“Certain people I knew from the scene wouldn’t speak to me after I got a hit. But it’s all music… I just had a great time”: Brian Auger warned Jimi Hendrix off drugs, lent money to Rod Stewart and learned what prog was from Keith Emerson

Brian Auger
(Image credit: Elde Stewart)

He’s probably best known for This Wheel’s On Fire, the 1968 hit by Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger And The Trinity. But away from the pop world, pianist and Hammond organ master Auger is highly regarded as a pioneer jazzer who sought to “develop this idea of a bridge between jazz and different musical worlds.”

Before that one-off hit, he had The Steampacket with vocalists Driscoll, Rod Stewart and Long John Baldry; and after The Trinity he formed Brian Auger’s Oblivion Express. He has also worked with Jimi Hendrix, John McLaughlin, Tony Williams, Sonny Boy Williamson and Eric Burdon, among many other big names from across the musical spectrum.

It’s the day before Brian Auger’s 84th birthday, and he’s in fine spirits. Seated in his practice space at home in Los Angeles, he explains he’s getting together with his family to toast the occasion. That means a visit from his grandkids and children, three of whom – son Karma and daughters Ali and Savannah – have at one time or another played in his ground-breaking jazz-fusion ensemble Oblivion Express.

There’s also cause for a celebration of the musical kind: the recent release of Complete Oblivion, a lavish box set of the band’s essential run of studio albums from 1970-75, a period that saw Auger move from progressive jazz rock to deep jazz funk and beyond, driven by his love of experimentation and dynamic rhythms.

It’s the latest and most lustrous in a spate of recent remasters that have sought to place Auger’s formidable output in some kind of context, from his early days in British R&B band The Steampacket to solo works and late-60s combo The Trinity.

“Revisiting this stuff has been quite a revelation to me,” he marvels, “because there’s been a lot of music that I’d not listened to for a while. But those old records are coming at me and I’m going, ‘Wow! Did I really do that?’ I think it’s just the fact that I was so fired up. I became a professional musician in 1963, and now I’m at that point where I’m looking back. I often think to myself that the universe has smiled on me many times.”

Auger started out as a pianist in London’s vibrant 60s jazz scene. Galvanised by Jimmy Smith’s funky organ sound, he’d switched to Hammond B3 by 1965, by which time he’d co-founded The Steampacket with singer Long John Baldry, alongside a young Rod Stewart and 18-year-old newcomer Julie Driscoll. The band weren’t built to last, and he wasted little time in forming Brian Auger And The Trinity, taking the redoubtable Driscoll with him as lead singer.

Heading up The Trinity allowed him to explore the porous possibilities of jazz, blues, R&B and the emergent psychedelia, releasing a succession of late-60s albums and scoring a UK No.5 hit with a luminous cover of Bob Dylan’s This Wheel’s On Fire.

Having rubbed shoulders with the likes of John McLaughlin, Jimi Hendrix and Keith Emerson along the way, Auger threw himself into the 70s with his Oblivion Express. The fluid set-up hit early peaks with 1972’s Second Wind and follow-up Closer To It!, augmenting daring new material with radical reinterpretations of music by Eddie Harris, Marvin Gaye and Gene McDaniels.

Auger drew breath for a while in the late 80s, joining Eric Burdon’s touring band, before founding a new Oblivion Express in the mid-90s. By then, he was being lauded by a new generation of admirers as the Godfather Of Acid Jazz. Not for nothing did the great keyboard player Herbie Hancock hail him as “one of the best Hammond B3 artists I’ve ever heard in my life. His technique is awesome and the amount of energy he generates is unparalleled and relentless.”

How did it all begin for you?

By the time I was 3 we had a pianola in the house. It belonged to my dad. We had all the operas in piano form, all sorts of different little concertos and some ragtime, which I loved. I used to drive it by pedalling away. It’s driven by air, and the sheet of music would come down around the bobbin and make all the notes play. I was fascinated. It was hours and hours of what I wanted to do.

