An Interview with Brian Auger

A Conversation With
Brian Auger
by Mark Ruffin

For the first time in nearly two decades, the British born fusion pioneer, Brian Auger has a new album called “Voice Of Other Times.” Ironically, the record fits right into the box of the new fusion movement, “acid jazz,” and the keyboardist finds it hilarious that he’s being considered the “godfather of acid jazz.” His new Oblivion Express features his son and his daughter and they’re roaring this fall touring Europe and parts of the U.S. Before embarking on the trip, Auger took time with JazzUSA for an exhaustive interview concerning his a long career included crossing paths with John McLaughlin and Led Zeppelin long before either act were household names. He also tells how he outsmarted his U.S. record company RCA, and how black America established him as a force to be reckoned with in jazz.

JazzUSA: I can’t tell you how happy I was to hear the golden tones of your Hammond B-3 with some new music. I’ve seen you twice in my life, Brian. The first time, I’ll never forget it, was at Shyrock Auditorium, Southern Illinois University, 1975, you wouldn’t remember…

BA:: Wait, is that Carbondale?

JazzUSA: Very good.

BA: That was a beautiful auditorium as well.

JazzUSA: How do you remember that?

Brian AugerBA: I think we had a day off down there. We drove down. It’s kind of a particular area of the country that I hadn’t been too before, and it was such a great town. We had a great time. In fact I think we went to see “Blazing Saddles” while we were there. We had a great day there and then we had the concert. I really enjoyed it there and I remember it.

JazzUSA: Wow, Brian Auger sat in the Varsity Theatre in Carbondale, Illinois and saw “Blazing Saddles.”

BA: (laughing) That’s right.

JazzUSA: Those were some of the best years of my life and that is a very beautiful part of the country.

BA: Sure is.

JazzUSA: I remember a lot of things about that night. But, what I remember most vividly is Lennox Laingston killing those congas. Those were certainly some of the best years of your life too. Tell me some of the things you remember most about those early days with the Oblivion Express.

BA: The Oblivion Express, I started really after the Trinity years which were much more kind of artistically strained in a way. Oblivion Express was when I had no management. I started my own production company to make sure I had artistic control over the music from then on. The Oblivion Express was really kind of like a school in a way where I really asked everybody to really let it all hang out- to play to write and to try to develop ourselves as musician. I wanted to keep the band as open as I could to see what kind of things came out. In looking back now, I’m pretty amazed now at the albums we managed to make on a shoestring. One of the great things about coming the States, from my childhood years, I grew up listening to American jazz, here I was actually in America, playing to mixed audiences and understanding why I played the way I did. It was very much a voyage of discovery for me. We’d been in the States for about two months, and being on the road, night to night, playing with a band, there’s no better way to develop than doing that, and with a great bunch of people.

JazzUSA: Were you surprised at success that the Oblivion Express had in the United States?

BA: Yes I was. It really did come out of the blue. Now, the “Closer To It,” album was made in 1973, and it’s called “Closer To It,” because the first two Oblivion Express albums were “Oblivion Express,” – more kind of rock oriented- and “A Better Land,” which had kind of a different tone to it. “Second Wind,” was kind of a straight down-the-line amalgamation of every one’s ideas in the band. I had been going through a very dark period at the time, trying to get the band off the ground, and it was a tough time to hang in there, and I got a second wind when I heard the music of the “Second Wind” album. I just went ‘wow.’ “Closer To It,” I felt was more of the music that I envisioned, simply because the rhythm section, Godfrey McLean and Lennox really laid grooves down that I felt were the kind of correct backdrop of the kind of jazz influenced stuff that we were doing. And I sent that over to RCA, which was our record company, and I told them that I had arranged a tour in the States, one week each in various jazz clubs in about six cities across the States. They wouldn’t support me with any kind of tour support. They said you could never sell any records at a jazz club, (laughs) and basically told me not to come. I felt that that was a very valid album, so I had some space left on one credit card, so I brought all the tickets, and paid for the immigration, and decided that I was going to come in on my own and do the tour anyway. It was my chance to tour the album in America, come what may. I felt that I would be paying for those debts for a long time afterwards. (laughs) But I really felt for my own playing that I should come. Because every time I’ve come to the States, my playing took and step. Lo and behold, we got to Cleveland, about three weeks into the tour, and the album broke on the rock charts, the r&b charts and the jazz charts simultaneously. People started showing up from RCA from that point on. We hadn’t seen anybody up to that point.

