Photo by Warren Dyer
Jazz/soul organist extraordinaire
Interview by Robin Cook
Standing at the crossroads of psychedelia and R&B, Brian Auger, Julie Driscoll, and the Trinity became stars in Britain and abroad in the late 1960's. Their signature song, the Bob Dylan/Rick Danko composition "This Wheel's On Fire," became a top 10 hit in the UK (Julie Driscoll, now known as Julie Tippetts, recorded another version of the song for the Britcom Absolutely Fabulous). The band's eclectic legacy is now being celebrated with a new boxed set. Brian Auger himself was on hand to delve into the band's evolution and his own musical beginnings.
PSF: Could you tell me a bit about how you got started as a musician? Walk me through your background. You were originally a jazz musician, right?
BA: I was, yeah. But at the age of about three or four years old, my father had installed a piano. And the piano was called a pianola. You could use it as a normal piano or you could put a bob in of kind of paper with slots in it, and then use these pedals to draw that, to make it come across a little kind of grid, which corresponded to the notes on the piano.
Basically, he had all the operas in that kind of form, you know, piano roll form, and a load of ragtime, which I loved. And I'd figured out at around about four years old how to hook up the roll of music, as we called it. And, you know, I used to stand on the pedals, hang onto the underneath of the keyboard, and pedal away like some demented cyclist.
So, basically that's how it all started, you know. So I had all this music, all these, different things, "Moonlight Sonata," and a lot of Italian composers, including Rossini. And the one that I really liked was, Rossini's "Overture to William Tell," which went [sings the line to the "William Tell Overture"], So I'm peddling away and it's all going [sings more of "William Tell Overture"], and the notes are moving as well. So, after a while, I realized that the piano was divided into these octaves. I didn't know what an octave was, but the piano was divided, you know and all that altered was a pitch of the piano from here to there. So it did occur to me that if I played these same notes up here, it should correspond to the ones down there, so I should be able to play along. And I went [sings more of "William Tell Overture"] [Laughing]... "Eureka," as they say.
So this is how it all started. I would, you know, play away, pedal away, and try to copy bits and pieces of, whatever was going on, you know. Then around me, I had, two sisters who were in love with Nat King Cole, and Frank Sinatra and, you know, all sorts of other people. And they had records, 78's of this stuff.
And then also my eldest brother, 'cause we came in two packets, our family, there was my eldest brother who was about 13, 14 years older than me, then my two sisters, and then a hiatus, Thank God for my mum. And [laughs] then, me and then a younger sister and a younger brother. So this was a sort of a mix of music that was going on.
My mom and dad liked songs from the shows and, uh, you know, I fell in love with ragtime and my brother's collection of American jazz. And so it all really started like that, you know? Then, a bomb fell and wiped out the whole of our row of houses, including mine. Fortunately for me, my mom had heard this thing. It was one of those terror weapons, you know, a V1, which would fly to over London, and then the motor would stop and nobody knew where it was gonna land [laughs]. Well, my mum threw me underneath the living room table at this time. So I'm sitting under there, and all of a sudden there's this hell of an explosion. And fortunately, none of us were injured. Amazing, huh? And I sat underneath the table watching the ceiling come down, and the walls and everything. You know, I'm thinking to myself, because my dad had quite a nasty temper actually, if you riled him up. [laughs] And all this stuff was coming down and everything, you know, And when I looked at our front room, which was just totally wiped out, I thought to myself, "Someone's really gonna be in trouble now." [laughs]
So I had no fear of what was going on or, you know, what was being delivered to us. Except, I certainly feared that my dad, when he saw the destruction of our place wasn't going going to be in a, in a great mood that day. [laughes] And I ended up being ticketed 'cause the powers that be figured it all out: if this happens and you can't live where you are supposed to live 'cause there's nothing left, they would put a ticket here to send us the next day to our railway station, Paddington, I think it was. And they put us on a train, it went to around about 200 miles north, which was well out of the range of the bombers for the rest of the war.
Fortunately, again, the universe had stepped in, and when I was lodged with these very, very kind people up north, there was a piano in their place.
