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Brian Auger Q&A: Jazz Rock, Playing with Jimi Hendrix + Paul McCartney and His New ‘Introspection’ Box Set
Brian Auger may not be a household name to those who consider themselves music lovers, but if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find that this illustrious British-born octogenarian, musician, famed Hammond B3 organ and keyboardist, a driving force of jazz-fusion with his own genre-busting approach to music, has been an influential figure on the music scene for more than sixty years.
He’s performed with some of the most iconic musicians of our time including Rod Stewart, Long John Baldry, Julie Driscoll, Alex Ligertwood, Jimi Hendrix, The Yardbirds, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Eric Burdon, Jimmy Page and more. His tracks have been sampled by Mos Def, Common, Kid Loco, and Richard “Grooves” Holmes, to name a few, and his original compositions have been covered by Sarah Vaughan, Richard ‘Groove’ Holmes, and The Main Ingredient.
Brian Auger’s signature style was developed through his formative years playing jazz in the early swinging London jazz scene of the 1960s. As a solo artist, Auger created a distinct voice combining jazz, rock, soul, and funk that is clearly recognizable to his millions of fans around the world. With over 30 albums to his name and lengthy stints on the RCA and Warner Bros. labels, Auger has accumulated Grammy Nominations, 10 albums charting in Billboard’s Hot 100, a #1 single, and the title of “The Godfather of Acid Jazz.”
Loved by everybody from Herbie Hancock to Mose Allison to the Beastie Boys, Brian Auger’s stellar career includes Brian Auger & The Trinity featuring singer Julie Driscoll from 1966-1970. Then in 1970, Auger founded the jazz-fusion ensemble Brian Auger’s Oblivion Express, which, through the years, has welcomed an array of A-list members including lead singer Alex Ligertwood, drummers Steve Ferrone and Lenny White, bassists Derek Frank, Travis Carlton, Jimmy Haslip, Dan Lutz, and Les King, Guitarist Frank Gambale, and all three of Brian’s children: his son Karma Auger on drums, percussion and background vocals, and daughters Ali Auger and Savannah Auger on lead vocals. His current touring band features his son Karma on drums, bassist Andreas Geck, and percussionist/singer Liliana de Los Reyes, daughter of famed percussionist/drummer Walfredo Reyes, Jr.
In June, Brian Auger released a box set featuring three full-length CDs that catalog his diverse works from the 1960s through today, spanning 35 tracks recorded in London, Germany, Switzerland, San Francisco, and Venice (Los Angeles), California. The compilation, Introspection, was created for Sunset Boulevard Records and produced by Auger. Featuring some of his personal favorites, Auger states, “the album is a catalog of some of my most popular tunes and some that didn’t get a lot of air play, but definitely worth a listen.” A portion of the sales will be donated to Operation Smile (www.operationsmile.org), a non-profit organization with 35 years of expertise dedicated to providing life-saving reconstructive cleft surgeries to children in 34 countries worldwide.
Read on for an up close and personal interview with the Godfather of Acid Jazz, Brian Auger.
Rock Cellar: How did you get started playing music?
Brian Auger: Fortunately, I grew up in household that had a player piano. My father loved music. He had a huge collection of player piano rolls including all the operas, concertos, lots of classical music from the great composers, and some ragtime. As a small child I’d stand on the pedals that were air driven, and this pulled the music roll across the grid inside the player piano. The grid had 88 holes that corresponded to the 88 notes on the piano which made the notes play. I got great exercise peddling these pedals and hanging onto the notes on the keyboard. To this day I draw upon these songs.
This was during wartime. My parents had no money to spend on piano lessons so this was my music education. Plus, I had a brother and two sisters about 10 years older than me. My brother had a collection of American Jazz records, and I got to be exposed to great American Jazz artists like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Oscar Peterson, and my sisters were big fans of Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Nat King Cole, so you can see the mix of influences I was exposed to.
Rock Cellar: What was live music like in the early days of your career?