JazzUSA: You know, sometimes, I hate record companies.

BA: (laughs) It was really funny because I was playing at this little place called the Smiling Dog Saloon in Cleveland and one evening the door to the band room opens and in come this guy who looked liked he was definitely out of place in a place like that. He said, ‘hi, I’m Frank Mancini, I’m head of national promotion for RCA.’ I said ‘Frank, man, I don’t know what you’re doing here, your department told me we couldn’t sell any records out of jazz clubs. (laughs) That really was the start of it all. It was just a gamble and a faith in the music. I look upon that now as something that started my career off in the States and launched the Oblivion Express. I believed in miracles after that trip.

JazzUSA: Do you know how “Closer To It” broke?

BA: Yeah, I do In Cleveland, there was a promotional office which was basically independent of RCA but promoted RCA product.

JazzUSA: Right, back in the day before branch distribution really kicked in with all the majors.

BA: Yeah, there was one African-American rep, probably the only one with the label at the time, who was in town, and he fell in loved with the album, and he must’ve had some clout with WMMS, because he went down there with the album and he convinced these people to play a track, probably about every half hour. And they loved the album, and that radio station, which was pretty powerful, it went out across the Tri-State area, suddenly broke the album. It was as simple as that. I didn’t even know these people until I got into Cleveland. Like I said, I really believed in miracles after that point.

JazzUSA: Brian, you said with Trinity, you felt ‘artistically restrained, in what way?

BA: Because we had a manager who produced our albums and I felt in a way that he kind of lived vicariously by infusing, or trying to impose his ideas onto the music, and we ended up when we made the “Street Noise” album, with kind of a mutiny among us. He wanted to run over the track “All Blues,” that we cut and I thought that Julie (Driscoll) did a tremendous vocal on it, and there were kind of production games going on where he wasn’t always into this thing for music saying, ‘we could do better than that, run over that.’ I listened to Julie’s take on that, I wore the tape out and I said, ‘hey man, you put that machine on record to run over that, there’s going to be serious trouble right now.’ It turned out to be a confrontation, and the track stayed on the album as it was, and we completed the rest of the album without the producer being in the studio. I felt that I really didn’t want to fight over stuff I was writing and knew how it should go. When he heard the track “Tropic of Capricorn,” that was something new for me, I don’t know where the hell it came from, he said to me ‘I don’t understand that track. It’s wrong to me.’ ‘What do you mean wrong,?’ (laughs) That one stayed on as well. Composition-wise, that was a step forward for me at the time. You have to understand that I have was trying to build a bridge between the rock scene and the jazz scene, which were two totally different things, totally separate. There were a lot of jazz guys who were really purist…

JazzUSA: Still are.

BA: Yeah, right, and they wouldn’t have anything to do with tampering with the kind of rhythmic side of jazz. Then there were a lot of rock kids that we played to as well. They were a few tracks that they liked, But he was like ‘I don’t understand it, I don’t know what Miles is about or Coltrane.’ And I really felt that there needed to be some kind of ground, I mean, I came from a jazz scene at that time, I mean, I could play solos and use jazz harmonies that jazz people couldn’t argue with, and yet in the 60’s, in these clubs where we’d play a jazz thing and then there’d be r&b bands that would come on and play. Rock was still developing and I really felt that this new rock and roll/r&b/funk kind of stuff that was going on, those were the rhythms of the moment. I felt they were exciting and I wanted to use them as a basis and then overlay my jazz harmonies and solos, and then try to arrive at some kind of music that would bridge that gap between those two fields.

