Legendary jazz-rock organist Brian Auger brings his Oblivion Express to the WitZend
By Bliss Bowen
Generally speaking, there’s little traffic between jazz and rock musician communities. Brian Auger, who’s bringing his band Oblivion Express to the WitZend on Saturday, shuttles easily between the two.
The gentlemanly organist’s venerable rep was forged while jamming with future rock icons at ground zero of the British Invasion, but his jazz creds were established when he was still in short pants.
Auger cheerfully recalls hanging onto the underside of his “Victorian” father’s player piano as a 3-year-old in World War II London and watching patterns in the notes as they played. After the war, he learned piano and tuned in to jazz through Armed Forces radio and his older brother’s Count Basie and Duke Ellington records. He earned change playing house parties, and by his mid-teens he was working in bands covering Jazz Messengers material. His life changed in 1965, when he heard jazzman Jimmy Smith and invested in his own Hammond B3 organ.
“Because I bought an organ I was invited into jams with some of the different rock and R&B bands,” he explains. “So I got to know the Who and the Searchers and the Stones and some of the Beatles. There was a lot of creative energy going on. Their attention to sound was much more focused than people on the jazz scene, who weren’t really doing too much with electric instruments. There was that jazz snobbery, of which I was a part — until I crossed over and got to meet these people and realize what they were trying to do.”
During those heady “swinging London” days, Auger’s band would play hip clubs like the Scotch of St. James. Neither he nor his future Rock and Roll Hall of Famer guests suspected they were revolutionizing pop culture.
“Absolutely not,” he says, laughing. “We were all too busy having the time of our life. There were insane jams going on all the time. One night we had Mickey Waller on drums, Eric Clapton on guitar, Stevie Winwood singing and me on keyboards. If we’d had the kind of technology around that we have today, and some of those things would have been recorded — it would be pretty amazing.”
Jimi Hendrix was still unknown when he asked to sit in with Auger’s band.
“He said, ‘Can you play this sequence of chords?’ I said, ‘Yeah, that sounds really cool, what key?’ It was the chords for ‘Hey Joe,’ which hadn’t been recorded yet by him. I think Clapton was there, Jeff Beck, Alvin Lee — just everyone. Jimi started to play and it was kind of a shock because you could still hear all of the roots that the British guitar players had come from — B.B. King and Albert King and Freddie King and all the rest. But I’d never heard anything like Jimi Hendrix before. Neither had anybody else.”
Now 75, Auger is jovially quick to share such stories. He says he’s writing an autobiography that has him laughing aloud as he resurrects memories of Carnaby Street, his Steampacket days with Long John Baldry and Rod Stewart, and the way Motown recordings made him realize he needed “a bass player like James Jamerson” to bring alive the groove-rooted music he heard in his head.
His first album, 1968’s “Don’t Bring Me No Flowers,” showcased blues singer Sonny Boy Williamson. Jimmy Page played guitar.
“Some acquaintances from the jazz scene cut me dead in the street,” Auger says of the chasm yawning between jazz and rock. “But I had to forget my technique, peel it back. The feel on all those old blues tracks was the absolute most important thing, and learning to play like that was almost like going backwards in my mind. You give the tune what it needs, not just all the licks that you could possibly put together, which didn’t work. It was a strange thing to come out of the jazz scene at the time, and it was the organ that did it for me. It made me play different types of music.”
With his revue-like bands Trinity and then Oblivion Express, Auger fused elements of jazz, blues, R&B and rock to enthusiastic critical acclaim. In 1968 he headlined Montreaux Jazz Festival with Trinity and earned kudos from Dizzy Gillespie; by 1973, Oblivion Express was touring America behind “Closer to It,” the RCA album that became a jazz and R&B chart hit. In 1975, besotted with “blue sky and sunshine,” he moved his family to California — first to Marin, then Malibu, and finally Venice, where he remains.
After an early–’90s stint with the Animals, he revived Oblivion Express, which now features son Karma on drums. They’ll return to Europe this summer to promote the double-disc compilation “Back to the Beginning”; fall will see the release of another double-disc set, “Live in LA.”
Auger acknowledges the cliquishness of L.A.’s jazz and rock scenes, but lavishes praise on its “fantastic musicians.”
“I love Venice,” he says. “It reminds me of where I grew up in London, Shepherd’s Bush. There’s an old lady across from my alley, she must be about 90. I see her as we put our garbage out. One day I asked if it’s too loud when we’re rehearsing. She said, ‘Oh, no, is that you? I love that!’ [Laughs] It’s a wonderful place.”
Brian Auger’s Oblivion Express plays at 9:30 p.m. Friday at the WitZend, 1717 Lincoln Blvd., Venice. $15 to $20. Call (310) 305-4792 or visit brianauger.com.