In the white room with black curtains

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

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Blind Faith:  Ric Grech, Ginger Baker, Steve Winwood, Eric Clapton

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 ginger-bakerto 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 couple 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

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Cream:  Clapton, Baker, Bruce

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.

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Baker in 2007

“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 other 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 Pert 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.”

blind-faith-eric-clapton-1Following 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.

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Cream’s reunion gig in 2005

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 72799625_10157922448373313_8637118432698957824_olistening 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.

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Didn’t I do the best I could, now didn’t I?

How strange it is, and unfortunate, when the people who put in the hours and do the bulk of the work aren’t given the credit or the glory for what they’ve contributed.

In pop music, this has happened fairly often.  The superstar singer basks in the spotlight while the session musicians or touring band work their wonders largely in the background.

In the 1960s, there was a loose confederation of hip studio musicians in Los Angeles who came to be known as The Wrecking Crew because they were “wrecking the industry” for the button-down guys who came before them.  I’ve already written about The Wrecking Crew in Hack’s Back Pages, most recently when drummer Hal Blaine passed away last year.  He and players like Larry Knechtel, Tommy Tedesco, Carol Kane and others worked in anonymity while laying down the amazing bass, drums, keyboards and guitars on hundreds of hit singles by dozens of famous artists from The Fifth Dimension 6628fe59f4b3c3726ed3d13631b78733and Frank Sinatra to The Beach Boys and Neil Diamond.

Over in Detroit, where Berry Gordy established his Motown Records “Hitsville U.S.A.” juggernaut, the same thing happened, only more so.

The hundreds of hit records that millions of us danced to — back then and still today — were sung by widely known stars like The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations.  But who played the bass, drums, keyboards and guitars that were the crucial foundation bubbling along under the singers?

Most people, even most fans of Motown music, have no idea.

These 13 men (give or take) liked to call themselves The Funk Brothers.  Why, you ask?  Legend goes, at the end of one enthusiastic all-night recording session, drummer Benny Benjamin paused as he was heading out, turned and said to his colleagues, “You all are The Funk Brothers!”  The moniker stuck, even if it was unknown to the public at large.

Whereas some of The Wrecking Crew went on to fame (Glen Campbell, Leon Russell), none of The Funk Brothers achieved any kind of celebrity status, either during or after Motown’s glory years (1961-1972), at least until recently.

“It was bigger than we thought it was gonna be,” recalls keyboardist Joe Hunter, one of the early stalwarts of The Funk Brothers.  “We didn’t know it was gonna be that big.  At first, we didn’t notice what was going on because we were too busy creating the music and the magic.  Finally, you know you’ve played on all those hit records, on jukeboxes and radios everywhere, and everyone says, ‘Oh, that’s Motown.’  But they never knew us.  Nobody ever mentioned too much about us.  After a long time goes by, finally it gets to you.  When the dust cleared, we realized we were being left out of the legacy.  We wondered, will anyone ever know who we are and what we did?”

61pAjXGCGzL._SX373_BO1,204,203,200_The Funk Brothers can thank Allan Slutsky, a musician/arranger and music historian, for his efforts to increase awareness about The Funk Brothers and their monumental contributions to popular music.  In 1989, he wrote “Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” an award-winning best seller that told the fascinating yet tragic story of the late James Jamerson, The Funk Brothers’ influential giant on bass guitar.  The book doubled as a bass instruction book, detailing Jamerson’s game-changing bass lines on iconic tracks like “I Was Made to Love Her,” “My Girl,” “Reach Out I’ll Be There” and “Nowhere to Run” and “What’s Going On.”

Then, in 2002, Slutsky produced the Grammy-winning documentary of the same name, which broadened its scope to tell the story of all The Funk Brothers, offering first-person accounts of their backgrounds and their recollections of the many sessions where their 220px-Sitsomlegendary music was created.  Slutsky’s narrative put it this way:  “The Funk Brothers were an overpowering lineup of veteran groove masters and trailblazing virtuosos… An irresistible tapestry of instrumental hooks and counterrhythms that defined the Motown sound.  The dance floors of the world didn’t stand a chance.”

It’s a compelling narrative, and I urge you to check it out on DVD or various streaming sources.

In 1959, when Gordy was just getting started, he knew he needed really great musicians to work in his recording studio, and he knew where to find them.  He went to the various night clubs around Detroit and scouted the jazz musicians performing there.

“Berry came in to the club — I think it was Chappy’s, or Baker’s Keyboard Lounge — and said he wanted to set up a record company and needed good musicians,” said Hunter.  “He knew (drummer) Benny, and he got a bunch of us to come over for a rehearsal at Smokey Robinson’s house.”

Guitarist Robert White and keyboard great Earl “Chunk of Funk” Van Dyke were among the early recruits, as were percussionist Eddie Brown and guitarists Eddie Willis and Joe Messina.  This original gang of players added a few more names over the next couple of years:  Uriel Jones and Robert Allen on drums, Johnny Griffith on keyboards, Bob Babbitt on bass and Jack Ashford on percussion.

Gordy bought a small house at 2648 West Grand Boulevard, and while he and his wife lived in second-floor quarters, the lower level was converted for use as Studio A, lovingly R-8199027-1456997255-5370.jpegknown as “The Snake Pit” because of all the cables running down from the ceiling.  It was in this relatively cramped yet mystical place the Funk Brothers called home where all those hundreds of Motown songs were created, sometimes in an hour or less.

Numerous tracks by various aspiring artists were recorded in the first year or two but without much success on the Billboard Top 40 chart, although several records like Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want)” did well on the lesser R&B charts.

The musicians who made up The Funk Brothers still did gigs in their old haunts around Detroit, and that camaraderie and time spent together jamming on various jazz tunes hatched new ideas, new riffs, new techniques that eventually made their way into The Snake Pit and onto pop records.

