What a diverse group of rockers Brian Auger has either played or toured with! That list includes people like Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Rod Stewart and Eric Burdon to name just a few. Brian Auger talked to us about his life in music and the people he's known along the way.
Q - What keeps Brian Auger busy these days?
A - I've been wrapped up making an album for a guy and I've spent the last couple of weeks writing out all the parts and rehearsing the band and getting it recorded in three days. Then I had a gig over the weekend as well. (Laughs). So, the last couple of days I've been trying to sort myself out.
Q - Is this album you've been working on for someone famous?
A - I think he's fairly famous, but I really don't know. A guy called Jeff Golub. He's from New York. He's a guitar player. He's actually a very nice player.
Q - What kind of music would he be playing?
A - He's playing kind of like Funk, Blues, Jazz tinged sort of stuff.
Q - A little bit of everything then.
A - A little bit of everything, yeah. They asked me if I would do it. Steve Ferrone played drums. A guy called Derek Frank played bass, both alumni of my band actually, The Oblivion Express. We had a great time actually.
Q - Last year, 2012, you released the CD "Language Of The Heart". What label was that released on and how did you promote it?
A - Well, it's released on my label which is Ghost Town Records. We promoted it by writing to all sorts of people in the US and also in Europe. We got a really good response from that. We put it up on iTunes, CD Baby, Amazon, the usual stuff. We don't have tons of money to promote, like a record company, but it's doing nicely. It just keeps rolling along.
Q - I was recently told that Los Angeles is no longer a music city. There really is no place to perform. It's primarily a place for musicians to connect with other musicians. From your perspective, is there a venue for 'live' music in Los Angeles?
A - Well, there is a lot of 'live' music going on in different places. Unfortunately, Los Angeles has kind of become a Pay-To-Play area. A lot of The Strip now, The Roxy and places like that, you have to hire the room, do your own promotion, sell your own tickets. (Laughs). So, it's kind of like if you have a record company, the record company might do that for you. It's funny because I don't go out because I'm so busy doing other things and also in Europe and Japan and places like that, when I get to town, I really don't like to go out to the clubs 'cause I've been in them all the time. But, we do play at The Baked Potato regularly, which is a great, little historic club. People who run it are kind of like family. They love to have us. I can call up and ask for a weekend and they will find me one. Apart from that, there's a lot of film stuff going on here obviously. There's a lot of great composers that live here and orchestrator's and the recording studios. I get called for different projects but I don't really want to live my life in a studio playing music that's really got nothing to do with what I'm doing. So, I've reached a time in my life when I don't have to do that. I kind of like to be home. So, it's a different kind of environment. There is a great Latin community here. A lot of Cuban players. They have their little spots in clubs they play at. There's that whole thing going on. If you want a great conga player like Luis Conte, you can get him to play on your album and there's plenty of people in that area. I love Latin anyway. But then, there is a great Rock scene going on. Mainly Rock bands get together here and rehearse here and then go out on tour. So, there is all these different communities. There's a great Jazz community, but there's hardly any clubs, any Jazz clubs to play in. There's only one Jazz station in a city this size. (Laughs). It's kind of silly. As a scene, a music scene with lots of kind of sitting in and people mixing, probably Seattle is more of a music scene than Los Angeles is. I think there's just too many corporate elements. I think the radio stations are all bought up. Trying to get Jazz played on the radio is almost impossible because it's all down to a Top 20 or Top 40 format in whatever style of music there is. So, I seem to have sidestepped all of that and we have an incredibly strong following in Europe. We'll be out for five weeks in September (2013). We'll probably be going to the UK followed by Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, Italy over the five weeks and we have a great following out there. That's always such a lot of fun to do. Things are so bad here (the US) in terms of the people that can kind of go to concerts, even the stuff that I play, promoters will offer money that didn't make any sense and they weren't even offering to pay for the hotel rooms. (Laughs). We are on the West Coast and we actually have to drive to Denver at least before we can jump off to Kansas City and St. Louis and all the big cities that surround that right through to the East Coast. I took a look at that and said unless I want to pay to play and work really hard to get all the way out there and all the way back, it doesn't really make any sense.
Q - And promoters are charging $650 a ticket to see The Stones!
A - Well, I mean I can't even imagine that people would pay money like that, but they do. What's happened here is, people might pay reasonable money to see American Jazz players and Blues players and artists that would be in Europe and Japan and maybe in Australia and New Zealand. I think in Europe and around the world Jazz is considered one of the greatest kind of contributions to the arts that America has made. But it's a Jazz wasteland in America. (Laughs). That's just the way things are. I heard somebody from Clear Channel about a year ago say "Our policy is we're not gonna play anymore Jazz on our radio stations," which they own quite a lot. I thought that is so incredibly stupid. Being a Brit, although I'm a naturalized American, I look at it and go the high esteem that we hold Jazz and it's roll-offs in different directions, Funk and all the other things that have come from it, over there we shake our heads and go "The Americans have gone mad." (Laughs).
