He was the first guy we saw with two bass drums and the first guy to do an extended drum solo on record.
Cream straddled the transition from AM to FM. When their first album came out, the only underground FM radio station that existed was WOR-FM in New York. We were still California dreamin’ on the last train to Clarksville. The Beatles were huge, but we all lived in one big homogeneous musical society.
Of course there were hipsters, as there have always been, like the folkies and blues lovers of the late fifties and early sixties, there were always people ahead of the scene, but it was much harder then, there was no internet, only true word of mouth, nothing went from zero to hero overnight unless it was played on AM radio, and Cream was not.
“Disraeli Gears” was released in November ’67, the year underground FM radio began to burgeon, with KMPX in San Francisco joining the aforementioned WOR.
Yup, the scene was that small. So most people were unaware of “Fresh Cream.” And “Disraeli Gears” too.
And then, during the summer of ’68, “Sunshine Of Your Love” crossed over to AM and the band and the scene exploded.
There were a few renegade radio years back then, before Lee Abrams came along and codified the rock format on FM in the seventies. It was kinda like the internet back in the mid-nineties. There were people who had modems from the eighties, and others who got the word in ’96 and instantly bought computers to play on AOL. There was no hate, only exploration.
Never forget the influence of public radio back then, especially WBAI in New York. That’s where I first heard Phil Ochs’s “Outside Of A Small Circle Of Friends.” We twisted the dial, we looked for excitement, we found it, it drove record purchases, but most people were out of the loop.
Of course some people knew Eric Clapton, being blueshounds, knowing his work with John Mayall, but that “Bluesbreakers” album didn’t really blow up until after Cream broke through.
So, you heard “Sunshine Of Your Love” on FM.
Now “Fresh Cream”‘s production was credited to Robert Stigwood, it’s unclear who really twisted the dials, who was really responsible for the sound, but it didn’t have the edge of what came after, it was almost like a blanket was thrown over the speakers.
But Felix Pappalardi produced “Disraeli Gears,” and it was a much better representation of the band’s sound. This was back when stereo was stereo, when instruments were in different channels, when we sat in front of the speakers, put on headphones to get the full effect. This was also when there was so much less on the records, you could hear all the instruments. You could hear Jack Bruce’s voice on “Sunshine Of You Love,” but the key to the track’s success, it’s infectiousness, was that guitar.
But not every track sounded the same. I couldn’t get over “Tales Of Brave Ulysses.” And you didn’t like all the tracks immediately. It was like they were cut in an alien world and delivered to you on this vinyl platter for you to consume, digest and understand.
By now it was ’68. “Are You Experienced” was released in August of ’67, “Axis: Bold As Love” came out in January of ’68, so Cream was no longer alone, “Purple Haze” sat along “Sunshine Of Your Love” at the apex of riff-rock, which really didn’t become a genre, didn’t reach its apotheosis until Deep Purple’s “Smoke On The Water” in ’72, really the live version from “Made In Japan,” which dominated the AM airwaves during the summer of ’73, before everybody had an FM radio in their car, when suddenly the alternative sound was a staple on AM radio and what was left was irrelevant.
But it was still 1968. “Sunshine Of Your Love” was a hit on AM radio and then “Piece Of My Heart,” by Big Brother and the Holding Company. Janis Joplin got a lot of ink, she was a dynamic performer, she could not be denied and when people purchased “Cheap Thrills,” with its R. Crumb cover, we were not in Kansas anymore, although eventually we did get bands from that state, the screw had turned, it was a whole new world in music.
And “Wheels Of Fire” was released in August of that same year, double albums were not unknown, but this one came in silver foil and the second record was a live one.
Now Janis Joplin was the star, she had the energy in Big Brother.
But the energy in Cream all came from the man behind the kit, Ginger Baker. Clapton just stood there. As did Jack Bruce. You couldn’t help but focus on the drummer, who seemed on the verge of losing control as he stoked this freight train down the track. The sheer power impacted your gut.
And the Fillmores were open, but arena rock was still in the future. Acts played the typical music venues, there were few purpose-built spaces, I saw Cream at the Oakdale Theatre, a tent in Wallingford, CT. They added an afternoon show after the evening one sold out. It was theatre in the round, but not in the afternoon, the place was maybe a third full. The band punched the clock, played forty five minutes, but the star was definitely Ginger Baker.
And then “White Room” became a hit and the word got out. Suddenly everybody was talking about Cream. People you thought were decidedly unhip, out of the loop, got the message. And “Wheels Of Fire” started to explode. And on side four, there was a sixteen minute drum solo entitled “Toad.”
