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Remembering Ginger Baker

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In this Sunday, Dec. 7, 2008 file photo, British musician Ginger Baker performs at the 'Zildjian Drummers Achievement Awards' at the Shepherd's Bush Empire in London. The family of drummer Ginger Baker, the volatile and propulsive British musician who was best known for his time with the power trio Cream, says he died, Sunday Oct. 6, 2019. He was 80. In this Sunday, Dec. 7, 2008 file photo, British musician Ginger Baker performs at the 'Zildjian Drummers Achievement Awards' at the Shepherd's Bush Empire in London. The family of drummer Ginger Baker, the volatile and propulsive British musician who was best known for his time with the power trio Cream, says he died, Sunday Oct. 6, 2019. He was 80. (AP Photo/MJ Kim, File)

He loved his dogs, his horses, and his drums – not necessarily in that order. Peter Edward “Ginger” Baker, the gifted, beloved, feared and fiery-haired mercurial drummer for rock supergroups Cream and Blind Faith died Sunday at age 80 following a brief hospitalization.

Along with Ringo Starr, Charlie Watts, Keith Moon and John Bonham, Baker became one of the most influential and emulated drummers in rock history, his custom double bass drum providing more than ammo to compete with his two virtuosic band mates.

As a lad in mid-1950s post-war England, Baker sat rapt, attempting to crack the code he detected in the rhythms of his jazz idols – Elvin Jones, bebop pioneer Max Roach, Art Blakey, and English jazz drummer Phil Seamen – perhaps Baker’s most significant influence, at least in terms of lifestyle if not technique. Baker often insisted he was a self-taught drummer.

In the drums, Baker had an escape hatch; a reason for being, and a defense weapon. As a member of R&B/jazz band The Graham Bond Organization in the mid-1960s, Baker loved the music but detested bassist Jack Bruce. Together, they brought crowds to their feet nightly, but Baker’s delight was tempered by the bassist’s onstage button-pushing; exacerbated no doubt by a gnawing heroin addiction that began as a misguided rite of passage as Baker further attempted to emulate his jazz icons.

In mid-1966, ex-Yardbird Eric Clapton was riding high as Britain’s top blues guitarist as a member of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers when Baker approached him with an idea of forming a new band – something Clapton was also considering, to escape what he’d perceived as Mayall’s stifling rules and purism.

Clapton agreed to join Baker under one condition: the new band must include Jack Bruce on bass. Initially refusing to even consider the idea, Baker relented when he realized he was without options and Cream was formed - a boastful but fully realized moniker representing the era’s cream of the crop in blues, rock and jazz.

Cream fused multiple genres in the 29 months they spent together, a remarkably brief existence that saw them record four albums, including two augmented with live material.

Baker’s “Toad” appeared on the band’s debut - 1966’s “Fresh Cream” – along with a mix of updated blues standards and uniquely structured originals. “Toad” was an instrumental with a built-in drum solo that would see Clapton and Bruce leave the stage to put the spotlight on the Ginger.

Cream were a core band for the burgeoning late ‘60s FM album rock radio format taking root in major markets like San Francisco, Los Angeles, Detroit, New York and Boston – all huge Cream territories.

The band’s hits included “Sunshine of Your Love” (from 1967’s “Disraeli Gears”) and “White Room” from 1968’s double LP “Wheels of Fire” - the first ever platinum-selling (more than one million units sold) double-LP.

At the peak of their popularity in 1968, Cream announced their pending split, a result of Clapton’s growing dissatisfaction with the notion of never-ending solos, combined with Baker and Bruce’s chronic bickering.

After Cream dissolved, Baker caught wind of Clapton’s informal private jam sessions with keyboardist Steve Winwood of Traffic and decided to horn in on the action. Bassist Ric Grech arrived in the spring and Blind Faith was formed with a mountain of media hype. The band drew more than 100,000 to their debut concert, a free outdoor show in London’s Hyde Park.

Blind Faith’s self-titled LP shot to the top of the chart in the summer of 1969 and was accompanied by a seven-week sold out tour that Clapton saw as too much too soon for the fledgling group. Forced to add cuts from Cream and Traffic to meet audience demand, Blind Faith felt to the band more like “Cream 2.0” which led to the band’s breakup that summer.

Baker immediately snapped up Grech and Winwood for the first incarnation of Ginger Baker’s Air Force – a rock-jazz supergroup that at various times included the likes of Graham Bond, Denny Laine, future YES drummer Alan White and Baker’s drumming hero Phil Seamen.

Baker retreated to Africa in 1971 to open a recording studio and began working closely with musician and activist Fela Kuti.

Further musical explorations occurred with Baker in the drum seat for the groups Baker Gurvitz Army, Hawkwind, Masters of Reality and the short-lived power trio BBM that amazingly featured a reunion of Baker and Jack Bruce, along with Gary Moore on guitar.

Baker’s love of dogs, horses and the sport of polo fueled many of his non-musical activities in this era, which also included a period when the musician became an olive farmer in Italy.

When the members of Cream were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993, the trio was all smiles as they accepted their awards and performed three songs – their first public performance in 25 years.

In May 2005, the news that Cream would reunite in London for a week of concerts at the site of their final show – London’s Royal Albert Hall – sent shockwaves through the rock community.

Some speculated the shows might fall apart in rehearsal. Instead they were a triumph. Cream’s return gave them a chance to dig deep and perform songs from each of their albums, including many never played live on an exceptional reunion set later issued on DVD and CD.

Elated at the response to the London shows, Clapton, Bruce and Baker agreed to more shows that autumn at Madison Square Garden. Some of the old arguments between Ginger and Jack returned at those shows, with Baker insistent that Bruce was purposefully trying to deafen him; Clapton, frustrated at being caught in the crossfire, walked away from Cream after the final show.

In 2009, filmmaker Jay Bulger contacted Baker requesting an interview, falsely claiming to represent Rolling Stone magazine. Living in South Africa at the time, Baker agreed. The resulting story was deemed so compelling, Rolling Stone actually agreed to publish it, and Baker then signed on for a Bulger-directed documentary about his life.

2012’s “Beware Mr. Baker” begins with the always colorful yet curmudgeonly drummer bashing the filmmaker’s face with his cane, breaking the filmmaker’s nose in the process. It’s an astonishing and unlikely film that began with a lie and ended with Baker allowing his true self to be shown. He was bitter but somehow still hilarious. He was critical and demanding yet he melted into a puddle around his loving stepdaughter. Ginger Baker was a complex dude, but he was never boring.

Ginger Baker claimed that God kept him alive for so long, and in so much pain, only to punish him for his wicked ways. He may be God’s problem now, but I’m sure Ginger has already arranged to have those royalty checks forwarded to his new address.

Last modified on Tuesday, 08 October 2019 10:23


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