Brian Auger: There were one or two top jazz clubs in London, like Ronnie Scott’s and The Flamingo, and on Sundays, many pubs allowed musicians to sit in with the bands, and then we’d all end up swapping numbers. It was a scene. At this time, I was actually holding down a day job, but at night and on weekends, I’d be hanging out at these cool clubs. Soon I started sitting in with different acts and eventually started playing regularly myself.
Rock Cellar: Who were your greatest influences?
Brian Auger: That goes way back to the jazz scene in London in the 60s. Some of my favorites are … Miles Davis, John Coltraine, Cannonball Adderly, Jimmy Smith, Oscar Peterson, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, British piano player Victor Feldman — who played with Cannonball, and so many more.
Rock Cellar: When did you come to the States?
Brian Auger: I had just made the album Streetnoise with Julie Driscoll on Atlantic Records. That was in 1969. We came to the States to promote the album, and we toured all across the U.S., from east coast to west coast for about three weeks. We got to play at the Fillmore East in NYC and we were told by the owner, Bill Graham after getting two encores, that we were the only act besides Jimi Hendrix to get two encores! It wasn’t until 1975 that I actually moved my family and the band to Marin County in Northern California. Then, in 1987, we moved to Los Angeles, and to Venice in 1989, where I currently reside.
Rock Cellar: Talk about when you first got signed.
Brian Auger: I started the band the Brian Auger Trinity in 1966 as an organ trio. I first had a management agreement around 1967 in London with the head of Marmalade Records which was financed by Polydor Records. That year we added Julie Driscoll as a lead singer and recorded our first album, Open. We had a lot of record activity in England and also across Europe. We ended up coming to the States to tour in 1969. Eventually the band broke up over typical stuff, but I was interested in continuing to pursue my mix of jazz, rock, and funk, which at that time didn’t have a name. (Now you can call it fusion.)
In my pursuits to carry out my intention, I thought it might become the ‘quickest way to oblivion,’ which was the inspiration for naming my band Brian Auger’s Oblivion Express! In 1970 I came back to the U.S. with the Oblivion Express. RCA heard what I was doing and invited me to New York and then signed me to a 5-year contract. We made BAOE’s first album for RCA followed by A Better Land and Second Wind. After the Second Wind album, we had a change of personnel in the band, and then we made Closer to It. RCA decided they didn’t want to tour that album and told me not to come back to the States, but I loved the album, so I decided to come over tour anyway. My now friend, Mike Abramson, who worked at RCA’s promo office in Cleveland, took it and broke the album in the tri-state area. The album took off on the Billboard charts on the Rock, Jazz, and R&B charts simultaneously, and I was invited to have dinner with the president of RCA!
Rock Cellar: How do you describe your music?
Brian Auger: My music is difficult to classify any one way. I have a lot of influences from jazz and early British pop to rock, R&B, funk, soul, and blues. I was given the title of “The Father of Acid Jazz,” but my music is a combination of all of these … Blues, Rock, Acid Jazz, Funk, Jazz Rock, and Fusion. My main project, Brian Auger’s Oblivion Express, includes a rotating group of A-list musicians. The current line-up includes my son Karma Auger on drums, Andreas Geck on bass, and on vocals and percussion is Lilliana de los Reyes (daughter of famed drummer/percussionist) Walfredo Reyes who’s currently playing with Chicago. But the Oblivion Express has had some of the best musicians in it from 1970 till now. Each brings a unique energy and spin to the music.
Rock Cellar: You’ve done a European tour every year for many years. What are your tours like?
Brian Auger: Basically, touring is hard work, but a lot of fun, too. In addition to the 4-piece, I sometimes include a guitarist on tour. Last year in 2019, we did 2 tours. The U.S. tour on the East Coast was the first time back there in about 10 years. I invited guitarist Frank Gambale (Chick Corea’s Elektric Band) to join us, and then for my annual fall tour in Europe we were just the 4-piece band. This tour included Germany, Belgium, Austria, Switzerland, and Italy.