JazzUSA: You just justified something that I’ve been saying for over 15 years. You are like the unrecognized father of fusion, in a lot of ways. I ‘ve been saying that for a long time. Even before Miles. And you just put it so eloquently in words. You were doing something, oblivious, not even knowing that the same things were going on in the United States.

BA: Yeah, it was strange, I mean, there were certain things that I felt that needed to get done. I mean, there were guys on the jazz scene who wouldn’t speak to me anymore, until the music kind of righted itself. I sometimes wondered was I just shooting myself in the foot here. Are we going up a creek that we would have to turn around and come back from? But I think there were certain pointers. I think when I heard Miles’ album “In A Silent Way,” and heard those kinds of riffs (sings “Shh..Peaceful,” ) I went wow, ‘obviously Miles must be listening to rock and r&b to get riffs going like that, and if he puts his signature to it, then we must be going the right way.’

JazzUSA: Miles is always a bright light.

BA: Yep, these things kind of move forward in their own way, and I really felt at that point , I had to have a band where I could develop as a band and put some time in behind this music to see where we could take it.

JazzUSA: You know if you play that Six Degrees of Separation game with you and Miles, there’s a connection with you and Miles, which is, of course, John McLaughlin.

BA: Right.

JazzUSA: You had John McLaughlin long before Miles even knew who he was.

BA: Yeah, John and I have known each other since we were about 18 years old. We would go out on weekends and play. Particularly, we’d do a lot of gigs around England at American Air Force, and American Army bases on weekend. So we were constantly playing to American audiences. Also, the Flamingo Club, where the organ kind of r&b/funk stuff was going on, where I played, that club was very interesting because we played over the weekend to probably a third white audience, English kids, a third West Indians, you know there’s a big West Indian population in London, and then the other third was made up of American GI’s, who would come down to London on the weekend to look for, you know, some happening music to go dance and to go hang out. That club was the one that kind of catered to that audience. So it was no surprise to me that when we got tot the States that we were playing to half-black, half-white audiences.

JazzUSA: Were those GI’s African-Americans?

BA: Yes. I grew up with black American music. I’d go and talk to these guys on the bases. We talked about the same musicians I’d grown up with. It was a great pleasure for me, my idols were all black musicians from America.

JazzUSA: Have you by chance, read Joe Jackson’s autobiography?

BA: No. I know who he is.

JazzUSA: Well, his book gives a great view on what it must be like playing pubs and bars in England, and as you talked, I had the images. It’s a totally different vibe from America.

BA: Absolutely. What I discovered in the States was that I kept getting these comments where we’d be playing. After the show would be over, I’d go see the promoter to straighten out some business and the guys would say ‘this is a strange audience. I don’t think I’ve seen these people here before.’ And I’d say ‘what do you mean?’ “Well, first, black acts will draw blacks and white acts draw white, but look at this, kind of half and half.’ It was really no surprise to me, because it was exactly the audience we’d been playing to in England. I realize, looking back, I really didn’t know much about what was going on in the States when I first came here, the way things were.

JazzUSA: Music has a way of pulling people together

BA: It cuts across everything. That power, in the 60’s, with music, kind of reverberated around the world and produced a kind of pop culture and musical listening audience, you know, you could go play in Japan, you couldn ‘t speak to the people, but they knew exactly what your feelings were. It was a pretty impressive time in music.

JazzUSA: I told you that I’ve seen you twice. The second time was when you had the group you called Search Party in the 80’s. I loved the album you made with that group “Planet Earth Calling.” Too bad it’s not out on cd yet….

BA: It is out.

JazzUSA: Really, that’s great. I saw that this company called One Way did put out “Closer To It,” and “Straight Ahead.”

BA: Yes, we finally got them out on cd. It took me a long time to get my masters back. I had a clause in the RCA contract that they had them for the five years I was with RCA, and then they had them for another fifteen years. When we told them to send everything back, it took them two years to find all the masters and the artwork.

JazzUSA: It was hardly common back then to ask for your masters back, was it?