My favourite was the William Tell Overture. My older brother had a collection of American jazz – Satchmo, Duke Ellington, Count Basie. I loved the swing. My sisters loved Nat Cole, and my mum and dad used to like songs from musicals. So I was surrounded by this whole musical thing. Then I heard [boogie- woogie/ragtime pianist] Winifred Atwell. I thought, “My God, I’ve got to find out if I can play like that. It’s gonna take me a long time.” Eventually I got the Cross Hands Boogie down.

Rod Stewart felt he was above the rest, I think. But he was a friend of Long John Baldry’s, so I let it go

So was it always going to be a musical life?

Not really. For some reason, my parents had got hold of this idea of me being a chartered accountant. But what happened was my dad passed away and I really was the next in line in the family. There were six of us. Three had gotten married already, then there was me. I was at home and somebody had to look after paying the rent. I was a semi-pro at that time, doing quite a lot of playing, and that helped to keep it all together. And then along the way I got pushed towards becoming a professional musician. When I look back, I think the universe has kind of put me here for music.

You mentioned swing. I believe you took a lot of inspiration from jazz sax players rather than from pianists?

Yes. When I was improvising on organ, people thought I’d been listening to Jimmy Smith and people like that. But I’d been listening to so many black saxophone players. Those were the guys that kind of guided me and made me realise what you could do over chords. I’d play at [London jazz club] Ronnie Scott’s – I’d got to the point where I had my own trio there, opening for the Americans – then I’d walk two minutes down the road and play at the Flamingo. And the audience was totally different.

In Ronnie’s you’d say, “Hey, how are ya?” and they’d go, “Shhh! Quiet now.” So we began to call it the Temple Of Doom! But then on Saturday nights at the Flamingo it was a mix of American Army people from the bases, people from the islands and white kids, all loving this music. They’d dance all night and it was just an amazing atmosphere. So they were two very different places and I had a foot in each.

Did you get any flak from the jazz purists?

Oh yeah. Certain people I knew from the scene wouldn’t speak to me after I got a hit with Julie Driscoll. They’d cut me dead in the street. But it’s all music, y’know. I just had a great time. Everybody wanted to come to London in the 60s. It was absolutely full of amazing music and bands. And the British Invasion just kind of swept around the world. It was like a movement. We all belonged to one another; it didn’t matter whether we could speak the language or not.

Did it feel like a cultural shift was happening?

In some ways – but we were just enjoying ourselves. It wasn’t until later on that I started thinking about that. Keith Emerson was a great friend of mine, a really wonderful guy. He’d tell me about playing the organ upside down on stage and stuff. I couldn’t believe it. I remember we got talking about influences. I said to him, “Where did it all start for you?” And whose name came up? Winifred Atwell! We found out that we were influenced by the same people, except I was on the jazz track and he was on the prog side.

Did you feel an affinity with prog back then?

Because Keith Emerson was my best buddy, I had a listen to what he did. I hadn’t heard of prog at that time, but I went to see him play in Croydon or somewhere like that. He did America, and I thought he was just incredible. I never really understood what ‘prog’ meant, because to me it’s just music. All this stuff – jazz, R&B, prog, whatever – has grown from some kind of root.

I believe he did credit you as a major influence on his playing in The Nice?

He once told me, “Bri, I went to the Marquee one night and you were playing this thing called Rock Candy, by ‘Brother’ Jack McDuff. And I was mesmerised. I thought, ‘I want to play like that!’”

How did The Steampacket come about?

I was playing at the Twisted Wheel one Saturday night in Manchester, and Long John Baldry grabbed me: “I need to talk to you, Brian. Would you like to come up and meet my management people?” They told me that John was giving up his band, The Hoochie Coochie Men, and asked if I’d be interested in running his new one. I told them I’d have to pick the personnel and use my own rhythm section. They said, “John insists that he has this guy called Rod Stewart,” who at that time was kind of wandering around the scene, sitting in with different bands. I thought, “Well, why not?” Then I mentioned adding Julie Driscoll.