Q - What artists have played The Baked Potato?
A - Oscar Peterson. Wes Montgomery has played there. We play there because it's got such an incredible vibe. It's only a little club, but it's like having a private party. We have recorded a double 'live' album there and shot a DVD there at the same time. That's our kind of home from home here. We do play other places. There is a club called The Canyon Club in Calabasas, Malibu way. There's several clubs on the way down to San Diego. But as I said, I really like to be at home when we are at home. As far as the scene is here, I really don't bother that much.
Q - In New York City, recording studios are almost a thing of the past. Are you telling me recording studios are still going in Los Angeles?
A - Yes and the reason is the film industry is here. So, there's a lot of stuff still going on in that area. There are little private recording studios that are dotted about that still have the amazing equipment, but again I have my own studio and we record at home. We've made, I don't know, the last eight albums here. The equipment is so cool. It's so good in terms of what you can get sonically. We don't have any trouble recording stuff and turning it out. We get a lot of calls from different bands in Europe asking if I would play on their tracks. So, we asked them to send an MP3 over so we can listen to what it is before we agree to do that. I've done a lot of albums with European people including Billy Cobham and various different artists. Music has been so incredibly devalued in the last 15 to 20 years that I really feel for people coming into the business right now and starting off. For the young kids, it's a tough road. What's happening now is, there are very few record labels that mean anything unless you're Britney Spears.
Q - Or Justin Bieber.
A - Yeah, exactly. They're interested in mega selling. Stuff that sells 15 to 20 million albums. A big label can support itself by doing that once a year. It's kind of a daunting challenge. You'd probably do a lot better in Europe. I just look at it and go "I'm glad I'm able to operate autonomously." We can use the Internet now. Facebook. Our website. There's different ways to publicize. We are just in a heavy transition kind of, as far as the recording industry, if you can call it that anymore. I also think there's a lot of kids who know how to use the Internet and can get their music out there. Times roll-on and change and you can either change with them or you could do something else.
Q - When you were coming up, growing up in England in the early 1960s, the world's attention was focused on England. Did you realize what was going on around you?
A - No. I don't think the world was interested in what was going on in the early '60s. By around about the mid-'60s all of a sudden; I turned professional in 1963. There was no record industry to think about at that point. I remember going around to a couple of labels and offering the band I had, which included John McLaughlin on guitar and Rick Laird on base, both of whom turned up in the Mahavishnu Orchestra. I think John started the Mahavishnu Orchestra, which is a tremendous band. I think it was in the early '70s. But at the time, I'm talking about '63, '64, the replies I got were, "British Jazz doesn't sell" and that was it. (Laughs). By the time '65 came, I had changed from playing straight Jazz piano. I heard a great guy, my idol Jimmy Smith, the first records of Jimmy Smith which prompted me to get hold of a Hammond organ which took me from the straight Jazz clubs to clubs where R&B, Blues and Rock were being played. So, I got mixed up with all those people. I think we were on a program called Ready, Steady, Go! with The Who. I'd never seen them before. I had a fairly open mind because there was a lot of snobbery in the Jazz scene which said "What's all that Rock 'n' Roll stuff? It's rubbish." I was able to say "I think you are wrong. There's a lot of creative things going on by these guys." They are not individual soloists like a Jazz soloist. But in the groups that they put together, there's a lot of creative stuff going on. Songwriting and their attention to sound is something we could all learn from. I was asked to form a band by Long John Baldry, who was our best kind of Blues singer at the time and was a big star having been on the Beatles Christmas shows two years in a row. He was kind of more or less a household name, and that projected us into instead of just playing in pubs to maybe 50 or 60 people, playing in halls that would take about 500. (Laughs).
Q - That was the group Steampacket.