When in Germany last year, I was presented with the “Blues Louie,” award from the German Blues Festival in Lahnstein. This is given to only one artist per year, so I felt very honored. On October 31, 2019, I was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award, given to me by the Mayoress of Valenza in Italy. I was also inducted into the Hammond organ Hall Of Fame in Chicago, and nominated for a Grammy in 2001 for an album called CAB with Dennis Chambers on drums, Bunny Brunel on bass, Tony McAlpine on guitar, and myself on keyboards. Sometimes these little surprises make it even more fun.
I do prefer the intimacy of smaller clubs, but there have been times playing arenas with up to 12,000 people all cheering to a solo … and that feels really good, too.
Rock Cellar: Talk about live music today vs in the past.
Brian Auger: In my past, the clubs were always full until late in the night, particularly during the British Invasion, that is, American music that went through the ‘filter’ of the Brits! I enjoyed being on bill with other live artists, later on touring with Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters, and I did a short tour opening for Earth, Wind, and Fire, which was fantastic and a great honor.
Rock Cellar: Who were your favorite musicians to play with?
Brian Auger: That’s a tough question! Besides my kids … in the early days Steve Ferrone on drums was a fantastic member of the Oblivion Express. Actually, I did some sessions for Paul McCartney, and it was really something seeing him sitting at my organ showing me what he wanted. Wow!
I also really enjoyed playing with Jimi Hendrix! We didn’t actually work together, but we did play together. Shortly after putting the Trinity together, I was approached by Jimi’s manager, Mike Jeffrey, who wanted Jimi to front my band, which I had no interest in doing. It was well known that Mike Jeffrey was one of the biggest crooks in the music business. Also, I had just added Julie Driscoll to be the lead singer in my band and she was fantastic. I had a regular gig at an after-hours club called the Cromwellian, which was THE place for musicians to come and hang out late night, and I offered to have Jimi come one night to sit in with me and play.
He showed me a chord sequence and asked if I could play over that with him. Little did I know that song was “Hey Joe”! By the way, in the audience that night happened to be Eric Clapton, Alvin Lee, Jeff Beck, Lulu, Dusty Springfield among others. What a night! In recent years, I have toured with Italian pop and blues artist Zucchero Fornaciari, who is an amazing talent and had become a dear friend of mine.
Rock Cellar: Tell us about your latest release, the Introspection box set (available here).
Brian Auger: I was approached by Sunset Blvd Records about doing a 3-CD box set about a year and a half ago. I said I was interested in doing something for them, but I didn’t want to do a ‘Best Of’ project. I agreed to do it if I could pick out the material myself. I wanted to give some of the songs I’d written that didn’t get as much air play in the past a chance to be heard. Some of these tunes are longer than what radio typically played.
The label agreed to my idea, and let me choose the picks. There are 35 tracks in total. I decided to include tunes that spanned my entire catalog all the way back to the ’60s till now. I wanted to be able to show my playing on the B3 as well as piano. I’ve had some of the best musicians on my projects including drummer Steve Ferrone (Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Average White Band), Lenny White (Return to Forever), Larry Van, all these great bassist Derek Frank, Travis Carlton, Jimmy Haslip, Dan Lutz, Les King, Alex Ligertwood on vocals, and all 3 of my kids have recorded with me as well.
Karma, my son, on drums and vocals and both of my daughters Ali and Savannah on vocals. Now that the project is out, it’s getting a really good response. I’m also, for the first time, offering digital downloads in addition to the physical CD, but I really like the artwork on the CD cover.
Rock Cellar: Would you like to mention anything about any of your favorite musician friends?
Brian Auger: Well, Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake & Palmer was my best friend. We were both British and both keyboard players. I was extremely saddened when I learned the news of his passing back in March 2016. We had some great times together whether it was at a party or just sitting in on local gigs together. I miss him very much and his music will never be forgotten.
12 – How can fans find you and your music?
Brian Auger’s new 3-CD box set is available through his site brianauger.com.
He has signed copies available and is working on a cool poster.