In early 1969, following the breakup of the first “supergroup” power trio Cream, Eric Clapton pondered his next move.
He had been in the Yardbirds during their formative years; he had done a memorable stint with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, and he had been a key factor in the international success of Cream. But a ferocious personality conflict between drummer Ginger Baker and bassist Jack Bruce, along with exhaustion from relentless touring, had taken their
toll, bringing the group’s existence to an end after only two years, much to Clapton’s relief.
Through it all, there was another musician he had been admiring from afar: Steve Winwood, first the wunderkind singer/keyboardist of The Spencer Davis Group and then the founder and key sparkplug of the folk-jazz-rock band Traffic.
When Clapton heard Traffic was either taking a break or breaking up, he reached out to Winwood. What say we get together and jam a bit and see what happens? Winwood was keen to the idea, so they met in an isolated cottage in the English countryside to try out some new songs.
They’d been there only a day when there was a knock at the door. Standing there was Baker. “Here I am,” he announced. Winwood, knowing Baker’s abilities, welcomed him in with open arms, but Clapton appeared deflated. Oh shit, he thought, how did he even find us out here?
This anecdote serves as an illustration of Baker’s intimidating presence and aggressive perseverance, even in places where he wasn’t necessarily wanted. As Britain’s The Guardian put it, “Certainly Baker’s physical makeup doesn’t really help to contradict most people’s image that he’s a direct descendant of King Kong or the Wild Man of Borneo. He has a huge shaggy head of red hair and a beard to match. Mere mortals have been known to quail before his glowering, rolling eyes. His teeth are chipped, his grin evil.”
None of that mattered much when he sat down behind his massive drum kit and started to play. He is regarded by many, including most drummers, to be perhaps the best drummer ever, melding a jazz background and inventive African rhythms to create a singular approach that has inspired rock drummers for decades. In the late ’60s, he pioneered the archetypal rock concert drum solo, and he introduced the two-bass-drum configuration which became standard throughout the industry in the ’70s and beyond.
Now the rock music world mourns Baker’s passing last week at the age of 80, a victim of multiple diseases that he suffered with for his last 10-15 years — obstructive pulmonary problems, degenerative osteoarthritis and progressive cardiac issues.
He was, by all accounts, a difficult man, which is why Clapton had been so wary about including Baker into the fold of Blind Faith, the new group he’d been nurturing with Winwood.
“I’m a prickly bastard, no doubt about it,” he said in a 2004 interview. Indeed, a 2012 documentary about the mercurial drummer, entitled “Beware of Mr. Baker,” includes a scene when Baker attacked filmmaker Jay Bulger because he didn’t like how the project was progressing.
Born Peter Edward Baker in South London in 1939, “Ginger” (named for his shock of flaming red hair) took to the drums by age 14, inspired by jazz drummers like Britain’s Phil Seaman and U.S. legends like Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich. He first gained notoriety with The Graham Bond Organisation, an R&B band with strong jazz leanings, where he met and began clashing with bassist/vocalist Bruce.
Despite the unpredictable relationship between Baker and Bruce, the two agreed to work together again a couple of years later, this time with Clapton on guitar, forming Cream (so named because they were considered the cream of British musicians on their respective instruments). From mid-1966 until late 1968, the trio reigned supreme, playing more
than 400 concerts and releasing four hugely successful albums, becoming monumentally influential even as they were imploding from within.
Baker always felt he wasn’t given due songwriting credit for many of Cream’s songs. While he is credited for writing obscure deep album tracks like “Pressed Rat and Warthog,” “Blue Condition” and “Passing the Time,” he missed out on any credit for the big-royalty songs from their catalog. He thought it unfair that copyright laws don’t recognize drumbeats (however inventive or catchy or as integral to a song as they may be) for songwriting royalties. “It’s crazy,” he fumed. “One of the most important things in pop music, any music, is the beat. But in the eyes of the law, it’s melody, harmony and lyrics that matter. I added the 5/4 time introduction to Cream’s hit ‘White Room,’ and I suggested to Jack Bruce that the tempo for ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’ was way too fast and should be much slower. These were both important contributions to those tracks, but I got no credit whatsoever.”
Baker also bristled when he talked about his drumming style during his days with Cream. “I hear they consider me a pioneer of heavy metal drumming. I loathe heavy metal. I think it is an abortion. A lot of younger rock drummers would come up and say, ‘Man, you were my influence, the way you thrashed the drums,’” he noted. “They didn’t seem to understand I was thrashing just so I could hear what I was playing above the over-amplified volumes from the guitar and bass. It was anger, not enjoyment. And it was painful. I suffered onstage because of all those Marshall amps turned way up. I didn’t like it then, and like it even less now.”
He found it amusing when he would be labeled “best rock drummer” in reader polls.