What was it about Julie that made her such a sympathetic collaborator?

She could more or less sing anything. My manager had asked me to play on this record he was doing, and it turned out to be Julie on vocals. I’d never seen her before. I thought, “Wow, she can sing!” And then I find out she’s working in the office, answering Yardbirds fan mail, waiting to get out on the road with a band. There was the universe putting it all together for us again.

Rod was a strange guy, though. On a tour  he would immediately go to the bar. He’d say, “Buy us a drink, guv.” When I’d ask where his money was, he’d go, “Oh, my mum makes me put it in my Post Office account.” I was supposed to be running the whole thing, trying to keep it in order, and people were wanting me to sub them their money. I didn’t like that.

Rod was somebody who felt that he was above the rest, I think. But he was a friend of Long John Baldry’s, so I let it go. I remember playing at Klooks Kleek in West Hampstead and an argument developed, because he’d said something to Julie that she didn’t like – he called her “fat legs.” There were a lot of people in the room, and Julie picked up this pint of beer and threw it at his feet and it smashed. He was really upset about his shoes: “What are you doing? My shoes!” Then it just got out of hand. The Steampacket was kind of ridiculous.

Guitarist John McLaughlin was in your quintet in the early days. The opening track on the first Oblivion Express album is your version of his Dragon Song, so there seems to be a very strong kinship there.

Oh yeah, we were great friends. He was playing Wes Montgomery when I first met him, but he liked an American guy called Tal Farlow, a wonderful player. We didn’t really have a band, but we would go out on the weekend and do a lot of work for the Americans, either the Air Force or the Army. They always had a club. I thought John was the best guitar player that I knew on the scene.

Jimi Hendrix said, ‘I need a lot more people around me like you’ … Then six months later he was gone

Later on, when I was in New York, he was recording the Devotion album [February 1970]. He asked if I wanted to come over and listen to the mixes. So I went over there, heard Dragon Song and thought, “I must record that myself.”

Not long after that, the door opens and Jimi Hendrix comes in. Jimi was an old friend of mine, because he played with my band at the Cromwellian the first time he arrived in London. We went outside and he looked terribly ill to me. His skin was kind of grey. He said, “Can you stay and make an album with me?” I asked how long it would take, and he said about three months. I was more used to making an album in three days.

So I said, “Well, I’ve got all this work, man.” I couldn’t drop everything, because they’d probably sue me. “But I’d love to do something. I hear you’ve got this studio.” He said, “Yeah, come down tomorrow and you can listen to some of the jams we’ve been doing.”

And then he pulls out some silver paper and unwraps it. It’s brown heroin and he’s about to sniff this stuff. I didn’t want to deal with any of that shit. I said to him, “Jimi, you’ve got to stop doing this, man. This stuff will kill you.” And he said – and I’ll never forget this – “Y’know what, Bri? I need a lot more people around me like you.” I went over the next day, saw the studio and listened to the jams. They were amazing. Then six months later he was gone.

Am I right in thinking Hendrix’s management team wanted him to front your band at one point?

Yes. Before this happened, I got a call from Chas Chandler, who had an office in town with a guy called Mike Jeffery, who I thought was probably the biggest crook I’d ever seen. To be fair to Chas, I said that I’d go and see what they wanted from me. Mike Jeffery said, “Bri, we’ve brought this amazing guitar player over from New York. We want him to front your band.” 

About two months before that I’d started The Trinity with Julie Driscoll. So I told them I’d like to help, but I already had a band and that Julie fronted it. “I also have a guitar player, so what do you expect me to do? Just dump them on the pavement?” And Mike Jeffery said, “That’s your problem.” I remember thinking, “No wonder I don’t want anything to do with you.”

What was the vision for The Trinity?