Yup, blame “Toad” for that execrable five to twenty minutes in every live show where everybody takes a pee break and the drummer flails on. They were all inspired by Ginger Baker, he was the progenitor, they all wanted to BE Ginger Baker, suddenly the drummer was no longer an afterthought, but a virtuoso who could express himself.
And then the band said it was breaking up and went on a final tour. I saw them at the New Haven Coliseum. I stood maybe six feet away. There were maybe a couple of thousand people there. I made a cassette of the performance, long before bootlegs, I listened to it incessantly.
And the victory lap, “Goodbye Cream,” had a bigger impact in the public’s consciousness than anything that came before, it was the zeitgeist, people bought it after the band broke up, lamenting they’d never gotten to see the act. “Goodbye” resurrected “I’m So Glad” from the first LP. “Sitting On Top Of The World” was definitive. And “Badge” was a gift for those who’d been there all along.
It was like not only the band, but its members had died, there were posthumous live records, everybody wanted more of what they could never get again.
But they did get Blind Faith.
Jack Bruce was the frontman, in many cases the writer, but he was not the star. Yes, his solo album “Songs For A Tailor” was anticipated, but despite some airplay for “Theme For An Imaginary Western,” it was ignored, and the work after that was only for cultists.
The stars were Clapton and Baker, nearly equal. And with Winwood thrown in…
Blind Faith was the first supergroup. That was the definition back then, they had to coin it for this concoction, an act made up of the stars of other acts, come together to make something new and triumphant.
And of course Blind Faith imploded, but the album gets short shrift, the first side is phenomenal, everyone knows the cuts, from the explosive opener “Had To Cry Today” to Clapton’s first shining solo moment, “Presence Of The Lord” and the cover of Buddy Holly’s “Well All Right” to Winwood’s piece-de-resistance, “Can’t Find My Way Home.”
The second side had Ginger Baker’s fifteen minute opus “Do What You Like.” Filler or a nod to Baker’s genius, who knows?
And when Blind Faith broke up, Winwood tried to go solo but got back together with Traffic. Clapton decided to play small, with Delaney & Bonnie, Ric Grech disappeared, and Ginger Baker formed his Air Force, yup, he was gonna continue to play for all the marbles.
Now testimony to the ascension of rock and roll was the fact that Blind Faith did play arenas on their one and only tour in ’69, that’s how hungry and dedicated the fans were.
Baker’s Air Force album sold, but then the act faded away, there was great playing but no songs.
Clapton joined up with Delaney Bramlett for an exquisite first album which was to a great degree overlooked, but when Eric hooked up with Duane Allman and other greats ultimately named the “Dominos,” Clapton established a place in the firmament that would never go away.
“John Barleycorn Must Die” was the most successful of the initial post-Blind Faith albums, people now knew who Winwood was and they embraced this work of ar.
And then there were more acts and it became harder to focus and Ginger Baker…he was no longer omnipresent, he wasn’t gone, but he was always in our minds.
Eventually Baker played with the Masters Of Reality, in the nineties, which seemed a step down, but the truth was there was no band big enough to contain him. He was kinda like Joe DiMaggio, if DiMaggio had had an edgy personality and could still play ball. Everybody knew who Ginger Baker was, it’s just that we didn’t hear his playing that much.
He was one of the first to go to Africa.
He was drunk, he was stoned, but he was the original Keith Richards, nothing could kill him.
He played polo, he was involved in shenanigans, which were ultimately detailed in a documentary, but the legend always exceeded the present. What Ginger Baker meant, his playing, his place in the rock firmament as a legend, as a progenitor, as maybe THE progenitor, exceeded the man himself.
Yes, there were the Cream reunion shows. A triumph in London, an almost queasy afterthought in New York. He was still Ginger Baker, he could still do it, but this was nostalgia.
And now he’s dead.
How will history treat him?
Well, what will be remembered at all?
But one thing’s for sure, no one ever challenged Ginger Baker’s skill. Oh sure, at the height of his fame, naysayers said he was bombastic, always loud, but when you’re that big there are always people who have to put you down.
And eighty ain’t a short life. This is not a guy who got cut down before his time.
But they’re dropping, if not quite like flies, they soon will be. Ian Hunter is eighty too, he just had to cancel his Mott The Hoople reunion tour because of his health, Overend Watts and Dale “Buffin” Griffin are already dead, and Mick Ralphs has health issues.
If you weren’t alive back then, if you weren’t musically conscious back in the late sixties, these might just be names to you. But if you talk about legacy…
Ginger Baker is right up there. He was the first. He showed what could be done with the kit. He was a trailblazer, a true rocker, one who couldn’t be contained, there was nothing corporate about him.
He was a beacon, may he continue to shine.