Legendary Cream drummer dies aged 80
LONDON: Ginger Baker, one of the most innovative and influential drummers in rock music, has died at the age of 80.
A co-founder of Cream, he also played with Blind Faith, Hawkwind and Fela Kuti in a long and varied career.
His style combined the lyricism of jazz with the crude power of rock. One critic said watching him was like witnessing “a human combine harvester”.
But he was also a temperamental and argumentative figure, whose behaviour frequently led to on-stage punch-ups.
Nicknamed Ginger for his flaming red hair, the musician was born Peter Edward Baker in Lewisham, south London, shortly before World War Two.
His bricklayer father was killed in action in 1943, and he was brought up in near poverty by his mother, step-father and aunt.
A troubled student, he joined a local gang in his teens and became involved in petty theft. When he tried to quit, gang-members attacked him with a razor.
His early ambition was to ride in the Tour de France but he was forced to quit the sport when, aged 16, his bicycle got “caught up” with a taxi. Instead, he took up drumming.
“I was always banging on the desks at school,” he recalled. “So all the kids kept saying, ‘Go on, go and play the drums’, and I just sat down and I could play.
“It’s a gift from God. You’ve either got it or you haven’t. And I’ve got it: time. Natural time.”
The strong legs he’d developed on long bike rides helped him play the double bass drum set-up he favoured and Baker soon talked his way into his first gig.
He played with jazz acts like Terry Lightfoot and Acker Bilk but his style – fragmented and aggressive, but articulate and insistent – was often an odd fit.
Instead, he gravitated towards London’s burgeoning blues scene and, in 1962, joined Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated on the recommendation of Charlie Watts – who was leaving to join the Rolling Stones.
He gained early fame as a member of the Graham Bond Organisation alongside bassist Jack Bruce – but it was their partnership with Eric Clapton in Cream that made all three superstars.
One of rock’s first “supergroups”, they fused blues and psychedelia to dazzling effect on songs like Strange Brew, Sunshine of Your Love, Badge and I Feel Free. They sold more than 35 million albums and were awarded the world’s first ever platinum disc for their LP Wheels of Fire.
Along with the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the band expanded the vocabulary of heavy rock, especially during their incendiary live shows, where the three musicians would stretch simple riffs into long, exploratory improvisations.
“It was as if something else had taken over,” Baker once said of playing with Cream.
“You’re not conscious of playing. You’re listening to this fantastic sound that you’re a part of. And your part is just… happening. It was a gift, and we three had it in abundance.”
But the volatility that fuelled their performances was rooted in animosity. Baker and Bruce’s arguments were frequent and violent, even driving Clapton to tears on one occasion. Once, Baker attempted to end one of Bruce’s solos by bouncing a stick off his snare drum, and into Bruce’s head.
“So I grabbed my double bass,” Bruce later recalled, “and demolished him and his kit.”
The band eventually split after two years and four albums, with a farewell concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 1968.
“Cream came and went almost in the blink of an eye, but left an indelible mark on rock music,” wrote Colin Larkin in the Encyclopaedia of Popular Music.
Bands who built on their template included Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin – not that Baker was impressed.
“I don’t think Led Zeppelin filled the void that Cream left, but they made a lot of money,” he told Forbes.