They have helped write the history of music: Robby Krieger, as the guitarist of cult band The Doors, and Brian Auger on his Hammond B-3 organ. Just for us, Auger has written an instrumental piece: the “Mercedes Classic Blues”. The legendary rock stars joined us to cruise through Los Angeles with this song and a whole host of audacious stories – in a 300 SEL 6.3 from 1969.
Los Angeles on a supposedly peaceful Sunday afternoon. Sunset Avenue basks in the Californian sun, two teenagers make their way up from the beach with their surfboards, and Americans everywhere are barbecuing on their neatly manicured front lawns. It’s still a time when COVID-19 is not yet an issue. Music suddenly rings out over the otherwise quiet neighbourhood of Venice: a raw blues song with razor-sharp notes, a sound that would suggest someone has turned the amplifiers right up.
Robby Krieger (left) and Brian Auger admire the 300 SEL 6.3. For the former Doors guitarist Krieger, this car is like a good friend from days gone by. He once owned a 6.3 model himself.
Brian Auger is a consummate player on the ivories. As a soloist, he virtually becomes as one with his beloved instrument.
It’s coming from a turquoise-painted house, two rows back. There are roses in the garden and a staircase leading to a room over the garage. The music becomes louder as the door opens onto a living room that has been converted into an impromptu rehearsal room. There’s one man playing a guitar, another sitting at a set of drums and the boss at his three-manual organ. And then he hits the keys, such that the power cables outside the door almost seem to swing to the beat.
The man knows no other way, even if he is 81 years old these days. He simply plays what’s in his blood: blues, jazz, rock. He flies over the notes until the chords take off and the groove bubbles like an eight-cylinder engine. His fingers race over the keyboard, his face grimacing with the effort of improvisation. No question about it, this man is a master, a musician to the core. One who still has direct links with rock ’n’ roll heaven.
The walls are full of photos and posters from some sort of musical dreamland. The legendary Fillmore East club in New York is there, where the boss used to play, alongside Neil Young, Miles Davis, Joe Cocker, The Moody Blues. He appeared with Led Zeppelin, played with Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, Little Richard. As a gag for a TV show in the 1960s, the four of them stacked their pianos up in a pyramid, with him sitting at the top playing: Brian Auger, the improvising whirlwind from England. The man who made the sound of the Hammond B-3 famous and fired up the ’60s music scene in a way that few others could, before or since.
Scattered around the living room are various records and CDs, song books and sheets of music. Brian Auger sits playing in the middle of it all – a jazz and rock musician who has performed with all the greats and the greatest. A pianist and composer of whom the legendary Herbie Hancock once said: “He’s one of the best Hammond-organ players I’ve ever heard in my life.”
Karma, Brian Auger’s son, completely in his element in the studio – this is where he produces songs and soundtracks in Hollywood-style quality.
The three musicians take a short break before Brian Auger says, his English accent still noticeable: “Let’s play that number again, gentlemen, but this time with a little more feeling.” And off they go. The guitar plays the intro: da da di di, da da di di, then in come the others – and wham!
The blues roar once again out of this living room. But no one outside says anything, no neighbour complains. For goodness’ sake – they all know who’s playing. It’s as if they’re getting a free concert from one of the really big rock stars of the ’60s.
The guys are not playing just any old song. Together with his son Karma Auger and guitarist Steve Fister, Brian Auger is actually recording the “Mercedes Classic Blues”, a track he has composed in honour of the good old days when sleek Mercedes-Benz cars cruised around the California of the 1960s and ’70s, becoming coveted objects on four mostly wide wheels among surfers, musicians and Hollywood stars.
It was the heyday of rock culture. There was a sense of change and rebellion in the air, the spirit of Haight-Ashbury and the “Summer of Love”. The “British Invasion” had seen a swarm of bands crossing to the US from England with a heady mix of beat and blues, rock ’n’ roll and freaky jazz in their bags. Jeff Beck, Spencer Davis, the Stones, The Who: the names now read like a who’s who of rock history – and Brian Auger was right there in the middle of it all. He knew them all. He was one of them.