A - Yeah. John wanted to include a young guy who was running around the scene at the time that John referred to as his protégé who was Rod Stewart. He sat in with my organ trio a couple of times. I did make some singles for a young lady who was in our office, our manager's office, who was waiting to get out on the road with a band. Her name was Julie Driscoll. We opted to have Julie brought in as well. So, there was absolutely nothing quite like that. I had a great rhythm section. Mickey Waller was on drums, who went to Faces eventually, Ricky Brown who went to Liverpool after Steampacket and joined the Youth Orchestra and a guy called Vic Biggs who was on guitar. Vic ended up going to The New Animals a little bit later on. That was the Steampacket. It was a hell of a band and was incredibly successful. What was happening around us was John knew the Beatles, knew The Rolling Stones and they were all fans of his. Elton John used to come and sit in the front row. We were thrown into this milieu of all these different musicians. Everyone knew everyone. I don't think we knew that was going to be an Invasion 'cause very few of us had been to the States, but it was a musicians dream to go to America and play in America. I never, ever thought that would happen to me. (Laughs).
Q - Did you meet all the guys in The Beatles and The Stones?
A - I didn't meet all of them. I didn't really know John. I met him a couple of times just to say hello and George. Paul McCartney and Ringo I met a few times. They used to come sometimes to my gigs when I was playing. I knew Paul's family. I knew his brother who was a comedian. Very funny guy. When we used to go to Liverpool to play at the University with The Trinity we would end up going 'round to their house afterwards and hanging out, playing records and being crazy. It was kind of like that. There were tremendous jams going on all the time. I remember once it was at the Scotch Of St. James, a club, and that was Stevie Winwood singing, me on keys (keyboards) , Eric Clapton on guitar, Chas Chandler from The Animals on bass and Mickey Waller on drums. It was that kind of a scene in London at the time, what they called "Swinging London". You could expect anything then. Whenever you went, there was a great band playing.
Q - Is it true that you had to be a member to get into the Scotch Of St. James? You couldn't walk in off the street hoping to get close to one of these famous musicians, could you?
A - I don't remember it being like that. You could come in as far as I know. Nobody knew when The Scotch opened that it was going to be filled with famous news agents. It was just the fact there were a lot of "names" that we recognize as "names" now, but the people that were coming in from Europe and London were not big names at the time. It was just what it was. But there was always stuff going on. It was a great, fun period. A great, fun time for all the musicians. There was a real brotherhood of musicians who knew each other and were happy to be in each other's presence.
Q - Was that the only club you'd go to?
A - No.
Q - Did you ever go to The Iron Door?
A - I don't even know that one. I played at the Scotch Of St. James, the Cromwellian Pub, Blazes, the Bag Of Nails, the Marquee, the Flamingo and also I still play at Ronnie Scott's Club. I was probably one of the only guys who was a Jazz poll for piano. I had one foot in the Jazz scene and the other foot in the R&B and Rock scene when I had my organ trio out. When I finally started The Trinity after the Steampacket in late '66, at that time I got a call from Chas Chandler asking me to come up to their office. I went up there and he and this guy who I thought was the biggest crook in England, Mike Jeffrey, his manager, (laughs) said "We got this great guitar player we brought over from the States," and I said, "Well, yeah." They said, "Well, we want him to front your band" as they put it. I said, "Well, hey, I have not heard this guy, so I don't know who you are talking about and I have someone who fronts my band and her name is Julie Driscoll, and I have a guitar player, Vic Briggs in my band," having just started The Trinity. "What do you think I'm going to do? Fire those two people?" They said, "Oh, no. Well, this guy is incredible." I said, "Well fine. He can be incredible." The thing was that I already knew that there was nothing I would do that could be connected with Mike Jeffrey. There was no way I was gonna be involved with him in any way. So, it was dead on arrival. The guy turned out to be Jimi Hendrix. (Laughs).
Q - I knew that was what you are going to say.
A - I said, "I'm playing at The Cromwell on Friday. Why don't you bring him down and he can play and everyone can see him." It was another club where only people on the scene would gravitate to late at night. You could still get a drink until about 1 o'clock or something like that there. In the break they brought up Jimi and introduced him and he seemed like a really nice guy. He said, "Can I sit in?" I said, "Sure. What do you want to play, Jim?" He said, "Could you played this chord sequence?" And he played me a sequence of chords. I said, "That's cool. What is it?" He said, "Well, it's Hey Joe." I had never heard that tune. The sequence of chords was really interesting. I said, "Absolutely. Give us a tempo and we'll play." He counted in and started to play and I think most of the guitar players that were there, including Clapton, Jeff Beck and Alvin Lee, their jaws dropped because most of the guitar players on the scene in England had really not reached themselves yet. You could still hear heavy traces of BB King, Freddie King, Albert King, Muddy Waters. But Jimi? That was a new voice, man. Nobody had ever heard anything quite like that. It was Blues, but it was kind of some kind of Progressive Blues music. I couldn't categorize it. It was just incredibly exciting. I think Clapton went home and I hear that he was about to give up. (Laughs).
Q - That was what year?
A - '66.
