Whenever You’re Ready: Brian Auger Celebrates 60 Years in Music (Part 1 of 3)
New collection of classic and rarities from the celebrated music figure
Organist, composer, vocalist and band leader Brian Auger is best known for his work leading two bands: in the ‘60s he launched The Trinity, a pioneering soul/jazz/rock outfit featuring powerhouse vocalist Julie Driscoll. And in the early ‘70s Auger pursued ambitious yet accessible jazz fusion, fronting Oblivion Express; that band achieved the distinction of an album that charted simultaneously on jazz, rock and soul charts.
But those credits are only part of the story. Even before The Trinity, Auger was part of a short-lived group of future superstars including Rod Stewart. And as a session musician, he provided the most distinctive sonic element to a monster hit single by another important and influential group. Later, he co-starred on television with The Monkees. And in the years after Oblivion Express’ most commercially successful releases, he has gone on to create a compelling and formidable body of work, and has toured far and wide with superb bands featuring his talented offspring.
Auger has dozens of albums to his credit. And the most recent is Auger Incorporated, a carefully selected compilation chronicling his career from its earliest days through his work with Oblivion Express. Mixing classic tracks with previously-unheard recordings, Auger Incorporated is designed to appeal both to longtime fans as well as those discovering the work of this iconic musician for the very first time.
Auger’s life in music started amid the blitzkrieg, the relentless World War II bombing of his hometown Shepherd’s Bush, London. His family had a player piano, and as a toddler, Auger would hang onto the keyboard and operate the foot pumps that drove the rolls. “I’d pedal like a demented cyclist,” he recalls with a laugh. “I had all that music going on; that was what surrounded me.”
Bomb craters surrounded him, too. Auger recalls that on multiple occasions during his early years, he and his five siblings would be awoken by his parents: “Quick! We’ve got to go to a shelter – now!” He says that on one of those episodes, “one of Hitler’s super weapons, the flying V-1 bomb, dropped behind our house. This thing took out the whole block!” Luckily, Auger’s mom had stashed him under a sturdy dining room table, so even as the walls and ceiling came down, he was safe. Other than his father getting cut by a bit of flying glass, the entire family came away uninjured.
Standard practice at the time meant that families whose homes were destroyed would be relocated well outside of London, presumably out of harm’s way. Families were often split up. Young Auger was sent with a sister to stay with a family near Yorkshire. “They looked after us, and they were very kind,” he says. “And they had a piano!”
A natural talent, Auger quickly learned how to play Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” with his right hand. “I hadn’t gotten around to the left hand yet,” he says with a chuckle. Completely self-taught, he worked out songs by ear. After two years in Yorkshire, he was reunited with his family back in London. And the Augers’ new home still had the piano. “My piano, I called it,” he says, smiling at the memory.
By the time he was 12, Auger had mastered an impressive number of tunes on the piano. He regularly listened to the American Armed Forces Radio broadcast from postwar Hamburg. He soon fell in love with the music of jazz greats including Miles Davis, Les McCann, Horace Silver, The Jazz Messengers, John Coltrane, Bill Evans and more. He was especially drawn to the sounds from Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff and Jimmy McGriff, all of whom played the organ in a style that would come be known as soul jazz.
At 15, Auger was already playing piano in a jazz band; they had a regular gig at the Cottage Club, just off Cambridge Circus in London. The late-night club was a popular haunt with Americans and anyone else into the burgeoning jazz scene. “Anybody who was in town would make a bee line to the place,” Auger recalls. Playing piano accompanied by a drummer with a small kit, he entertained the likes of Billie Holiday and members of Duke Ellington’s and Count Basie’s bands.
At that point, Auger says, he could play almost anything… as long as it was in the key of C or G. So when a well-known trombone player dropped by and wanted to sit in and play “Perdido,” Auger asked him, “What key do you want to play it in: C or G?” The trombonist was aghast, and told the teenage pianist that if he wanted to be a serious musician, he’d have to learn songs in the keys in which they were written.
A few weeks later, the trombonist returned, and gave Auger bits of direction: “That tune there, the middle eight goes to an A flat minor 9th.” Auger looked at him, perplexed: “What the hell is that?” The horn player was even more shocked, replying, “How can you play these things if you don’t know what you’re playing?” Auger explained that he was playing by ear. The trombonist – sixty-plus years later Auger doesn’t recalls his name – recommended some books on musical theory. Auger took the advice to heart. And when the man came back the next time, Auger was fully prepared to play “Perdido” – and other tunes as well – in their proper keys.
Within a couple of years, Auger had begun to make a name for himself in London’s jazz scene. He was asked to join a band that played at Ronnie Scott’s, The Flamingo and The Dorchester. One night he was called upon to fill in last-minute for pianist Georgie Fame. “He had fallen asleep on the beach in Cornwall and got sunstroke,” Auger recalls. When he arrived for the date, Auger looked around and asked, “Where’s the piano?” There was only an electric organ, an instrument Auger had never played.
He spent a few minutes with the Hammond M3 and then did the gig. After the set, an audience member approached him to compliment his work. He asked Auger how long he had been playing the organ. “Well,” he replied, “about 45 minutes, I think!” He soon bought one of his own.