In 1960, Robinson and his vocal group, The Miracles, became Motown’s first crossover chart success with the #2 hit, “Shop Around.” They scored big again in 1962 with “You Really Got a Hold On Me,” as did The Contours with the timeless “Do You Love Me” and The Marvelettes with Motown’s first chart topper, “Please Mr. Postman.”  Playing the instrumental foundation on these records?  The Funk Brothers, of course.

From 1964 to 1969, Motown ruled the airwaves as The Supremes, The Temptations, The FunkBros-NiceFour Tops, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Smokey and The Miracles, Mary Wells, Martha and The Vandellas, The Contours, Kim Weston, Junior Walker and The All-Stars, Gladys Knight and The Pips and Brenda Holloway took turns dominating the pop charts with records that are all still enormously popular 50 years later.  Accompanying them on every one of their records was one combination or another of The Funk Brothers.

By the late ’60s, the psychedelic soul of Jimi Hendrix and Sly and the Family Stone made its mark, and Motown took notice.  Producers like Norman Whitfield lobbied to bring in additional guitarists like Dennis Coffey to perform the wah-wah on tracks like The Temptations’ “Cloud Nine.”

But no musician credits were ever listed on Motown releases, at least not until Gaye insisted on it on his trailblazing 1970 LP, “What’s Going On.”  From then on, The Funk Brothers’ individual names started appearing in the liner notes.

d28df399c3e294d2ca11bc5f7cb9b48aThe Funk Brothers often moonlighted on the sly for other labels, recording in Detroit and elsewhere, in bids to augment their Motown salaries.  It became a worst-kept secret that Jackie Wilson’s 1967 hit “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” did not have a Motown influence by accident; the Funk Brothers migrated to do the Wilson session. Various Funk Brothers also appeared on such non-Motown hits as “Cool Jerk” by the Capitols), “Agent Double-O Soul” by Edwin Starr, “(I Just Wanna) Testify” by the Parliaments, “Band Of Gold” by Freda Payne and “Give Me Just A Little More Time” by Chairmen of the Board.

“They were just really, really good jazz musicians,” noted Don Was, bass player and influential producer in the ’80s and ’90s.   “They could swing like crazy, and that’s not something that’s always present in pop music.  When there’s a groove like that, the subliminal effects, everybody just feels good.”

“No disrespect to any of the great artists who sang on them, but truthfully, anybody could’ve sung on them,” claimed producer/drummer Steve Jordan, “because the

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James Jamerson and Benny Benjamin

instrumental tracks underneath were just so incredible.  They were musical entities unto themselves.”

Many observers singled out Jamerson for his bass playing.  “He represented the height of creative freedom and experimentation on bass,” said multi-instrumentalist and singer/songwriter Ben Harper.  “West Coast, East Coast, any coast you name, the man absolutely changed the course of the bass, not just holding down a steady bottom, but adding countermelody and riffs.  No one else knew, but savvy musicians knew.  Paul McCartney kept asking Beatles producer George Martin, ‘I want my bass lines to sound like the ones we hear on the Motown tracks.'”

It’s almost criminal that it wasn’t until decades later that these guys received any kind of funk_brothers_45th_grammys_87256676industry recognition.  Jamerson was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland in 2000, and Benjamin in 2003.  The Funk Brothers received a collective Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2004 Grammys and were inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame in Nashville in 2007. A star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame was instilled in 2013.

Martha Reeves recalled a session that was hastily called together, and a few faces were missing.  “Where’s James?  He’s out of town?  Call the other guy.  Get ’em in here.  Ain’t no images-63one recording nothing without The Funk Brothers!”

Drummer Asher said, “For years and years, players and producers tried to find that magic Motown sound, as if it was some sort of a formula or something.  It wasn’t the artist, or the producers, or the way the building was constructed, the covering on the walls, the wood on the floor.  It was the musicians, plain and simple.  Without them, you’re nowhere.  As Marvin sang, ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby.”

Claims Paul Riser, Motown arranger/producer, “Without The Funk Brothers, there really wouldn’t be a Motown.  They were the sound, the essence of Motown.”

Shall we recap?  Here it is, a comprehensive but incomplete list of classic songs on which The Funk Brothers played their anonymous (until now) role:

“Stop! In the Name of Love,” “Do You Love Me,” “The Tracks of My Tears,” “Ooh Baby Baby,” “My Cherie Amour,” “Can I Get a Witness,” “I Can’t Get Next to You,” “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” “My World is Empty Without You,” “I Was Made to Love Her,” “My Girl,” “Shotgun,” “Mercy Mercy Me,” “Hitch Hike,” “Cloud Nine,” “Dancing in the Street,” “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” “Don’t Mess With Bill,” “Ain’t That Peculiar,” “My Guy,” “Get Ready,” “Baby Love,” “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” “(I Know) I’m Losing You,” “Baby I Need Your Loving,” “Nowhere to Run,” “Love Child,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “You Can’t Hurry Love,” “Uptight (Everything’s All Right),” “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted,” “It Takes Two,” “I Hear a Symphony,” “Bernadette,” “Going to A Go-Go,” “I Wish It Would Rain,” “(Love is Like a) Heat Wave,” “Tears of a Clown,” “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” “Someday We’ll Be Together,” “What Does It Take (To Win Your Love),” “This Old Heart of Mine,” “Standing in the Shadows of Love,” “Where Did Our Love Go,” “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You),” “Roadrunner,” “Reflections,” “Just My Imagination,” “Pride and Joy,” “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” “I Can’t Help Myself,” “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” “I Second That Emotion,” “For Once In My Life.”

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Good Lord, can I hear an “amen” for the wondrous talent of The Funk Brothers??!!

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