Q - Do you know that you could've seen Jimi Hendrix playing in downtown Syracuse New York in 1962 with Joey Dee?
A - Amazing! I think we were the first band he came in and sat in with. He always used to look out for where we were playing. He would come 'round the other clubs and sit in. He played at The Bag Of Nails, The Marquee, The Cromwell, The Scotch. We made great friends. We used to go back to a guy called Zoot Money. He had kind of an R&B band. Zoot played organ and sang. It was crazy and we were great friends. On my way home from The West End I would pass by his place and hang out all night, playing new records. Jimmy was there. All sorts of people were there. It was one of those hangouts where we'd hear new music. Then when Jimi became really famous, I think Gomelsky got him onto a concert we were playing with The Trinity in Paris. The first time we had a number one in France at the time with a tune called "Save Me". It was an Aretha Franklin tune. We were playing The Olympia, which was the best venue in Paris at the time. Jimi opened for us with the new band with their Afros. (Laughs). I stood there in the wings and watched. The Parisian audience was kind of a rough and tough team. If they didn't like you, they would bring vegetables and tomatoes to throw at you. (Laughs). If they took to you, you could do no wrong. They were just enraptured by Jimi and the band. They loved it. A year later, I open for him at the same venue. After that we kind of lost touch of one another. We started to go to the States. Everyone was out there really, really busy. That's the first time, in the early '70s, I heard of this term the British Invasion. The doors were definitely open to British music at that time.
Q - Did you ever go on the road with Hendrix?
A - No. I had my own band so I was busy with The Trinity.
Q - Did you open for Led Zeppelin?
A - Yeah, we did, but they were also friends of mine. I think they were on the same label as us in America at the time, Atlantic (Records). I saw the first record come out. We were going out to the West Coast. We opened for them at the Fillmore West for a couple of nights and then we went down to Los Angeles and we opened for them again at the Rose Palace in Pasadena. It was good to see them. I'd already made an album with Sonny Boy Williamson which we had Jimmy Page play guitar. That was in 1965. Jimmy did a lot of sessions and so did John Paul Jones, who I recently worked with at the Royal Albert Hall in London last September (2012) for a charity concert. I went to see their sound check. When they started up with "Whole Lotta Love" and that guitar riff starts, I said, "My God! These guys are phenomenal!" (Laughs).
Q - What city were you born in?
A - London. I lived in West London and grew up in West London.
Q - In 1963, would you say it was commonplace to see guys walking down the street with long hair?
A - Not in 1963. Well, I would say it was more kind of a mod situation, but it wasn't even that yet. The long hair came after Steampacket, which would have been about '66 into '67. That was kind of the psychedelic time. (Laughs).
Q - You mean to tell me after the success of The Beatles in 1964, you couldn't see guys walking down the street in London long hair?
A - No. It wasn't long hair. The Beatles haircut you could see that, but as far as we were concerned that wasn't long hair. It was just a Beatles haircut.
Q - Did you hear about groups like The Beatles and The Stones and did you pay much attention to the talk?
A - We all spoke about them 'cause they were on TV and so they were well-known for their tunes. As far as The Beatles were concerned, they had a great sense of humor has well. The Stones I think set themselves up... The Beatles were the clean and good guys and The Stones were gonna be the bad guys. So yeah, there was a lot of talk. I did a tour with The Rolling Stones with Steampacket, which finished at the London Palladium. Charlie Watts was a big Jazz fan. He knocked on our dressing room door and said, "Hey, Brian, I've organized this jam." It was after the sound check in the afternoon. The safety curtain was down and the stage had been set up in the back beyond that. We were able to actually have a jam. Denny Laine was on guitar. (Bill) Wyman was on bass, myself, and I can't remember if there was somebody else. They're probably very well was. But it was a kind of friendly jam at the back of the stage at the London Palladium. I never imagined I would be playing in that venue, so it was a lot of fun.
Q - What year with that have been?
A - I think it was '65, or '66. I stood in the wings and watched the absolute hysteria over The Stones. All those little girls screaming and fainting. It was quite a scene.
Q - Did you get to speak with Brian Jones?
A - Yes. In fact, I always thought it was a shame that he was almost pushed out of The Stones because he started the band. He was probably the best musician in there.
Q - Not to mention the best dressed, the best looking and the guy who gave the group their name.
