Keyboardist, singer, bandleader, composer
Brian Auger's accomplishments as a musician and bandleader resulted in some of the most innovative sounds and landmark albums of the past 40 years. Auger and his musician accomplices blew the doors off popular music completely by bringing jazz sensibilities to rock, Motown to jazz, British rock to Memphis soul, and much more. In addition, the careers that Auger helped launch or advance are a veritable who's-who of the most impressive talent of his particular genre. He was able to successfully fuse elements of jazz, rhythm-and-blues, and rock'n'roll into a hybrid that permanently expanded music's frontiers beyond the 1960s and 1970s. It is no exaggeration to say that music would never be the same.
Musicians who worked with Auger during his esteemed career include future Miles Davis sideman Mahavishnu Orchestra and Shakti guitarist John McLaughlin; singers Rod Stewart, Long John Baldry, Alex Ligertwood, and Julie Driscoll; and legendary drummers Robbie McIntosh, Mickey Waller, and Steve Ferrone. Along the way, he provided the distinctive harpsichord arpeggios that defined the Yardbirds' first hit single, "For Your Love," and was the bandleader on the fateful night when swinging London was introduced to then-unknown American guitarist Jimi Hendrix, who performed with the band while such members of British rock royalty as Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, the Beatles, and Pete Townshend witnessed the historic event.
From Jazz Piano to Funky Hammond B3
Auger's entry into the British pop scene came via a different path than most of his contemporaries. Whereas many British music stars of the period used the skiffle movement and blues boom as springboards to success, Auger was a noted jazz pianist who had fronted a band featuring McLaughlin on guitar in the early 1960s. Auger's instrumental skills netted him a 1964 Melody Maker jazz poll win and supporting gigs with such American legends as Billie Holliday.
Auger initially set out to re-create the sound of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, but a walk past a record emporium in 1965 changed everything. "They were playing Jimmy Smith's ‘Back at the Chicken Shack,’" he told an interviewer for Contemporary Musicians, Smith's funky Hammond B3 organ sound "opened up a whole new world of sound to me," Auger said. "I rushed right in and told them to wrap me a copy."
Auger purchased his own Hammond B3 shortly thereafter, and landed recording sessions such as the aforementioned Yardbirds' gig, which was Clapton's swan song with the group. Auger recalled, "I looked around the studio and asked them where the organ was, and was told all they had available was a harpsichord. I left that session thinking a song with a harpsichord would never become a hit. I was quickly proved wrong!"
The chaotic London music scene presented many opportunities for a musician who owned one of the few Hammond B3s in the country. "Long John Baldry called me and asked if I'd like to put something together. I loved his voice and we put together the Steampacket," Auger recalled. Steampacket featured two other singers besides Baldry and Auger. The first was Rod Stewart, a singer with a penchant for Chicago blues and the music of Sam Cooke, who was an alumnus from Baldry's previous group the Hoochie Coochie Men. The second was Julie Driscoll, a 17-year-old secretary in the offices of Auger's manager, who sounded like a cross between Grace Slick, Dusty Springfield, and Bonnie Bramlett, while further capturing the record-buying public's attention with her waif-like prettiness. Augmented by guitarist Vic Briggs, the Steampacket immediately wowed audiences with a variety of musical styles that somehow meshed Motown, jazz, and Chicago Blues perfectly on stage. The group disbanded before a proper album could be recorded, but at least one stellar performance was captured on film and is now accessible on YouTube.
After the demise of the Steampacket, Auger formed the Brian Auger Trinity, which continued to mine rhythm-and-blues, jazz, blues, and rock on several ground-breaking albums of the late 1960s. The musical chemistry between Auger and Driscoll finally was realized on vinyl with the Bob Dylan/Rick Danko collaboration from the celebrated Basement Tapes bootleg circulating throughout London. "This Wheel's on Fire" became a smash psychedelic hit, distinguished by Driscoll's voice and the phrasing of Auger's keyboard. The group toured the United States and found time to appear in the Monkees' television film "33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee."
