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Brian Auger

The U.K.’s designated Hammond man is still melting minds today

Brian Auger

One of the most generous aspects of interviewing British-born Hammond B-3 organist and electric pianist Brian Auger—the toast of Swinging London’s soul-jazz scene and a musician who played with Tony Williams, Jimi Hendrix, John McLaughlin, Sonny Boy Williamson, and more—is that you need not refer to his records to hear what they sound like. Auger does it all for you in real time by impersonating the wheeze and whirr of his Hammond, to say nothing of every other thwack of a drum or thrum of a bassline. Loudly.

To that cacophony, Auger—during what turned out to be one of the most pleasurable two hours of this journalist’s career—often added brash laughter while offering a bird’s-eye tour of musical London in the mid-’60s, while reminding me of what led him to become one of that moment’s biggest hitmakers (his band the Trinity with vocalist Julie Driscoll struck it big with 1968’s “This Wheel’s on Fire,” penned by Bob Dylan and Rick Danko). 

Phrases such as “And then the Hammond came in and rrrrrargh” and “I had this solo that went beedleldeledee” were common throughout Auger’s conversation, executed in a musical, Brit-accented lilt from his home-away-from-home in Los Angeles. When I mentioned to him that I’m from Philadelphia, he rattled off names of Philly organists—Jimmy Smith, “Groove” Holmes, Jimmy McGriff—before yelling, “Splendid!”

Of course, you’ll have to make do with the recorded versions of those sounds, some of which appear on the newly released box set Far Horizons (Soul Bank), collecting Auger’s early work with Driscoll and the Trinity. That collection is just the beginning of a series of boxes scheduled well into 2023 that includes Complete Oblivion, which spotlights his fusion-y Oblivion Express, and Auger Incorporated, which includes rare and unreleased material from the jazzy Brian Auger Piano Trio and the R&B-oriented Steampacket. On top of that, several Live Oblivion volumes and a DJ/producer remix album of Auger material with jazzheads such as Kenny Dope and King Britt will follow.

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“I took over Georgie Fame’s three gigs a night on M-1 organ, one step up from the funeral-parlor model.”

“The organ chose me, in a roundabout way,” said Auger, who got into jazz as a child listening to The Jazz Hour on the American Armed Forces Network Germany and began playing piano in his teens at British clubs like Ronnie Scott’s. “From Ronnie’s—a more traditional jazz club—I could walk a few feet and be at the Flamingo, where R&B was going on and people could dance. There were also ladies and gentlemen there from Jamaica, so that music was part of the scene. Anyway, the brothers who owned the Flamingo—one big guy who’d stand outside and bellow, ‘Jazz till 5:30 a.m., guaranteed to wake you,’ and one littler brother—had [organist] Georgie Fame playing there on the regular. Until he went on vacation, fell asleep on the beach, got sunstroke, and had to stay in the hospital. Se the brothers asked me a favor: to take over Fame’s three gigs a night on M-1 organ, one step up from the funeral-parlor model. At the same time I’m playing piano down the road at The Roaring Twenties, another club. They paid my cab fare to go back and forth. It was a magnificent introduction to playing jazz organ in a live setting. The M-1? You could panic just looking at it, what with its switches and dials. Still, I think I mastered it within 45 minutes of playing the beast.”

The next thing you know, living as he did then in the west London neigborhood of Shepherd’s Bush and strolling through its outdoor marketplace, Auger came to a record store with an outdoor speaker. Roaring through the midday air was Jimmy Smith’s then-new B-3 jamming Back at the Chicken Shack on Blue Note. “Wrap that up!” yells Auger. “I was completely hooked.”

Afro sure: Auger with famed partner Julie Driscoll (L) in 1968

Even though Auger had already won awards for “New Star” and “Jazz Piano” in 1964’s Melody Maker readers’ poll, he began including R&B and blues in his sound as part of the Brian Auger Trinity (then including John McLaughlin). Then he abandoned piano altogether for the B-3 on a 1968 album with Sonny Boy Williamson, Don’t Send Me No Flowers, featuring saxophonists Joe Harriott and Alan Skidmore, and guitarist Jimmy Page. “Suddenly there were songs I was writing for the organ that would’ve sounded stupid on the piano,” he said. “And vice versa. It just happened that by then, I was writing more for the B-3.”

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Auger talked about how the harmonic rush of the Hammond offered a perfect vibe for composing as well as for soloing, a sound he said was “like Jimmy Smith, with this sort of bravado and swing.”

By the time he started working with Julie Driscoll (an improvisational singer who’d initially been part of Auger’s Steampacket revue/ensemble with fellow vocalists Long John Baldry and Rod Stewart) on the music in the Far Horizons box, psychedelicized rock had infiltrated the world of Auger and the Trinity. Their 1967 debut Open was a free, funky mix of slimy swamp blues, hard-jamming jazz, and fuzz-toned exotica on instrumentals such as “Isola Nate”—and that was before getting to Driscoll’s clarion-clear and emotive freak-folkishness on several Auger originals, as well as Donovan’s “Season of the Witch.”

Of incorporating Driscoll’s sound into his own at that time, Auger recalled how the British female vocalist “sung a lot of Aretha Franklin then, and was in love with Nina Simone. She would really let fly. Really felt the pathos and emotion in every lyric. I always picked people who sang and played with gusto, and what Julie, the Trinity, and I did really took off like a rocket.”

Reputations were sealed on those first recordings. Auger, Driscoll, and the Trinity expanded their minds and their progressive vision with the double album Streetnoise, which features everything from art rock to wonky renditions of “Flesh Failures (Let the Sunshine In)” from the bare-assed musical Hair, a stirringly emotional take on Laura Nyro’s “Save the Country,” and a molten B-3 burner from Auger, “Indian Rope Man,” that could still melt your ears from all of its dynamics, soul, and innovation.

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The flame that Auger and Driscoll kindled together didn’t last long after that, as the vocalist went on to work with other jazz leaders such as her future husband Keith Tippett and Carla Bley, and the organist subsequently dove into the progressive-jazz fusion of Oblivion Express. “But it burned bright. Really bright,” Auger said. “I’d like to think that everything from the Soul Bank boxes to whatever new music I’m doing now all contains that flame.”