The incomparable Ginger Baker, drummer extraordinaire for, most famously, Cream and Blind Faith, has died at the age of 80 after suffering with degenerative osteoporosis and chronic heart and lung diseases for a number of years.
Born Peter Edward Baker in Lewisham, South London on 19th August 1939, he lost his father in the Second World War and dropped out of school at 16 to play in jazz bands before finding his way into Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated after a certain Charlie Watts left. He later recommended him to Mick Jagger and Brian Jones to join up with a little known band at the time called The Rolling Stones.
He was bequeathed the name “Ginger” rather imaginatively because of his thick ginger Barnet. Notoriously cantankerous, he didn’t suffer people, preferring the company of horses. He had drug issues his entire life and his fractious relationship with Jack Bruce, bassist and singer with Cream was exacerbated by his heroin addiction.
Ginger and Eric Clapton formed Cream in 1966 and despite his dislike of Jack Bruce, whom he played with in the Graham Bond Organisation. agreed he could join. Releasing four seminal albums, including the hugely influential ‘Disraeli Gears’, Cream changed the landscape of rock music, fusing blues, jazz and heavy rock sounds to create a template for many that came after.
He followed Eric Clapton from Cream when it split and joined Blind Faith with Stevie Winwood and Ric Grech, although Clapton had his concerns about his narcotics use.
A great mystery of rock history is how two people who disliked each other so vehemently could become one of the greatest rhythm sections ever heard. He and Jack Bruce were in sync regardless of their emotions and considering the jazz backgrounds and syncopated beats and rhythms they gave Eric Clapton the stage to become the legendary virtuoso he was.
He never liked being described as a “rock drummer” more that he was a jazz drummer with extensions to his bow. His contributions to Cream and Blind Faith could not be directly compared to the likes of Keith Moon or John Bonham, his heroes were from the jazz world, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie with his mentor Phil Seaman, whom also introduced Ginger to heroin. However his ferocious pace and pounding African beats created a link, not helped by the raw, loud rhythm and blues guitar that opened doors for the likes of Led Zeppelin.
He wasn’t modest, in fact he was positively incensed that his name was uttered in the same breath as rock drummers whom he believed were not even on the same page as him. He had a “gift” that they couldn’t match.
Using two bass drums, Ginger created the drum solo song “Toad” with Cream, both feet going ten to the dozen whilst his arms danced and flailed across the kit.
His love of Afro-beat lead him to Nigeria and buying a studio in Lagos. An argument with local dealers meant he sold it for a song and fled to Italy.
In 2005 Cream reunited for a replay of the Farewell Concerts they performed in 1968 at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Four sell out dates went so well they announced a further string of dates at Madison Square Gardens in New York but these were not happy occasions. Old issues between Bruce and Baker resurfaced and other rumoured gigs were knocked on the head by Clapton.
Between them they changed the face of rock music and were arguably one of the greatest live bands the world has ever seen.
Listen to their live version of Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads” below for the sound of three musicians at the peak of their powers in perfect harmony, making the most incredible noise.
Ginger, however much he may have disliked it, set the bar for what rock drumming became and what could be done.