Austin City Limits

Basil McJagger's Swingin' Organ

Basil McJagger at the keys.
Basil McJagger at the keys. Photo by Eric Setter
As the old quote goes, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” The astute observation about trying to explain the artistry of one medium in the terms of another has been credited to everyone from musicians Elvis Costello and Laurie Anderson to comedian Martin Mull (who tends to get the edge).
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Record cover
Art by Hector Guerrero

But the way that singer/keyboardist Basil McJagger describes the music of his group, the Basil Trio, is pretty damn atmospheric.

“It's the band you would see in a cheap motel lounge if you were stranded by a snowstorm in Brookings, South Dakota sometime during the 78 days between the assassination of President Kennedy and the Beatles' first appearance on Ed Sullivan,” he says. “It's sort of like Jimmy Smith meets Herb Alpert.”

In coming up with that evocative description, McJagger wanted to instantly bring to mind a specific time and place. Even if he was gently skewering his own music.

“I think about the worst period in rock and roll history. When were times the darkest? Everybody talked about Buddy Holly and the day the music died, or when Elvis went to the Army and Chuck Berry went to prison and it seemed like it was just getting worse,” he offers.

“To me, the darkest before the dawn was those 77 or 78 days between November 1963 and February 1964.”
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The Basil Trio at C-Boy's in Austin.
Photo by Rebecca Combs
Not that there were some exceptions, McJagger offers. But he points to one song in particular as the height of “rock” excreble-ness: “Alley Cat” by Bent Fabric.

The simplistic, gently-lolling piano-driven almost music box instrumental won the 1962 Grammy for Rock and Roll Single of the Year (handed out in May 1963). It’s about as far away from rock and roll as that ceremony’s Record of the Year, Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”

The Basil Trio will sometimes play “Alley Cat,” mentioning the coveted award it won before the disbelieving faces of their audience.
The Austin-based McJagger formed the Basil Trio in 2017, quickly releasing a 5-song self-titled EP and then playing their first gig in January 2018. Musicians in the guitar and drum slots have been fluid over the years.

But for a Houston show at Under the Volcano on May 31, he’ll have local Man-of-a-Thousand-Bands skin thumper Eric C. Hughes (who played frequently with the Trio when he was living in Austin) behind the kit, and Miles Davis on guitar. Yes, his name is Miles Davis.
McJagger started playing piano and taking lessons at the age of five or six. When his friends started forming bands in their teen years, instead of moving to another instrument that would be more struggling band/stage size friendly, he stuck with the ivories.

“I was the piano guy in all my teenage bands. Somewhere along the way, I started hearing the Hammond organ and really loving the sound of that,” he says. “So as an adult, I was only playing usually a digital organ.”
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The exotic Basil McJagger
Photo by Gina Lee
Both instruments have served him well in his highest profile musical job in Austin’s country tonk/pop entity the Derailers, in which McJagger has been a member for nearly two decades.

“There’s a real discipline to playing organ for real as opposed to just incorporating it as a keyboard sound. And that means me also playing the bass part like Jimmy Smith. And I felt I was kind of half-playing it,” he offers. “So, I felt I would really attack how to play the organ fully in an organ trio setting. And to make it my band, my project, and my art. If you can call it that!”

Among the original tracks on the EP are the frug-inducing danceable with-a-dash-of-Dick Dale “Ghost Farm.” The rockabilly swing of “Hilltop Tavern Boogie” (with McJagger on vocals), and the atmospheric head bopper “Dynatone.”

There’s also a cover of “A Shot in the Dark,” the galloping, cinematic Henry Mancini-penned theme to A Shot in the Dark. The 1964 comedy film featured Peter Sellers’ second go-round as the bumbling Inspector Clouseau and was the sequel to The Pink Panther. McJagger says he refers to its creator as “Italian-American composer Hank Mancini” in concert.

The band’s website also includes an off-the-cuff video of McJagger performing a solo take on “All Worthwhile,” which he calls “a love song to alcohol.”

The tune was penned by "Mr. Mister T.S. Righteous" (aka Brian Johnson), McJagger's former bandmate in the seven-man group called The Self-Righteous Brothers. “We wore white tuxedos and claimed to be from Weatherby, Scotland. It was all very lighthearted. And a lot of the songs were about drinking,” he says.
Also on the website is a picture of McJagger with his coveted 1957 Hammond C3 electric organ. The Hammond organ was invented by Laurens Hammond and John M. Hanert and first manufactured in 1935. Both the C3 and its better-known relative, the B3 (used in so much rock/soul/jazz music), debuted in 1954. McJagger says there’s a subtle but crucial difference between the two.

“They’re identical mechanically, but the difference is in the woodwork. For the C3, it goes all the way to the floor. I think the idea there was that if a woman was playing it with a skirt on, you wouldn’t be able to see her legs working on the pedals, or anything else. And they marketed it toward churches more!” McJagger laughs.

Production of both organs stopped in 1974, and given the number of parts to the instrument–some fragile—it’s a challenge for Hammond player and collectors to keep their pieces in working and playable condition.
McJagger says he’s considering bringing his precious C3 to Houston but is concerned about putting it in a trailer going over potentially bumpy roads on the 162-mile journey from Austin to Houston’s Bissonnet Street where Under the Volcano is located.

“Fortunately, here in Austin, there are a number of venues that already have Hammond organs onstage, so I don’t have to load it for those shows,” he says. “And it’s not so much tinkering with the machinery to make it work, it’s becoming familiar with that organ and knowing where the sweet spots and the dead spots are. How to operate it to get what I want out of it. Each organ, after being 60 or 70 years old, has its idiosyncrasies and tricks.”
McJagger says he’ll have plenty of copies of the EP (which he still jokingly touts as their “new” record) and stickers at the Houston show. He’s also got an idea for a new full-length record in his head that he hopes to make sometime soon, with the working title of Let’s Get Exotic. It will be based on the popular movement/style of records released in the ‘50s and ‘60s that seemed to bring sounds from faraway lands, often with jungle/beach/foreign/Tiki culture.

“These were records with absolutely zero authenticity! It’s the music of Korla Pandit, Martin Denny and Les Baxter and these people trying to take you someplace far away that doesn’t even exist!” McJagger says.

He says he’ll raise money to make the record from more Basil Trio gigs. So, he’s not above a little moniker-based chicanery to get paying people through the door for his Houston show.

“Where else,” he asks, “can you see Miles Davis perform on a Wednesday night for such a low, low price!”

The Basil Trio plays at “8ish” on Wednesday, May 31, at Under the Volcano, 2349 Bissonnet. For more information, call 713-526-5282 or visit $10.

For more on the Basil Trio, visit
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero