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Music

The legendary Brian Auger has a goldmine of tracks and rock anecdotes

The musician’s 60-year career has seen him cross paths with Led Zeppelin, Elton John and The Yardbirds among many, many others.

Speaking to me from his home in LA, the pianist and organist Brian Auger sounds incredulous as he describes a recent phone call he received from an old associate of his, hoping to invite him to dinner.

“It really surprised me,” he says. “The phone rang and this voice said: ‘Hello Brian is that you? This is Elton [John].’ I was blown away… he was so kind and gracious.” As our conversation continues, he touches on pivotal moments in his career with the same wide-eyed incredulity, as though he can’t believe his luck.

Opening for Earth, Wind and Fire, touring with Led Zeppelin, receiving a letter from Wes Montgomery’s wife after Wes died, telling him he had recorded the best cover of Bumpin’ on Sunset she’d ever heard.

Then there’s the voodoo ritual he once sat through with Dr John, an appearance on The Monkees TV show, an honour by the US Congress for services to ‘The American Art Form of Jazz’, not to mention encounters with Freddie Hubbard, Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley and other greats.

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If we were meeting as strangers, if he was propping up a bar somewhere in Soho reeling off these extraordinary tales I might be sceptical too – but the truth is that Auger has been at the centre of some of the biggest musical movements of the 20th century. 

His ferocious playing style evolved from a childhood fascination with the mechanics of his family’s player-piano at home in Shepherd’s Bush, West London. The piano would play Rossini’s William Tell Overture and Auger would copy the keys one octave up, trying to learn the chord patterns by heart.

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He fell in love with jazz at age eight, tuning in to American stations on a radio his big brother gave him. Seeing Duke Ellington being interviewed by Joan Bakewell on the BBC cemented his conviction: “this was what I wanted to play.”

He cut his teeth on the live circuit playing jazz piano in East End clubs with Tubby Hayes, and moved on to the Hammond B3 organ after discovering Jimmy Smith, becoming one of the only musicians in the UK to master the instrument.

His contribution on harpsichord to the Yardbirds’ single For Your Love cinched his reputation as a session musician, and soon he was in demand in both jazz and rock ’n’ roll circles. He joined the band Steampacket in 1965 with Long John Baldry and a then-unknown singer called Rod Stewart, and three years later formed The Trinity with Julie Driscoll, releasing the hit This Wheel’s On Fire, later re-recorded for the opening credits of Absolutely Fabulous.

Then came his aptly named highly charged jazz-rock fusion group Oblivion Express, which attracted attention from American audiences and led to tours with artists at both ends of the sonic spectrum, from Herbie Hancock to ZZ Top. 

Perhaps Auger recounts his own anecdotes with a note of disbelief. For him, the rock ’n’ roll rowdiness has always been peripheral to the music itself. He has continued to follow his curiosity from Oblivion Express’s 1970s heyday and beyond, recording albums like 1981’s explosive Search Party, and the beats-y, danceable Language of the Heart in 2012.

His playing is always exuberant and forward looking, simultaneously chaotic and intentional. Although his sound has evolved, at age 82 he looks strikingly similar to how he did in 1968; he credits this to a discovery he made early in his career that alcohol made his playing imprecise, giving him the impetus to resist the temptations that many of his peers did not. 

Auger’s vast and varied back catalogue is now slated for reissue on the UK label Soul Bank Music. A compilation, Auger Incorporated, was released earlier this year, featuring music remastered from original tapes, live tracks, TV show performances and collaborations with the likes of Sonny Boy Williamson.

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It serves as a highlight reel for what’s yet to come. “Since signing the catalogue”, Soul Bank boss and long-time friend of Auger’s Greg Boraman tells me, “the full extent of this musical goldmine has become apparent – unearthing alternative takes of classic Oblivion Express album material even he had forgotten was recorded.”

Although Auger’s first concern has always been the music itself, Boraman hopes the reissue project will help his friend reach a new audience and attract the appreciation he deserves after a prolific 60-year career. 

“He championed an open minded, genre-bending approach that back then did him no favours in certain quarters,” he says. “Brian was at the forefront of all that – and if it was up to me there would be a statue of him on the Goldhawk Road.”

Deb Grant is a radio presenter and writer
@djdebgrant

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