Pick of the Week #17
Julie Driscoll & Brian Auger
By Beppe Colli
Apr. 6, 2021

I'm sure readers are aware of the condition of extreme fluidity that is presently associated with many sides of music-making, with large quantities of copyrights being bought and sold for billions of dollars and pounds.

In parallel, I'm amazed at the enormous quantity of visual material that one can easily find online for free: a state of affairs that goes in the opposite direction of what I assumed to be the prevailing trend, not too long ago.

Since the Web makes it possible for one to have a "transnational" outlook, I have to confess that nowadays my favourite pastime it to add more info to my rudimental knowledge of many artists and groups that at the time one had great difficulty seeing "in action", those still images on record albums and music magazines being the only available material to "complete" the idea one got from the music played on the radio.

And so, today I can watch, say, Procol Harum - who in various playback videos of the time pretend to perform their enormous hit, A Whiter Shade Of Pale - as real musicians: five young men who perform the music featured on their first album with a fine degree of assuredness, Robin Trower playing a Gretsch Country Gentleman guitar.

Though many of them may look naive today, many TV performances of the time still succeed in communicating the feeling of making a new start, of many colours appearing, in a world that clearly remembered the deprivation caused by the war, with burnt, collapsed buildings still a common sight.

(I clearly remember how thin the legs of British drummers who appeared on the pages of the music magazine I bought, Giovani, which in hindsight I assume featured many pictures taken from performances that took place on the German TV program Beat Club; the pair of legs I remember more clearly belonging to the drummer from Fat Mattress, Eric Dillon. I think that seeing the healthy, rosy colour of such California musicians as The Byrds in grey London town where many people were still undernourished must have been a bit of a cultural shock, no less important than the 12-string arpeggio played on a Rickenbaker on Mr. Tambourine Man.)

A few days ago I decided to see what kind of material was available to watch of Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger & The Trinity (how strange their name sounded on the radio, the "law firm" style of Crosby & c. still being a few years in the future).

What a surprise!, there was a lot of stuff. TV specials of about 20-30 minutes - from Germany, France, Holland, Norway, even Italy (with the host speaking excellent English... Will wonders ever cease?). Most performances were mimed, but some were live. Also, daring "experiments" when it comes to colour and geometry - how many spirals can you see per minute? - and lots of clothes, also hats, that looked like costumes (one can clearly see the influence of The Beatles).

I hope readers will trust me when I say that Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger & The Trinity were very famous musicians who performed quality music. Hammond player Brian Auger was called "highly skilled", something that maybe doesn't mean much today ("I can simulate anything on my computer") but that at the time still counted for something. I could call Julie Driscoll "the first modern singer" (don't misunderstand me: she was a very good singer), as she easily "jumped" from the pages of a magazine, or from a TV set. Wigs, movie costumes, hand movements, eyes with lotsa make-up, "The Face of '68", she often appeared in the same glossy magazines where one could also spot Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton (i.e., "the first supermodel").

The group's first single, Save Me was a colossal hit, always on the air, only on the Continent (Continental Europe-United Kingdom: 1-0, not for the first, and not for the last, time).

Just a little background. "Black Music" - or "Rhythm & Blues" - was already very popular. Were I to give a list of those who were already famous I'm sure I'd run out of ink first, not of names. Get these: James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Ray Charles, The Supremes, Martha & The Vandellas, the Four Tops, the Temptations, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Joe Tex, Etta James, and of course, Aretha Franklin. 1967 was The Year of The Queen Of Soul, her first album for Atlantic (I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You) being released, also her giant hit Respect.

Save Me was "only" one of the tracks from Aretha's first Atlantic album - the rhythm section: Tommy Cogbill on bass, Roger Hawkins on drums - but the song soon became a hit for Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger & The Trinity. (Spotting the label Dischi Ricordi on the cover of a few 45 singles appearing on some of their "Best Of" speaks volumes about their popularity in Italy.)

Brian Auger (1939) was the classic "child prodigy" who started playing piano at the age of three, fell in love with jazz, won many prizes, then fell in love with the Hammond organ and the "R&B" side of jazz - Jimmy Smith, Wes Montgomery, Booker T. & The MGs (Bumpin' On Sunset and Red Beans And Rice soon will be part of his repertory). When it comes to influences, things are more complex than they first appear: Looking In The Eye Of The World, the song that ends Side Three of Streetnoise, sounds just like a song penned by Mose Allison.

Here I have to mention that at the time "instrumental music" - an enormous category covering "music for orchestras", Wes Montgomery, Jimmy Smith ("The Cat"), Peter Nero, and the "exotica" of Jobim - was extremely popular, sold a lot, and was omnipresent on the radio.

Julie Driscoll (1947) was the daughter of a trumpet player from a "dance band". At first, she sang in her father's orchestra; then, in clubs, accompanying herself on guitar. Listening to songs she recorded at the time makes it apparent that she had listened to Dusty Springfield quite closely, and that could have been a plausible niche for her.

Then Giorgio Gomelsky - a whole book would not be enough to contain his multiple guises - assembled a group called Steampacket, featuring both Auger and Driscoll, also future rock star Rod Stewart. Simplifying a lot, in a short while Gomelsky assembled a line-up of Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger & The Trinity (also featuring Clive Thacker on drums; Dave Ambrose on bass; and Gary Boyle on guitar - a few years later Boyle will be the featured guitarist with Stomu Yamash'ta, and with the "jazz-rock" U.K. quartet Isotope).