BA: No it wasn’t. (laughs) In fact, when I thought about it, I can’t imagine how I dreamt of that clause and then got them to sign it. I think the thing was that they looked at it and thought, well, he’s going to be with us for five years and then he’s asking for the masters to be returned after another fifteen. Now if you were sitting there in 1970, these guys probably went well, a- we’re not going to do things with these albums after 20 years anyway. They didn’t know what this music was. Also, they would all be gone at that point, probably pensioned off. It was an older staff at RCA at that time. So, I think everyone said, ‘that’s fairly safe,’ and they signed it. When the time came up, it was pretty lucky for me.

JazzUSA: When you called and asked for them back, I bet some heads were rolling. BA In fact, they had to dive into the archives to pull out this contract and then go through it, and then the legal staff looked at it and realized, ‘well, there’s nothing we can do.’ They cut out the whole catalog in about 1979, so ti was really like having my whole history wiped off the shelf. I never got those albums back into circulation until 1995. That’s made the 80 ‘s and early 90’s kind of a tough time for me. A lot of people would ask, ‘what do you have on the shelf,’ and it was nothing.

JazzUSA: But when you got them back, suddenly, you had a career again.

BA: Exactly. I started to build a career, and also I started to build a band, which includes my kids in the band, which is tremendous to me.

JazzUSA: Yeah, your daughter, Savannah, may be the best vocalist you’ve ever had..

BA: And that’s the first time she ever sang. My eldest daughter, Ali, who is recording at the moment, is in love with Sarah Vaughan. She’s got every Sarah record, and we’re recording an album of standards with her, and I’m just playing piano on it. I was just trying to make a jazz album harkening to the days of somebody like Chet Baker, for example.

JazzUSA: Why did you decide to settle in the States?

BA: I really felt that every time I came here…there’s something in playing in America for me, what I realize was that I had listened to so much American jazz, from when I was tiny, right the way through. When I got to the States, every time I played here, my playing took a giant step playing. Not only that, there were loads of ideas that came to surface that, I realized, being in a European atmosphere, I’d kind of suppressed some of those things. It’s like saying well, ‘I don’t think they’d dig that, so I don’t think I’ll go that way. It was a very liberating experience to play with audiences in the States. In Cleveland, we’d played the Agora, which was probably about, 75% black, and I don’t know, it was like calling the meeting to order. We’d walk out on stage and people would scream ‘yeah, come on Brian, let’s have it. Let’s get down.’ They wanted me to let them have it, and I would just let fly and stuff would come out and I’d go ‘wow.’ I recognized that all my influences, all the people I’d listen to would come to the surface during those times and I felt that it was very important, for me, as a player, that I should come here and play in the States, no matter how tough that was going to be. I had to do something, artistically for me, that I wouldn’t get being a big fish in the European smaller pond.

JazzUSA: And you settled in San Francisco?

BA: Yes I did.

JazzUSA: You sure did pick a beautiful city with a great musical heritage. I would have love to have been there in the 60’s with Sly & the Family Stone, Santana, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Tower of Power, Cold Blood, I could go on and on. I just read Richard Pryor’s autobiography, and found out that he even lived there during that time. What a great time that was. I would have loved to have been there.

BA: It was pretty amazing. I did come through here in ’69 and we opened for Led Zeppelin on the first date they ever did in the U.S. We played the Fillmore West together, and then we played at the Rose Palace in Pasadena. And I knew all those guys from London, it was like we were all old pals. But I had no idea, until I saw them here that they were going to be huge. It was a pretty exciting time. It was musically open and people wanted new ideas and the record companies weren’t afraid of music. There were a lot of music people actually running record companies, and that unfortunately has changed.

JazzUSA: When did you settle in San Francisco?

BA: I settled in 1975, when I came over. My kids were tiny at the time and I wanted to make sure they were in a safe place with good schools, so we settled in Marin.

JazzUSA: So the kids were born in London?

BA: Yes, they were all born in London.

JazzUSA: Did you spit your son Karma out? Did you like clone him, because you two look so much alike?