I had no thought of ever being a professional musician or anything at that point. And neither had any people in my family, you know? Uh, my mom and dad said, "You must study while you are up there. You've got to be good. And then maybe you'll become a chartered accountant." [laughing] Whatever the hell that was! And now I realize: "My God, saved by the bell, you know?" Ha! I was away for about two years, and when I got back to town, there was my piano with the piano rolls, and, you know, basically "eureka" once more.
And I had all this different music around me going on. You know, the one that really got me going was the jazz stuff, for some reason. I absolutely loved it, and I loved the way it swung, you know. And then I started to pick out tunes from the wireless. I listened to this jazz stuff and finally at the age of 11 or 12, I heard a lady playing some kind of boogie-woogie actually. It was a lady called Winifred Atwell. Now, Winifred Atwell was amazing because she was a lady from Jamaica, but she could play and she should have sat in front of an orchestra and, you know, done the usual thing. But of course, she wasn't the right color at that particular point to do that. But boy, could she swing and could she play boogie woogie. And I tried my best and I managed to get a couple of things together, you know, of boogie woogie. And again, it started off and I started to learn different things and heard different jazz music and still no thoughts of being a professional musician. I didn't even know what that meant, [laughing]
PSF: Were you self-taught or did you take lessons at any point?
BA: No, no, no. I was self-taught because there was no money in the family. We were totally wiped out, you know? And we couldn't afford to go to piano lessons, but nobody was thinking of that. There had so many other problems. Thank the Lord, they left me on my own to do whatever I like, you know? It just worked out that I happened to like jazz and I happened to like, you know, boogie woogie.
I got a scholarship to grammar school in London, Sloan School. And the first thing I saw when I went in was they had this beautiful piano in a sort of a dark brown. And there it was, sitting there and somebody would come and bash out a few hymns in the morning.
And we were all saying, you know, "Oh dear!" It was one of those things. And on Friday mornings, anybody who was taking outside course, like music, it might be a saxophone player or mainly violin stuff, you know, they would come on. And the headmaster would step forward in his cap and gown, you know, and announce what was gonna happen. And 200 of us who were assembled every morning, you know, kind of groaned.
And somebody would come and scrape away on the violin, and we'd have to sit there, you know, and listen to this. Or somebody actually had a saxophone, except it would squawk at various intervals. And so that was, at least, it was funny. Anyway, I looked at this piano, it was so beautiful. And I stayed behind after school, uh, one evening. I must have been there for about two hours or so, hiding, you know? And then I approached the piano and I started to play Winifred Atwell's "Cross Hands Boogie," which I'd really got together by that time. And this at the piano sounded absolutely wonderful. It was just amazing. And I thought, "Is this me playing?" [Laughs] And then round the corner comes none other than the head of the of the school Guy Boaz.
So I stopped, and he said, "Auger! What the hell do you think you are doing?"
So I said, "Well I was playing this piano, it's such a beautiful piano. I stayed behind. I'm sorry if I in interfered with anything."
This is how crazy the English are. He says, "Well, what sort of music is that?"
So I said, "It is called boogie woogie, sir." [Laughs]
He said, "Boogie woogie? That's not that gin mill stuff, is it?" [Laughs]
I said, "Gin mill stuff? Why... it could be, you know?"
And, he said, "Well, who plays this stuff?"
So, I said, "Well, there's a lady called Winifred Atwell, it's her composition, It's called 'The Cross Hands Boogie.'"
And he said, "Boogie? Now let me see here. Is this one of these things that's kind of up to the moment?"
So I said, "Up to the moment, sir?"
"Is it popular?"
So I said, "Well, yes, it's very popular. I mean, everybody who comes down for the assembly, everyone would know this, you know, because it's a number one hit at the moment."
So he said, "Oh, um, hmmmmm." He said, "Have you ever done a Friday solo?"
I thought to myself, Are you kidding? [Laughs] I said, "Well, no, I have actually, I don't play any classical stuff, 'cause I'm self-taught and, um, I only play this, um, 'gin mill stuff.'"