We were trying to build a bridge between the jazz scene and rock and blues, everything that was going on at the time. I felt there were certain things that I could play that would make some of the guys from the rock side listen to what was going on in the jazz world, and vice versa. And it kind of worked out. Not in a big way, but it did work out.

I remember walking in central London, and who should I meet but Keith Moon. He had a Sonny Rollins album under his arm. “Moonie! I can’t believe it. You listen to that stuff?” He says, “Yeah, I like some of it, but a lot of it I don’t understand!”

How did you approach recording your cover of This Wheel’s On Fire?

The Dylan tapes had been going around. Manfred Mann did Mighty Quinn, so by the time it got to us there were only two tracks left. One was This Wheel’s On Fire. It was a strange kind of thing, but Julie liked it immediately. I wasn’t so sure. I said, “Look, I’m going to take this home and see whether I can come up with some idea of how to do it.”

I tried a few rock rhythms and different things, but none of that worked. And I suddenly realised, “Wait a minute, this guy’s playing a walking bass here. Let’s just keep that and do this like a march.” So I put a piano track down, then an organ track, and Julie came in and sang this amazing vocal over it. There was a lot of weird psychedelic stuff happening at the time. And when we slowed it down it had that kind of strange feel about it. I was amazed that it took off.

When you dissolved The Trinity to form Oblivion Express, was there any push-back from the record company?

I thought, ‘I’m wading against the commercial tide – I could fall on my face.’ That’s why I called it the Oblivion Express

Oh yeah. They wanted me to continue with the sort of things we’d done with The Trinity. There’s two types of people in the music business: the musicians, and the accountants. And they want to keep you in the same slot if you’ve got something going. But I wasn’t having that. I was further along in thinking that I’d like to develop this idea of a bridge between jazz and different musical worlds. So I went ahead. I was taking a risk. I thought, “I’m definitely wading against the commercial tide – I could fall on my face here.” That’s why I called it the Oblivion Express.

You seemed to have more freedom with that group. 

Absolutely. I was able to just do what the hell I liked. Which is OK as long as it works. Fortunately, people liked what I was doing. I found tunes and rearranged them to fit this idea of trying to drag one side over into the other.

In the late 80s you became known as the Godfather Of Acid Jazz to a new generation of DJs and tastemakers. What brought that on?

Eddie Piller [DJ and founder of the Acid Jazz label] told me it was all based on the Oblivion Express Closer To It! album [1973]. That album we made in two afternoons, live in the studio. I just thought, “That’s more what I want; it’s more rhythmic. We’ll see whether anybody likes it.” And in America they did, particularly the black community. That was wonderful, because it felt like that was the start of everything really getting going.

You revived Oblivion Express decades later. Did it feel like you had some unfinished business?

Not really. It’s just that I love to play. At that time, Karma [Brian’s son, drums] was playing fantastic, and my daughter, Ali [lead vocalist], was also in the band. But she couldn’t take the road; it was too much for her. Then [daughter] Savannah came in and was like a great breath of sunshine. So I started to forge ahead, and let them choose some of the things to re-record. And I just had a ball.

Do you ever think about your legacy?

Not really. I think that’s for other people to decide. All I’m doing is making music, man. I speak Italian, French and German, but the loudest I speak is the language of music. It cuts through all the boundaries.

Rob Hughes

Freelance writer for Classic Rock since 2008, and sister title Prog since its inception in 2009. Regular contributor to Uncut magazine for over 20 years. Other clients include Word magazine, Record Collector, The Guardian, Sunday Times, The Telegraph and When Saturday Comes. Alongside Marc Riley, co-presenter of long-running A-Z Of David Bowie podcast. Also appears twice a week on Riley’s BBC6 radio show, rifling through old copies of the NME and Melody Maker in the Parallel Universe slot. Designed Aston Villa’s kit during a previous life as a sportswear designer. Geezer Butler told him he loved the all-black away strip.