BA: (laughs) It’s pretty amazing, yeah. They’re my kids.

JazzUSA: How many kids do you have?

BA: Three. Karma is the oldest, and then Ali is my oldest daughter, and Savannah is the youngest. This is how funny it is when we were going to cut “Voices of Other Times,” Ali had been out on the road, singing with the Express, but doesn’t take kindly to the touring and the stress of it all, and wanted to stay in town. So Karma and I was having a conference on this, and I was like, ‘I don’t know what the hell we’re going to do. Who’re we going to get? We’ve got to make an album.’ And he said ‘you should give Savannah a shot.’ Now Ali was such a powerful singer with a tremendous gift, I didn’t even know Savannah sang. So I said to Karma, ‘what are you talking about? Savannah doesn’t sing.’ He said ‘she does, but you’ve never heard her.’ I said, ‘what do you mean? What does that mean?’ He said, ‘look, I tell you what Dad, you tell here to learn, say, half a dozen of our tunes, and we’ll have a little rehearsal, just you, me and Savannah, and then you tell me what you think.’ And Savannah came up with the goods and I was astounded. Then she said ‘this is one of the things I’ve always wanted to do.’ I think she fell a little bit in the shadow of Ali, and she never told us about it, but she stepped up to the plate on the first recording.

JazzUSA: She never told anybody?

BA: She never told anyone. Karma was the only one who knew. She was also interested in theatre and did of lot of theatre when she was in school and college, and she was tremendous at that, and it kind of translated to a kind of stage presence with the band as well and she’s only too happy to be out there with us. She’s very, very funny, blessed with a great sense of humor. She doesn’t freak out that she has to travel. It’s something that she wanted to do, and I’m very happy to have her.

JazzUSA: Did you push any of these kids into arts?

BA: No I didn’t. Karma used to play piano and I asked him if he wanted to go take lessons. No he didn’t. He played keys and one day we worked out a version of “Sister Sadie,” the Horace Silver, and when he was nine, at (the nightclub) Keystone Berkely, he came on with the band, and the band at the time was Paul Jackson on bass, and Mike Clarke on drums from Herbie’s (Hancock) band. They were with me for about a year, and I asked if Mike and Paul would it upset them if Karma came on and played “Sister Sadie” with us, and they laughed, ‘no, get him on, man.’ He came on and that was his debut on keys, and he had the opening line, (sings.) So I thought that he might play keys and after a while, he got interested in trumpet, so he wanted to play in the high school band. So he got a trumpet and played in the band for about 18 months. He was able to just pick the trumpet up and play stuff on it, but he never practiced. Then he went from that to saxophone, then he didn’t do anything for a while. Then, when he was 20, he saw Gerry Browne play, I did a gig with Gerry, the drummer who was with the Larry Coryell band. When Karma saw him, that was it. ‘I want to play drums.’ At that point, we went, ‘yeah sure.’ (laughs) I never pressed any of them to do any of this. I think it’s so hard in the music business nowadays, with the kind of music we’re playing.

JazzUSA: How old are they?

BA: Karma is now 30. Ali is 27, Savannah is 26.

JazzUSA: I have you down as 61, is that right?

BA: I can’t believe it myself.

JazzUSA: You know life is so funny, and you’ve got so many stories to prove it, but here’s another one. Right now, as far as the fusion that you foresaw, right now, in my opinion, as far as the future of fusion, in my opinion, ground central fusion headquarters for r&b/jazz/funk/rock is London. It’s ironic, but London is the shit right now.

BA: Right. We’ll be playing in London on our next tour.

JazzUSA: Wow. They must treat you like a saint.

BA: Yeah, it’s amazing to go to my hometown and have young kids with old vinyl with a copy of “Closer To It,” saying ‘would you sign it for me and would you play “Happiness Is Just Around The Bend.’ These young kids now call it acid jazz. To have some of these British bands, these young kids like the Brand New Heavies and Incognito, and to see myself in magazines referred to as the godfather of acid jazz, is funny as hell man. It’s wonderful, it’s great.