So he said, "Well, I see. Well, it's popular and the boys would like it. I don't see why you shouldn't do it."
I thought, Are you out of your mind? This is like living in, you know, Monty Python land.
So I said, "Well, no, I've never done a Friday solo. I could only play this, you know?"
And he said, "Well, I don't see why you shouldn't play a solo like that. It's all up to date."
And I thought, Oh God, I don't believe this.
So he said, "Look, would you like to do the next Friday solo, then?"
This is about two days away. I said, "Fine, you know. Okay then."
"Right, I think you've better go home now. It's rather late."
So, I went home and I thought about this for two days. Surely he's not gonna allow me to actually play this stuff? Anyway, so the 200 kids assembled on Friday and he steps forward, the whole faculty is up on the stage, you know, they're all cap gowns and this, that, and the other. He said, "This morning, the, uh, Friday solo seller will be given by Auger of 2A." And people looked at one another, like, what? He said, "He will be playing a composition by Winifred Atwell [laughing] called 'The Cross Hands Boogie.'" The faculty looked at one another: Has he gone mad?
So I said, "Okay, that's it then." So I just lit out and I played "The Cross Hands Boogie." And this went down to a kind of football roar from the crowd afterwards, you know. So, he was smiling because he thought, Well, it all works good. And afterwards, he came and said, "Oh, very good, Auger. Maybe we could do another one later on." I said, "Yes, sir. I don't see why not." [Laughing] Oh boy! So, I mean, this is how mad England was, you know? And still is, thank God.
And it kind of went on from there. I finally met some, some of the kids who wanted to start a band. Somebody had some drums and, you know, one guy had a bass a string bass and it kind of went on and on. And then I got invited to parties and, uh, you know, taken down to South End to see the lights. To see the lights was one of these weird things that the British indulged in, you know, around about that time. They'd get totally drunk on the way down, then get totally drunk on the way back. And they just wanted somebody to play some, you know, play some tunes and stuff.
So, it kind of, I think, probably started from there to be professional, 'cause they passed the hat around, you know? And I had much more pocket money than I'd ever had. [laughing]
I then found myself in different trios and, and, and bands and stuff, you know. Then invited... Oh, this, this will make you laugh, I hope. [Laughing] I got a phone call from a guy called Jimmy Skidmore. Jimmy was a saxophone player, but I'd actually gotten to see him 'cause he was part of the British Jazz Ensemble. He was a great guy, funny as hell, not like a normal kind of jazz guy, you know, all like, very serious.
So, Jim says to me just before we start at the Flamingo, Flamingo was one of the, the top clubs in London at the time. Jim says to me, "Right, you guys, time to pray!"
I said, "What? That's trying to play innit?"
He said, "Now this is the Lord's Prayer as interpreted by George Shearing."
Now George Shearing I knew because he was a great piano player. And I said, "Well, this is gonna be weird."
He says, "Right, this starts as follows, How far, how far is the White Lion from Hendon?" White Lion being some pub somewhere. "How far does the White Lion from Hendon? All hallows be thy name. Thy Kingston come, thy Wimbledon, in Erith as it is in Devon."
What? How can we get away with this? [Laughs]
So anyway, that went on. That was my introduction to jazz, you know, at the Flamingo. And started my career off of being actually paid for what we were about to do.
PSF: One thing I do wonder is how you transitioned from the piano to the organ.
BA: I used to hang around in Shepherd's Bush Market, which was an open market, at the end of which there was a shop called the WG Stores. WG Stores sold records up to the minute. But the thing was my brother Jim, who was the jazz guy, he said, "I'm buying a small, like, real modern radio."
I said, "Well, that's cool, Jim know, you know, we'll have some room for that."
He says, "Yeah, but you can have this big Ferguson radio with a big kind of orange slice and a big knob in the middle, You know, you can have it."