“Oh, for God’s sake, I’ve never played rock,” he said in 2013. “Cream was two jazz players and a blues guitarist playing improvised music. We never played the same thing two nights running … It was jazz.”
Baker’s playing made use of syncopation and “ride cymbal” patterns characteristic of bebop and other advanced forms of jazz, as well as the frequent application of African rhythms. He often utilized differing timbres and tempos in his percussive work, using a variety of percussion instruments in addition to the standard drum kit.
Said Baker in 2012, “Drummers are really nothing more than time-keepers. They’re the time of the band. It’s the drummer’s job to make the others sound good. I don’t consider I should have as much recognition as, say, a brilliant guitar player. I think the best thing a drummer can have is restraint when he’s playing – and so few have that these days. They think playing loud is playing best.”
If you listen to songs like Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home,” it shows Baker’s mastery of the high hat and the restrained approach he referred to in the 2012 comment. Still, the incendiary drumming you hear in most live Cream recordings — most notably “Spoonful” from “Wheels of Fire” — is jaw-dropping in its complexity and performance.
Said Neal Peart of Rush last week, “His playing was revolutionary – extrovert, primal and inventive. He set the bar for what rock drumming could be. Every rock drummer since has been influenced in some way by Ginger, even if they don’t know it.”
Michael Balzary, better known as Flea, the bassist of The Red Hot Chili Peppers, said he was in awe of Baker’s legacy. “There was so much freedom in his playing. What a wild man. Those rhythms we’ve heard all our lives, he just plucked them out of the sky.”
Following the short-lived Blind Faith experience, Baker formed Ginger Baker’s Air Force in 1970, a somewhat bloated group of jazz-rock fusion musicians that included, at various times, Winwood, Traffic flautist Chris Wood, Afrocentric drummer Rebi Kebaka and ex-Moody Blues guitarist Denny Laine, among many others. They relied on lengthy jams and unrehearsed noodlings that found their onto two LPs in 1970 but never sold well.
“I can only echo the words and thoughts that have been shared by various mutual friends,” said Laine following Baker’s death. “I think we gelled musically in a way that is rare and that is really all that matters. I will always defend his reputation as a hard nut to crack because his honesty was second to none, and his heart was an open book for all to see.”
Baker dabbled in heroin and other drugs during that period, and it took watching his good friend Jimi Hendrix die after a debauched night on the town together for Baker to finally begin the difficult journey of recovering from substance abuse. Feeling he couldn’t pull that off in Europe, he packed up and traveled to Africa, where he spent most of the rest of his life. He opened a studio in Lagos, Nigeria, where Paul McCartney was one of the first to visit. “We worked together on the ‘Band On the Run’ album in his ARC Studio there,’ said McCartney last week. “Ginger was a wild and lovely guy.”
While living in South Africa, Baker withdrew from the public for years at a time, pursuing a passion for and investing much of his wealth in polo ponies, which left him in financial straits. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Baker traveled the world, working with nearly anyone who would hire him, constantly struggling to pay the bills and stay sober. He played with such bands as Hawkwind, Public Image Ltd, and the hard-rock group Masters of Reality before teaming up with Bruce once again in BBM, a short-lived power trio that included guitarist Gary Moore.
In 1993, Baker was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as part of Cream, and in 2005, Cream finally reunited for a concert at Royal Albert Hall, which was then made into a successful CD and concert DVD. Both are well worth your time.
I was pleased to see that, despite the years of acrimony, the family of the late Jack Bruce offered this statement upon Baker’s death: “We would like to extend our sincere condolences to Ginger Baker’s family, friends and fans. Ginger was like an older brother to Jack, and they fought like brothers often do, but they survived their love-hate relationship long enough to work together in The Graham Bond Organisation, make history with Cream and, much later, collaborate in BBM. Each time, their musical chemistry was truly spectacular. Rest in peace, Ginger, one of the greatest drummers of all time.”
Mark Holan, my former editor at Scene Magazine in Cleveland, is a huge fan of Baker’s work, and has posted several items this past week on Facebook about him. Yesterday he displayed the cover of Cream’s debut LP “Fresh Cream” and reminisced, “I remember listening to this album over and over, trying to figure out how Ginger could make that drum kit sound like a bulldozer gone berserk.”
I spent the other day listening to the 16-minute live drum solo “Toad” from Cream’s “Wheels of Fire” for the first time in decades. When I was 14, I found that track compelling, listening to it dozens of times because of its mesmerizing rhythms and seemingly impossible techniques. Even though it gave birth to the unfortunate practice of including momentum-killing drum solos at so many rock concerts in that 1970s era, I still have a soft spot for Baker’s virtuosity on display on “Toad” as well as on his solo in Blind Faith’s “Do What You Like.”
R.I.P., Mr. Baker. Your work here is done and has not gone unappreciated.