JazzUSA: You know, San Francisco had a mean acid jazz scene for a minute. How is it now?

BA: San Francisco is a strange town man. There’s still kind of an acid jazz movement, it’s a kind of a house thing going on here, also New York.

JazzUSA: Yeah, and Chicago. Those are the three cities with acid jazz scenes worth talking about.

BA: Yeah, I’ve got to get to New York and Chicago.

JazzUSA: The new record, “Voices of Other Times,” is great. Is this your first album since “Planet Earth Calling?”

BA: I did one other record called , “Keys To The Heart,” which was made in Switzerland. There’s some great stuff on there.

JazzUSA: But this is the first American release.

BA: Yes, this is the first American release.

JazzUSA: Why Miramar Records?

BA: Well, because calling around, it took me along time to go through all kinds of people. I sent tons of records out to all kinds of different companies, and I was having a hard time getting people to even listen to it, I happened to call Miramar. It’s funny, I hadn’t known that at Miramar, the executives had changed, and I had somebody else’s name who was a fan of mine, and I thought I’d just give them a call and see what happens. I couldn’t get through and was told he doesn’t run it anymore and that the company was ran by somebody else, and I asked who it was. They told me it was Russ Martin, and I asked, well, can I speak to Russ Martin? Sometimes, you never get past the switchboard, but they put me straight through to him, and lo and behold, Russ turned out to be a big fan, and was completely knocked out that I called, and wanted to hear the album. I sent it to him and they were really knocked with it. Then he flew all the way down to see us and he liked us and it worked out like that. And I found a company in England called Sanctuary Records and they are putting the record out over there. They were the same, I kept going down the line until somebody called back saying ‘oh man, I think it’s great,’ which was a good thing, because if you’re going to bargain with people, if they’re coming on and telling you it ‘s great, then they’re throwing all caution to the wind, and I’ve been kind of lucky to have managed to get with these two company.

JazzUSA: Brian, who is Ella Auger?

BA: Ella is my wife. Ella’s from Sardinia. We met early on late in the 60 ‘s. I was playing in Milan. We’ve been married ever since ’68 and we still are.

JazzUSA: Gosh, you’re living a great life here, man.

BA: Man, I can’t complain. A lot of people come up to me and say ‘you haven ‘t gotten the props that you deserve,’ and I say to them, ‘what do you mean? ‘ I married a beautiful Italian lady whose fantastic. We’ve been married 31 years now. She’s borne my three kids who are my jewels, she brought them out when I was on the road and they are tremendous people. I’ve basically done what I’ve wanted to do throughout my life, what else am I supposed to deserve? (laughs)

JazzUSA: Another thing about the album is you’ve come full circle. You were in England doing things that you didn’t know was going on in the United States, now you’re over here doing things that are in the forefront in England.

BA: What you have to understand that every year we do two tours of Europe, and have been doing that for the last five years, and so what’s going on in London has not escaped what’s happening. The reason that “Indian Rope Man,” for example, is on the record is just that kids have asked me for it. In the end, I said I’ve got to figure out a way to do that. So, one day I was listening to “There Was A Time,” by James Brown and I went, ‘that’s the kind of groove I’ve got to have for “Indian Rope Man.” I wanted to update it. It was Karma’s idea, he said, “hey Pop, why don’t you take the front of “Indian Rope Man,” from the “Street Noise,” album, why don’t we just sample that and put that on and then have the band kick in?’ I thought, great, and we ended up doing that and people have loved that track. “Voice of Other Times,” is something that people kept writing me and asking what the lyrics were, and one day Karma said ‘you should do that tune of stage,’ and that was when I realized that I had never done that tune on stage.

JazzUSA: Never. That song is almost 30 years old and you’d never done it live?

BA: Never, and we started doing it on stage, and when it came time to record the album, we realized that we should record that, and that kind of gave us shape to the album, because I’m exposing, in a way, all the people that I’ve revered and that I have listened to, that have influenced me, so “Voice of Other Times,” seems really appropriate for this album.