So I said, "Oh, Lord, this is just amazing!" So I rigged it up because I was sleeping in a bed next to a window, you know? And so I got a piece of wire and I made an antenna, which I hung out of the window. And I'm going through the different stations and everything one night. And all of a sudden this voice says, "This is the American Forces Network in Germany. We present 'The Jazz Hour.'" Oh, I can't believe this! So for an hour they would play different things. One thing they played was I think, called "Tenderly," by a guy called Oscar Peterson. And Oscar's technique was... oh my God, man. It was one of those things where I was aghast and I thought to myself, "Well, I wanna play like him. I've got to play like him, but that's just gonna take me the rest of my life to get that good!" [laughs]
So I went down to the WG Stores and I went in, and I was constantly asking them for things that I'd heard, like, the Four Freshmen and, you know, different stuff... And they'd go through all their catalogs and say, "No, we haven't got that... Where'd you hear that then, you know?"
And finally the truth was out: "Well, I heard it on AFN."
"AFN? What's that?"
"American Forces Network in Germany."
"Well, we don't carry that! We haven't got any of that."
So anyway, about six months later, I'm walking past the window, sticking my nose in, and a guy knocks on the window: "Come in, come in!" So, I come in, and he holds up a 78 of Oscar Peterson playing "Tenderly."
And I went, "Oh, oh my God!"
So I went, and then the guy said to me, "Is this what you've been bothering us about?"
So I said, "Well, yeah, that's the one. So wrap it up, you know..." So I took this home and listened to Oscar play, and oh, that was it.
So basically, after taking this Oscar Peterson single home and, listening to how this guy would swing, it was just like, "Oh God." But later on, I went past that store, WG Stores, and I heard this incredible sound, and I rushed in and said, "Well, what the hell is this?"
They said, "Oh, it's a Blue Note record, Back at the Chicken Shack, by this guy called Jimmy Smith." Jimmy actually became a great friend of mine later on, because that really turned the tide towards buying a Hammond which let me into the rock and roll side of things, or R&B side of things. So I was being booked at Ronnie Scott's for jazz, running across the road, and then playing R&B and stuff with these other musicians.
PSF: Were you, you aware of artists like say Graham Bond, who were doing something similar to you at the time?
BA: Well, Graham was an old friend of mine actually. And he was well known for being completely barmy; barmy meaning 'crazy.' And it's funny, around about same time that I got on organ and started getting gigs and stuff, he started his band as well. And we would swap jokes and laugh and carry on, and never realizing that this thing was beginning to come become a kind of movement, an organ band movement.
PSF: One thing I do wonder is, what led you to forming Steampacket? Tell me a bit about how that happened and how you crossed paths with Julie Driscoll, Long John Baldry, and of course, Rod Stewart.
BA: Well, basically, Rod was a guy who flitted around the circumference of the kind of R&B world, and all dressed to the nines, and sat in with various people, but had no band. I just finished a set at a place called The Twisted Wheel in Manchester. And this huge, gangly guy came up to me. It was Long John Baldry. Now, Long John Baldry was a household name at the time, having been on two of the Beatles Christmas shows that were an hour each. And he said, "Brian, would you like to come and talk to my managers? They're interested in talking to you about something." This was Saturday night. Monday morning, I went and spoke to John's manager.
And I said, "Look, the Hoochie Coochie Men" --that was Baldry's band at the time--"are completely out of control." But thereby hangs another mad episode of British, whatever you call it. And so, they said, "we need a band... Somebody to run a band, make him learn new tunes, you know, turn up on time. So we wondered whether you'd be interested in doing something like that."
So I said, "Well, that should be pretty straightforward, and, who picks the personnel?"
So he said, "Well, you do."
So I said, "Right, I could use my rhythm section. They know everything, right? Okay."
And John insisted: "There's this guy, his name's Rod Stewart, and I'd like to have him in the band. I want him in the band."
I thought, Very strange. But anyway, so I said, "Well, this kind of complicates things. What are we doing? We're doing a Sam and Dave revue? Is that it, or what?"
And they're all, "Oh, I never thought of that. You know?"
I said, "Yeah, it's gonna be a bit strange. Two guys out front instead of one, who is by far the bigger name, anyway." I said, "I'll tell you what, I've just done two singles, single recordings, for a lady called Julie Driscoll, who's in our agency."