As I said above, Save Me was very popular only on the Continent. Things changed a lot with This Wheel's On Fire: a Top 5 in U.K., a big hit elsewhere, it was an unreleased song by Bob Dylan (1968 was also the year of The Mighty Quinn, a hit for Manfred Mann, the kind one could hear coming from the ice-cream truck - something that was also true of Paranoid, by Black Sabbath, about three years later). With its great phasing, "mysterious"-sounding vocals, and fine Hammond organ, This Wheel's On Fire instantly became a "psychedelic classic".

Their next single, The Road To Cairo, could be considered as the finest thing recorded by the group. A cover of a song penned by David Ackles (unfortunately, here I cannot add "still quite unknown at the time"), with fine backing by Mellotron (played by Brian Godding, the guitarist from Blossom Toes who was also Julie Driscoll's brother-in-law), it features the group in a measured, tasty, performance, and a memorable vocal interpretation by Julie Driscoll.

It was the record supposed to make the group really famous, but the single flopped, and so the group's commercial history ended there, with the release of their third 45.

I still remember being quite puzzled upon hearing The Road To Cairo, both the music and the performance being too subtle for me. I remember the many times I held the group's new double album, Streeetnoise, in my hands - there was a copy on sale at a Dischi Ricordi shop, where it stayed forever - without finding the courage to buy it; it proved to be the right decision, at that age the eclecticism of the music would have found me totally unprepared.

(A fine topic to debate: as a vast music background, so much diverse music coming from the radio, was an important ingredient for the birth of an eclecticism that today would be cause of disconcert, and already is a source of amazement for many who listen to music from that era for the first time.)

Though in theory quite simple - half an album, three singles, a double LP - the group's discography was commercially presented in many different guises, so buying a "Best Of" could maybe prove to be the best solution (the best one I've seen is the CD called A Kind Of Love-In 1967-1971).

So, just to give readers an helping hand, I had a look to see what was commercially available online. Simply put, nothing. (I didn't pay any attention to CDs with prices "starting from 67 euros".) So I decided to have a look at Julie Driscoll's "semi-recent" solo output: nothing. Almost panicking, I had a look for Brian Auger, with and without the Oblivion Express: nothing.

Which is simply absurd, especially when it comes to Brian Auger. While Julie Driscoll's process of maturation started with an album, 1969 (released in 1971, whose existence I was made aware of only at the time CDs were a proven entity), and a collaboration with pianist Keith Tippett - they soon became an item - on arduous paths (though the double album by Centipede titled Septober Energy was legendary in Italy, mostly for the presence of Robert Fripp as producer, and for the fact that Keith Tippett had played piano on three extremely famous albums by King Crimson), Brian Auger was "a chart artist", at home on the radio all over the world.

Trinity broke up after the release of an album, BeFour (1970), that saw the return of Gary Boyle. Things changed with the first album of same name released by Oblivion Express (1971), featuring Jim Mullen on guitar and Robbie McIntosh on drums. (The group appeared on the TV quiz show for kids called Chissŗ chi lo sa. The day after, there were people at school discussing the fact that the guitarist "played with his thumb".) Brian Auger's Italian popularity decreased after his - commercially profitable - decision to decamp to the States. There, he recorded many agile "funky" albums, later embracing Herbie Hancock's "electric jazz" (best I can do).

To see it from the musicians' point of view, things went for the best. Brian Auger played the music he liked, far from a dimension shared with a singer who had such a strong image. Julie Driscoll developed her personality in climates that were quite different from those of the group. This writer - and I'm sure I'm not the only one - thought that the group still had work to do. But if even the Beatles broke up...

There were three singles released: Save Me, This Wheel's On Fire, and The Road To Cairo, all good. There was also the fine "B side" titled A Kind Of Love-In, halfway between "beat music" and "psychedelia".

Their first album, Open, features many instrumental tracks (Black Cat was a radio hit), and some fine songs, most of them covers, such as Tramp (fine, but not as good as the Otis Redding-Carla Thomas famous duo performance), and an excellent version of Donovan's Season Of The Witch, which brings the "internal" tension of the original version to the surface.

Streetnoise is in many ways the group's "White Album" (aka: The Beatles): "a fine double album that could have been a fantastic single album" - "but what would you take out?", and here opinions are fatally bound to differ.

The album was split in four sides, that were thematically/musically different. Today, it's good to listen to Brian Auger's masterful Hammond organ, with Leslie and "percussion". Nice rhythm section, recorded in different ways, not all perfect (but it's 1969). Julie Driscoll follows her personal way to maturity: while Nina Simone is an obvious influence, in some tracks that sound closer to "American rock" one can hear a faint echo of Grace Slick.

Given that the album was recorded in 1969, it's nice to notice how astute and timely they were when choosing songs by artists that were not yet well-known, off quite recent albums. Indian Rope Man (an excellent version) comes from Richie Havens's 1983. Fresh Failures and I've Got Life were part of the musical Hair. All Blues comes from Miles Davis. Save The Country is off New York Tendaberry, by Laura Nyro. There's also a version of The Doors song Light My Fire in the style of the version released by Josť Feliciano, but with a fine organ solo.

Other notable tracks: Czechoslovakia, about the Soviet invasion of the year before. The almost-hit Tropic Of Capricorn by Brian Auger. A Word About Colour, with fine lyrics by Julie Driscoll. When I Was Young, with a great vocal performance. Ellis Island, Auger's homage to jazzman Don Ellis. The already-mentioned Looking In The Eye Of The World. The folk-song Vauxhall To Lambeth Bridge.

The group spent most of their time "on the road", also touring the States. There were lotsa TV shows. Auger & Driscoll were also featured characters in the Monkees TV Special titled 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee, as a "crazy scientist" and his assistant. Have a look online.

© Beppe Colli 2021

CloudsandClocks.net | Apr. 6, 2021