The Hammond organ virtuoso Brian Auger composed the MCB – the “Mercedes Classic Blues”.
Guitarist Steve Fister picks up a bottleneck and gets the six-string to sing.
After the session, Auger stands contentedly in the kitchen and strokes his dog, Echo. Propped up in the corner are two guitars, one of them a bass. And then Brian starts to chat and tell a few inside stories, because he just loves those anecdotes from the old days. They are still as fresh in his mind as they were yesterday.
Brian steps out onto the balcony, his satin shirt flashing in the sunlight. “Oh man,” he says. “Sometimes I really just can’t believe the things that happened back then. One evening in a club in London, Jimi Hendrix came up and asked if he could play a session with me.”
In those days, Hendrix was still a nobody. He rocked that evening with Auger’s band, while Eric Clapton sat in the audience growing paler and paler. Brian recalls: “Eric packed up his guitar and went home.” Because this Jimi from America played and played until they all got dizzy. Hendrix often came to the London clubs where Brian was playing with his band and jammed along. Just a few years later Hendrix was famous all over the world – and is still remembered as the world’s best and fastest rock guitarist.
Brian: “Jimi was the nicest guy you could ever meet, but a real fiend on the guitar when he was on stage.”
Who else did Brian perform with? He reflects. Oh yes, there was Alexis Korner, Eric Burdon, Ginger Baker, then John McLaughlin, Paul McCartney and… the question clearly needs to be worded differently: Who has this man not played with so far? “We were all like one big family in those days,” Brian answers. “We just played our music and had no idea what we’d started.”
Together with Robby Krieger’s son Waylon, the musicians carry their instruments into Whisky a Go Go. The setting for the show: the famous Sunset Strip in L.A.
Then he goes back into the living room and sits down to play at his old Hammond B-3. Just like that. “Do you know this one?” Brian plays “Cantaloupe Island” by Herbie Hancock, improvises, lets the notes speak. “How about this? That’s nice, too, isn’t it?” His son Karma, 51, a drummer and producer, has heard it all before. Music from morning to night: “It’s just the way it is, when your dad’s living music history.”
And so blues and jazz continue to flow out into the Californian air until late in the evening, even long after the sun has set over Sunset Avenue in a haze of lilac.
The following afternoon, Brian and Karma stand, hair freshly combed, by the front door. Parked in front of them is, as it were, the automotive counterpart of their new blues song: a perfectly maintained 300 SEL 6.3 from the W 109 model series. V8 engine, air suspension, 250 PS, grey-blue metallic (DB 906). Year of construction: 1969. A friend has managed to get hold of the car: for a very special sort of jaunt, for an outing in the name of music and of these living legends, with the perfect car to match. You see, Brian and Karma Auger have planned a surprise with their – our – song and with the sports car in the guise of a saloon.
Brian climbs aboard, starts the engine, operates the electric windows, looks at the round dials and the polished Macassar ebony of the upholstered dashboard. Yes, those were the days. It’s almost as if he was back there again. The late ’60s, early ’70s. Then the two of them play their new song, the “Mercedes Classic Blues”. They turn the volume up, then off they cruise in the feisty heavyweight, all the way across sun-soaked Los Angeles.
Blues brothers and petrolheads: Robby Krieger (at the wheel) and Brian Auger, as always in the front row.
The tour through the City of Angels in the 300 SEL 6.3 takes the musicians alongside the deep-blue sea on the Pacific Coast Highway.
They drive along Venice Beach in the 300 SEL 6.3 and float up Sunset Boulevard. Brian, meanwhile, just can’t stop telling his stories. Such as the one about how he was once strolling through a gallery in England with Keith Moon, the drummer of The Who. There were works of art on the walls, and oddball Moon suddenly said there was something missing in the pictures. “What, then?” asked Brian. “Ham,” said Moon. “Ham?” To which Moon said: “Yes, ham, man!” At which point he took his sandwich and smeared it, including all the mayonnaise, right across the paintings.