And I was thinking maybe that if we added Julie, then what would happen is, hey, people would love Julie because she's a great artist.
And then they said, "Well, how would that work?"
I said, "This is how it works. I'd go on and I'd play a couple of Jimmy Smith raging tunes to get everybody whipped up. Julie would come on and sing Nina Simone, and, you know Aretha Franklin stuff. And I would sing backup for Julie. Then Rod would come on and do whatever he was doing at the time. And we both sing backup for Rod, and then John comes on and John can do straight Chicago blues solo stuff with guitar. And basically, we would all back him up and it could be a big finale, like a gospel sort of deal. So we are covering a lot of ground if you can manage that." [Laughs]
And they thought, "Wow, that's a really good idea. There's nothing out there like that."
I said, "No, there's not."
So we hit the streets with this combination and it just went, you know, crazy actually. People loved it.
PSF: You mentioned that in the jazz world, some people looked down their nose as a pop on, you know, popular music or R&B. How did you yourself make the transition?
BA: I heard this single, I think it was Ray Charles, "What'd I Say?" They played it in clubs where I was playing afterwards. I was listening to him and I thought, You know, I really like this, but I better not tell anybody, particularly in the jazz world because they're not gonna like it, It's got too much rhythm and too much...
I was trying to, at the time, bring a sort of a bridge between what were the separate scenes of jazz and R&B. And I could do a straight out jazz set over at Ronnie's and then get my coat on and run across the road to the Flamingo and play an R&B. What I liked about the Flamingo was people danced and they were all at great time. You'd go to the other place at the time, and somebody called it the Temple of Doom because it you'd go, "Is that... ?" And someone would go, "Shhh." And I thought, You know, this is not very good.
So basically the Steampacket just happened to come along at the time when it covered so much of the R&B ground and filled in that blank. And so I ended up playing through a list of tunes that I never would've done otherwise. And making them fit to the Steampacket stuff and making it go. And when I came out of the other side of the Steampacket, I thought, Well, I know what I want. These elements, I want to conserve for my jazz bridge, and I need another rhythm section. And, um, it kind of moved along like that on its own. [laughs]
PSF: I know I'm getting forward a few years, but when artists like Miles Davis started blending jazz and rock, what were your thoughts on that? Because you were one of the people blending different genres.
BA: Well, I mean, Miles was my great hero. Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly, those guys were still my favorite people on the jazz side, 'cause I like that funk style. And, also the thing that Miles did in terms of playing over scales instead of playing over chords.
But, but basically, yeah, that was exactly what I was trying to approach, a kind of a mix of both of those things.
PSF: I was wondering, when you started having hit records with Julie Driscoll and The Trinity, you know, what it felt like to suddenly end up done, Of course you started out as the jazz musician and now you guys were pop stars. Was it overwhelming for you?
BA: Yeah. Of course I had in the meantime accompanied a lot of singers that sang standards, you know, and so we were in the mix anyway. Julie was different because she liked tunes I could never imagine playing in their present form.
PSF: With the album Streetnoise (1969), that was a really good balance of originals that you wrote plus popular songs, say, "Let the Sunshine In."
BA: Well, Hair was a big deal at the time, but basically what happened was we were told, "You are going on tour in two weeks or three weeks," something like that. "But we need an album for Atco, Atlantic Records." And so, I said "We've already booked the studio. This is wonderful management, you know."
So basically we were shut in a studio for two weeks. And I thought, Well, I don't know how we're gonna manage this; we've gotta write some stuff. So I wrote "Tropic of Capricorn" and a couple of other things to add to it... Julie did "Czechoslovakia" and some other Nina Simone stuff. And in the end, we kind of ran out of material. And so I said, "Well, what we should do, I think, you know, otherwise we're not gonna make the deadline, is to pick out songs what that nobody knows because there are particular, you know, favorites like Laura Nyro, for example." Nobody knew who that was, but we did a tune, "Save the Country," from there and, and basically filled it in with our favorites that we thought nobody had heard, but they should hear. [Laughs] And we actually came up with enough material for a double album! [Laughs]
But anyway, the Americans thought it was the beginning of jazz fusion. Made me laugh, actually. We'd been playing stuff like that for ages. Julie introduced Nina Simone, and I have a vision of playing in a south London club. And she did, I think it was, "Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," which is a beautiful tune. Unfortunately, the Animals had done a version of that with terrible out of tune backing voices and whatever. And too fast, as far as I was concerned. I said, "Wow, what a, what a shame to spoil something like that."