A - Yeah, and when he was no longer working with The Stones, my friend Zoot Money, who I mentioned before, Brian used to come with us and hang out at Zoot's place and hear all the records and generally joined in the hanging out with whoever was there at the time. It could be Eric Burdon and some of The Animals. Zoot's band had Andy Summers in it. Jimi Hendrix lived upstairs. He'd probably come downstairs. There was always a Fender Rhodes or a little electric piano we could try our stuff out on. And there was a bunch of new records. Brian was around for a bit. He was a cool guy. I was devastated to hear what happened to him, that he drowned. But then, I think there was a lot of pills and stuff going around that people were taking. It was kind of really selling. I didn't understand it. Thank God I never got mixed up in any of it.
Q - Did you hear the rumors that Brian may have been murdered?
A - I didn't believe that. I think what happened was, he took a couple of Mandrax, which were heavy downers, and maybe he took too many and fell asleep next to the swimming pool and maybe turned over in his sleep. That's what I think happened. It was a great, great shame.
Q - What did this name Oblivion Express mean?
A - Basically, after The Trinity, I decided that I had such a rough time from the industry and from our management that I started two things, one was my production company. I decided I would produce my own records at that time, thank goodness, and not have anybody sit in and want to change things because they wanted a credit on the album. That had nothing to do with music. That was Nasty Productions. Just warning you. (Laughs). And another one was I was about to push on with this mix of Jazz and Rock or Jazz and R&B or whatever it was called at the time. There was no kind of name for it. It was just a mix of those elements. I wanted to develop that kind of music with the new band. So I thought to myself, I may be headed the quickest way to oblivion here as far as my career is concerned. So, I thought, well okay, why not call it The Oblivion Express. And The Oblivion Express is still rolling. I just want to tell you something about Jimi Hendrix. When I was in New York in 1970, I got a call from John McLaughlin 'cause he was mixing his album. I think it was "Devotion", the kind of psychedelic album. He invited me down to the mix. I got down to the mix and heard some of the stuff they were mixing and I said "Wow! This is really amazing!" The door opened to the control room and in came Jimi with his girlfriend. He said, "Hey, Brian. I didn't expect to find you. Great to see you!" I hadn't seen him in a couple of years at that point I think, or at least a year or so. The thing that really pissed me off about that was Alan Douglas was the guy who was producing, and Alan and the engineer treated Jimi like he was finished. It was so brutal. It was so rude. I got fed up with that and I went up to Jimi and said "Can we step outside for a minute and talk?" We stepped out into the light. I saw that Jimi's skin was kind of a grey color and his girlfriend looked sick and was as skinny as a bean pole. He said, "Why don't you come down and record with me." I said, "How long will it take?" He said, "I don't know, a couple of months." I said, "I've got all these contracts, man. I'd love to do the album, but if I step out of all these contracts I'm going to get sued. I'll probably end up in jail. I can't do that." He said, "Well, that's a shame. Come and see my recording studio, Electric Ladyland. Why don't you come by tomorrow?", which I did. At that point he pulls out some silver paper and opens it up and snorts some of the stuff that's in it. Obviously heroin. Then he says, "Oh, I'm sorry Brian, here," and he offers it to me and I said, "Hey Jim, for God' sake man, you've gotta quit that stuff, man, because it's gonna kill you in the end. You've got to take care of yourself." This is what he said to me, and I'll never forget it: "You know what Brian? I need a lot more people around like you." A little bit later on in the year, when I heard he died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, I wasn't surprised. I just thought to myself, that's such a tragedy. I think they got Steve Winwood to play on the last album, which was "Cry Of Love". I just thought that was a fantastic album. I thought that's such a shame. This guy had so much more music, incredible music to deliver. I would have loved to have been part of that. That's the way it is. I'll never forget that little talk we had.
Q - Who's to say that even if you were around him, he would have listened to you.
A - Absolutely.
Q - And when the ambulance people came to Jimi's apartment that night, he was very much alive. The talk is they laid him out flat on a stretcher and he choked on his own vomit. Had they kept him upright, he might still be alive today.
A - I'll tell you something man, I know people in the ambulance business. My dad was an ambulance driver and they would never have made that mistake. People can say what they like, but the London Ambulance Service was the best. Eric (Burdon) told me that he (Hendrix) was suffering from a really heavy cold. The girlfriend called him at one point and said , "Jimi's very ill. I don't think he's breathing. I'm not sure." Eric said "Well, call the ambulance people." Then we find out there were these sleeping pills. His girlfriend was German. He was having trouble sleeping, as people do when they're hopped up on certain nefarious substances. Maybe he woke up and couldn't get back to sleep and took a couple more of them, but they were extra strong. He shouldn't have done that because he'd already taken some and maybe that didn't help things either. But from my vantage point, man, when I had that last talk with him, it was obvious that if he was going to go on like that, then he was going to go down. And I wasn't surprised when I heard it.