“Those were crazy times,” says Brian, shaking his head. “We did a lot of improvisation, and not just on stage.” He laughs out loud. It sounds like E major with a deep vibrato. This man really is made of music, through and through.
He then turns off and steers the 6.3 towards Beverly Hills. Leaning on a corner there we find none other than one of his old cronies. A man in bright green sunglasses, check shirt, ice-grey hair. “Hi, Robby,” says Brian, with a grin almost as wide as the Pacific Ocean. They hug each other and then Robby Krieger, guitarist of cult band The Doors, stands looking at the Mercedes-Benz classic. He can hardly believe his eyes. “Wow,” is all he says. His father had bought a 300 SEL 6.3 like it in California in 1969; exactly like it, in fact, brand-new from the factory – and had handed it over to him soon afterwards.
Even back then, Krieger was a hero. He had written the hit “Light My Fire”, made various outrageous appearances with Jim Morrison and rewritten music history with The Doors. So now he, too, climbs aboard: Krieger, 75, somehow also still a young man at heart. This is California, USA. Platform of freedom, showroom of dreams. It’s still only rock ’n’ roll.
The late 1960s ambience of the W 109 still exudes charm and warmth. Everything here is craftsmanship at its finest.
For Auger and Krieger, the “Whisky” is very much a home away from home. The shows in the club are still cult – and they are guests of honour for life.
Well, the surprise succeeded. After more than half a century, Robby is once again sitting in “his” old Mercedes-Benz – behind the wheel, of course. “The 6.3 drives and feels just the way it did back then,” he says. “Oh yeah, there’s a whole heap of power there, under the hood.” The five-metre-long and 1.81-metre-wide car immediately releases its full power as the guitar wizard puts his foot down. Robby has brought along his son Waylon, 47, who often appears as a singer alongside his father. Brian’s son Karma is likewise ensconced on the leather-upholstered rear seat. It is a very special sort of summit meeting: two generations and two chapters of rock history. All in a dream car that was already cruising the streets of California in the year when man first landed on the moon.
They take the Pacific Coast Highway towards Malibu and Topanga Canyon in what was, in the late ’60s and early ’70s, the fastest series-production saloon in the world. Ocean to the left, mountains to the right. And all the stories of yesteryear along with the “Mercedes Classic Blues”, accompanied by a backing track from the eight-cylinder engine, in their ears.
Robby’s assessment: “Real cool!” The laid-back nature of the seemingly infinite torque communicates itself to the driver and his passengers. And when a quartet like this is out and about, the road can only lead to one place: the “Whisky”, the fabled music club on the Sunset Strip that opened in 1964 and paved the way to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for so many bands. Whisky a Go Go was where The Doors played their way into the rock music limelight. It’s also where Frank Zappa became famous and where Guns N’ Roses made their debut.
Our four musicians park the 1.8-tonne car directly in front of the entrance. They’re all well known here, of course, while there’s even a plaque dedicated to Robby inside the club – in honour of the man who wrote “Light My Fire” and first ignited that magic song, right here.
Loud hellos ring out as the four of them casually stroll in: Krieger with his old guitar, Brian with his keyboard and sons Karma and Waylon in their leather jackets. “The stage used to be much smaller,” comments Robby. “No wonder Jim Morrison and I almost always went crashing into the audience.” You can almost feel the decades rolling back, when you hear a statement like this from someone like Krieger. He was actually up there on the stage back in the ’60s, strumming his red guitar at the very moments when the music caught fire.
Before long, they are all up there on stage. The club is deserted, with no audience yet to be seen. But as soon as Brian hits the first keys, this unforgettable sound once again fills the air – these notes that go right through you, the emotional pull of the blues that outlives everything.