So we did it and we used to play in this South London club, and there would be all these little girls that would be around the front, you know. And we'd start the intro [sings the opening melody for "Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood"]. Beautiful song and lyrics, incredible lyrics. And she would reduce these kids used to stand there and cry. She was so passionate about this tune. It was amazing.
PSF: I wondered about the song "Czechoslovakia" (from Streetnoise). Was that inspired by any an experience you'd witnessed?
BA: Yes, it was. We went to Czechoslovakia when it had just actually seen about six months of freedom in the press. You know, there had been a kind of revolution. And we went there and, and people would be, they would look at our van as it passed. And they would bang on the side and say, "Hey, hey, English!" [Laughs] And they were allowed to do that, you know, because they wouldn't have got away with that under the other regime.
Anyway, we played our concert, which unfortunately was by ticket and was by only party members, with the place absolutely sold out. And we delivered, and people threw flowers, and afterwards, the stage was probably about knee deep in flowers, so it was amazing.
And so we, we actually met a taxi driver, and I said to him, "How long have you been driving taxis?"
He said, "Well, after the last regime came in again they said, we could actually do this. And so what I'm gonna do is I'm gonna take you around all the places that, that people generally never see." So, he did, and he drove us around all day.
I'll never forget this guy, because about six weeks afterwards, the tanks came back and we were like, "Oh my God, I can't believe this." And I thought of that guy, and there we are, you know?
It was a very bittersweet kind of introduction to Czechoslovakia and so Julie wrote that tune because of that.
PSF: You were doing albums back-to-back, both with and without Julie Driscoll. What happened there?
BA: Well, what happened was, I was about to make an album and the band took off. And so it seemed like, we'd better, you know, put that one on hiatus. [Laughs] And, uh, in the meantime, I did a much more structured kind of jazz album and did some arrangements and had an orchestra, and that was it.
We called it Definitely What! (1968) because we really didn't have a name for it at that point. [Laughs]
PSF: I'm curious about how you and Julie Driscoll were in movie 33-1/2 Revolutions per Monkee (1969). How did that come about?
BA: Well, the guy [the creator], whose name was Jack Good, had taught at one of the big schools in England, Mathematics, or something like, but was a raving fan of rock and roll, and he wanted to see us, so we had to kind of go into Central London, set up our gear, and he arrived with the appropriate kind of like accent as well.
And we got on like a house on fire. I forget what we played actually. But afterwards he jumped up and down. "That was fantastic!" He lost his accent as well. We fell down on the floor laughing. It was ridiculous.
Anyway, he says, "Look, I've got these thing, you know, where we have the Monkees and I'm doing something where I go out into the street and you're the mad magician with a psychedelic organ."
And I said, "I see." [Laughing]
He says, "And you then we grabbed these four guys, it doesn't matter who, and we put them in these tubes..." --which actually later on, it was kinda like some of the Star Trek stuff-- "...and we zap them with the organ and they become stars, rock and roll stars! And you can be part of their development as Charles Darwin!"
I said, "Well, wait a minute, You know, how many roles do I have here?" Anyway, we had a whale at a time. It was just funny as hell.
PSF: What advice would you give to young musicians starting out today?
BA: I think the thing is this: if you're starting out, you've gotta be absolutely sure that this is what you want to do, 'cause it's gonna get really nasty. I would say the best advice is follow your heart. You know, if your heart tells you to go on, go on for God's sake. You know, you never know what's at the end of that path. And you never know how it's all gonna turn up. I was curious enough to, to push on with this stuff and look what happened. Serves me right! [Laughs]
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