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Brian Auger

For over fifty years, Brian Auger has been a musician’s musician as Hammond B3 innovator, pianist, bandleader, session man and key player in the rise of jazz/rock fusion. Auger 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 has played, toured, and recorded with many of the most influential musicians in modern times, including John McLaughlin, Jimi Hendrix, Paul McCartney, Steve Winwood, Tony Williams, Billy Cobham, Carlos Santana, Chaka Khan, Eddie Harris and Les McCann.

Playing in clubs, Auger won the Melody Maker Reader’s Poll in the “Jazz Piano” and “New Star” categories in 1964 and was a known commodity in swingin’ London’s burgeoning music scene. Auger was intrigued with technique, and in 1965, inspired by organist Jimmy Smith, he decided to start playing the Hammond B3, an organ few British musicians could play, largely because the bulky organs were virtually non-existent in England at the time.

Auger teamed with bass player Rick Brown and drummer Mick Waller, and after a few singles, recorded his first LP on a session organized to spotlight blues singer Sonny Boy Williamson that featured his group, saxophonists Joe Harriott and Alan Skidmore, and guitarist Jimmy Page; it was “Don’t Send Me No Flowers,” released in 1968.

The Yardbirds called Auger for session work in June of 1965, and featuring his harpsichord intro, “For Your Love” went to number one, kicking off the Yardbirds recording career, and also making Brian an in-demand session man around London.

In 1965, Brian’s exposure got a huge boost when he got call from singer Long John Baldry. Baldry had seen him play in a club in Manchester with an organ trio, and asked Brian to put a band together. Auger rounded up guitarist Vic Briggs, and Baldry enlisted Rod Stewart. Brian also recruited a young, mod singer named Julie Driscoll. “The new band was a range of things from Nina Simone to Motown, where Rod was a mix of Chicago blues and Sam Cooke,” says Brian. “Long John was straight Chicago blues or gospel, and we all sang backup on the stage for everybody else and it turned out to be a huge success. If someone really played with a great deal of fire in those days, someone would say ‘that guy’s a steamer’, so Steampacket became our name,” explained Auger.

After Steampacket broke up, “it took me out of the jazz world and made me play through such a variety of material that in the end I began to focus toward those various musical styles that really rubbed off on me,” recalls Brian. “That was the idea of the [Brian Auger] Trinity, a combination of blues, Motown and Messengers.”

“This Wheel’s on Fire,” (music and lyrics by Bob Dylan and Rick Danko) was released in the spring of 1968, preceding the appearance of the song on the Band’s “Music from Big Pink” album. Psychedelic it was, and the hypnotic effect Brian was searching for helped propel the tune to hit status all over Europe as well as the U.K. The Trinity was voted music magazine Melody Maker’s “Brightest Hope” in 1968, and in June was the first “rock” group to headline the Montreaux Jazz Festival, also headlining festivals in Berlin, Rome and Zurich.

The disc hit the top five in the U.K., after which Auger and the Trinity recorded the instrumental album “Definitely What!” without Driscoll, then brought her back for the double-LP, “Streetnoise” in 1968, which reached the U.S. charts on Atco Records shortly after a singles compilation, “Jools & Brian”, gave them their American debut on Capitol in 1969. The Trinity recorded “Befour” in 1970, which charted in the U.S. on RCA Records, before disbanding in July 1970.

Auger put together a new band to play less commercial jazz-rock and facetiously called it the Oblivion Express, since he didn’t think it would last; instead, it became his perennial band name. The initial unit was a quartet filled out by guitarist Jim Mullen, bass player Barry Dean, and drummer Robbie McIntosh, then Steve Ferrone, both later to play with the Average White Band. Their initial LP, “Brian Auger’s Oblivion Express,” was released in 1971, followed later the same year by “A Better Land,” Their first U.S. chart LP was “Second Wind” in 1972, the album that marked the debut of singer Alex Ligertwood (later with Santana).

The Oblivion Express continued to figure in the U.S. charts consistently over the next several years with “Closer to It!” in 1973, 1974’s “Straight Ahead” and “Live Oblivion, Vol. 1,” “Reinforcements” in 1975 and “Live Oblivion, Vol. 2” in 1976.

He switched to Warner Bros. Records for “Happiness Heartaches,” which charted in 1977. “Encore,” released in 1978, was a live reunion with Julie Tippetts (née Driscoll).

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, Julie Driscoll joined Auger for another album, resulting in “Encore.”

Auger was musical director for the 13-part German film retrospective series “Villa Fantastica” in 1989. A live recording of the series, Super Jam (1990), features Auger on piano, Pete York on drums, Dick Morrissey on tenor saxophone, Roy Williams on trombone, Harvey Weston on bass guitar, with singers Zoot Money and Maria Muldaur.

Brian teamed up with former Animals singer Eric Burdon in 1990, and the two toured together during the next four years, releasing “Access All Areas” together in 1993.

In the mid to late 1990’s, Auger formed a version of Oblivion Express, with his children: Karma on drums and Savannah on lead vocals. Before releasing “Auger Rhythms”, his first career retrospective, they toured Europe, drawing large crowds at several jazz festivals, including a two night gig at the famed Montreux Jazz Festival. Brian Auger and the new Oblivion Express currently tour Europe and America.

In 2012, Brian Auger released one of the few solo albums of his career, “Language of the Heart,” with guest artists including guitarists Jeff “Skunk” Baxter and Julian Coryell. Produced by Tea, the album is a reflection of the life and long career of a true fusionist who has never given in to commercial demands and etiquettes.

–Thanks to Tom Vickers and William Ruhlmann