From Psychedelia to Fusion
After experiencing several more hits with covers of Donovan's "Season of the Witch," the Doors' "Light My Fire," and Richie Havens's "Indian Rope Man," Driscoll exited the group over management issues, and the Trinity folded shortly thereafter. Auger rebounded by forming Brian Auger's Oblivion Express, which picked up musically where the Trinity had left off by fusing jazz, funk, and rock elements. "I didn't think anyone but the musicians in the group would appreciate what we were doing," he told Contemporary Musicians. "I didn't think we'd last very long, which is why I picked the name of the group."
The revolving door of the Oblivion Express allowed Auger to experiment with different sounds and instrumental configurations over a series of groundbreaking albums in the 1970s that stood the test of time and anticipated what eventually came to be called acid jazz. Based on the strength of his playing with Oblivion Express, Auger was voted the 1977 Number One Jazz Organist by Contemporary Keyboard magazine. The group also took support slots behind Herbie Hancock's Headhunters, ZZ Top, and Led Zeppelin.
Auger took a breather as a musical innovator in order to play in former Animals' lead singer Eric Burdon's touring band in the early 1990s. After saying adios to Burden, Auger put together a new configuration of Oblivion Express with son Karma on drums and daughter Savannah on vocals. The group moved comfortably between selections from various stages of Auger's career, and also presented newer material.
Auger continued to push the boundaries of contemporary music well into his seventh decade, and his legacy is assured across a wide spectrum from progressive to pop. "I was at a club in L.A. a few weeks back with Keith Emerson," he told Contemporary Musicians. "Although we've been friends for quite some time, he told me how much I influenced him back when he was playing in the Nice (Emerson's band before Emerson, Lake and Palmer). I thought that was a very nice thing of him to say," Auger continued, "when Christopher Cross came up to us to tell us that we were his two biggest influences."
For the Record …
Born on July 18, 1939, in London, England.
Won Melody Maker jazz poll, 1964; played on Yardbirds' session for "For Your Love," 1965; formed Steampacket with Long John Baldry, Julie Driscoll, and Rod Stewart, 1965; released first Brian Auger Trinity album, Open, 1967; formed Brian Auger's Oblivion Express, 1970; joined Eric Burdon's touring band, 1989; re-formed Oblivion Express, 1993.
Addresses: Media relations—Michael Bloom Media Relations, P.O. Box 41380, Los Angeles, CA 90041-0380, telephone: 323-258-6342. Web site—Brian Auger Official Web site: www.brianauger.com, e-mail: [email protected]
As Brian Auger and Trinity
Open, Marmalade, 1967.
Definitely What!, Marmalade, 1968.
Streetnoise, Atco, 1968.
Befour, RCA, 1970.
With Julie Driscoll/Tippetts
Jools & Brian, Capitol, 1969.
Encore, One Way, 1978.
As Brian Auger's Oblivion Express
Brian Auger's Oblivion Express, Disconforme, 1971.
A Better Land, Disconforme, 1971.
Second Wind, Disconforme, 1972.
Closer to It!, Disconforme, 1973.
Straight Ahead, One Way, 1974.
Live Oblivion, Vol. 1, RCA, 1974.
Reinforcements, Disconforme, 1975.
Live Oblivion, Vol. 2, Disconforme, 1976.
Encore, One Way, 1978.
Planet Earth Calling, Garland, 1981.
Search Party, Disconforme, 1981.
Here and Now, Grudge Records, 1982.
Steaming, Inakustik, 1985.
Keys to the Heart, Disconforme, 1987.
Voices of Other Times, Miramar, 2000.
Happiness Heartaches, Warner Brothers, 2003.
Auger Rhythms: Brian Auger's Musical History, Quicksilver, 2003.
Looking in the Eye of the World, Fuel 2000; reissued, 2005.
Live at the Baked Potato, 2005.
All Music Guide,www.allmusicguide.com (April 8, 2008).
Brian Auger Official Web Site,http://www.brianauger.com, (April 8, 2008).
Liner Notes: Auger Rhythms: Brian Auger's Musical History, Quicksilver, 2003.
Additional information came from a March 2008 interview with Brian Auger for Contemporary Musicians in March of 2008.
—Bruce Edward Walker
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