelin and others, bridging rock, jazz and R&B genres, and sometimes did straight R&B gigs. Oblivion Express kept rolling through most of the 70s, until the group finished touring in 1977. In 1976 and’ 77, Brian was voted the Number One Jazz organist in the world in Contemporary Keyboard magazine, largely behind the strength of his live playing with Oblivion Express. Visiting London in 1977, Auger invited Julie Driscoll to do another album again, and thus the album called Encore came about in 1977, and one more with Julie followed. After a year off, Brian did Planet Earth Calling after being approached by Head First Records.
From 1979 to 1983, Auger settled in California and took it easy for a while, taking music courses at Marin College and San Francisco State. It also gave him an opportunity to spend more time with his family, playing occasionally in local clubs. “People weren’t knocking the doors down at the time because punk and disco had suddenly come in, you know, and “anything that smacked of jazz, you can forget it”, Brian remembers of the dreaded disco era. In the mid-80s, however, Brian toured Europe again, especially Italy and Switzerland, and released Keys to the Heart in 1987.
Brian would have been content touring Europe occasionally, but fate intervened once again. In ’89, he got a call from Eric Burdon (of the Animals), who needed someone to put a band together. During the next four years, Auger was able to tour the whole world (even going behind the Iron Curtain). But Brian grew dissatisfied with how Burdon wanted to stick to Animals repertoire, and in 1993 Auger decided to leave Burdon and concentrate on his own music. In the mid to late 1990’s, Auger formed his own family version of the Oblivion Express, with his children Karma on drums and Ali performing as the lead vocalist, along with a bassist and guitarist Auger has selected. Before releasing Auger Rhythms, his first career retrospective, Brian toured Europe, where he drew large crowds at several jazz festivals, including a two night gig at the famed Montreux Jazz Festival.
So the career of this most incredible man has come full circle. In so doing, Brian is always amazed at the undying affection his fans have for him and the body of work he’s created in nearly forty years of recording and touring. “It always amazes me”, he laughs. “We’ll be playing in some small town in Europe and a small club or town hall. We’ll be loading in and doing sound check and I’m always a bit nervous that no one will show up. Then the sun goes down, and suddenly the hills are alive with the sound of my B3, and fans come out of the woodwork. Many have the old albums they want autographed”.
There is no one on the planet quite like this amazing guy who still comes to a gig ready to play, and not just walk through a set of oldies, but inject his music with the fire and passion that only a true original brings to the bandstand or studio. Brian Auger is a true original, and we are fortunate to have him and his musical legacy as a vibrant part of today’s music scene.