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Ginger Baker (1939–2019), influential drummer for Cream

by Linnea Crowther

Peter Edward “Ginger” Baker was the highly influential drummer for Cream, whose hits including “Sunshine of Your Love” and “White Room” are among the iconic tracks of classic rock. Baker went on to form Blind Faith along with Cream bandmate Eric Clapton, then founded Ginger Baker’s Air Force. He performed and recorded with musicians including Fela Kuti, Public Image Ltd., and Hawkwind.

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Died: October 6, 2019 (Who else died on October 6?)


Details of death: Died at the age of 80.

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From jazz to rock ‘n’ roll: With his roots in jazz and blues, Baker transformed rock drumming, creating a template for generations of bands to follow. He virtually invented the rock ’n’ roll drum solo, blending techniques from jazz and world-music rhythms as he captivated audiences singlehandedly for minutes on end. But he never thought of himself as a rock ’n’ roll drummer – indeed, he seemed annoyed by the categorization. He believed he never left behind his earliest training, never stopped being a jazz drummer, even when he was drumming for one of the biggest rock bands in the world.

That training began when Baker was a teenager, with not much musical experience when he was introduced to the drums at 15. Born Aug. 19, 1939, in London, Baker had a childhood passion for cycling, and he strove to compete one day in the Tour de France. But Baker quickly forgot about cycling when he found his talent with drums, and by 16, he was performing with local jazz combos.

The formation of Cream: Baker built his chops for years, becoming a well-respected member of London’s jazz and blues scene while playing in groups including the Graham Bond Organisation. By 1966, when he began thinking of starting his own band, he had a bigger career than either of the bandmates he would recruit for Cream, Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce — though they were both well enough known for the trio to be dubbed a supergroup.

Over the course of two short years and four studio albums, Cream built a powerful sound that would set the stage for countless hard rock and heavy metal bands to follow. Their first album, 1966’s “Fresh Cream,” included Baker’s innovative five-minute drum solo on “Toad,” which featured little else than the star’s rhythms sandwiched between perfunctory guitar-and-bass intro and outro. Rock music hadn’t heard much like “Toad” before, and it would be imitated endlessly in the years to come.

The following year, “Disraeli Gears” was released, becoming an instant classic widely cited among the best rock albums of all time. Included were the hits “Strange Brew,” “Tales of Brave Ulysses,” and the band’s signature song, “Sunshine of Your Love.” The latter song, a top-five hit in the U.S., takes much of its relentless drive from Baker’s unusual drumming, lingering on the tom-toms and emphasizing the downbeat rather than the backbeat so prevalent in rock ’n’ roll. Of his drumming on “Sunshine,” Baker later told Forbes, “I also played a little behind the beat — that’s the way I play. Too many drummers play in front of it, and the tempo speeds up. With Cream, I was often holding Jack and Eric’s tempo down, and consciously doing so.”

The double album “Wheels of Fire” followed in 1968, launching enduring hits including “White Room” and “Crossroads,” but by the time of its release, the band was already on the verge of implosion. Playing a large part in the group’s troubles was the longtime mutual dislike between Baker and bandmate Bruce. Baker had been initially reluctant to include Bruce in his new band — they had played together in the Graham Bond Organisation, and Baker didn’t like him then, but Clapton knew the two made fantastic music together and insisted on the choice. Their animosity grew in Cream, turning live gigs and recording sessions into battlegrounds for the two men with Clapton playing peacekeeper.

But also doing Cream no favors was Baker’s heroin addiction. The musician was frank in later years about the habit that started while he was playing in London jazz bands and grew into something uncontrollable. He discussed his addiction with The Guardian in 2013, telling them he tried to quit heroin “something like 29 times.” He went on, “I don’t have fond memories of it at all. To find you have to do something just to feel normal is not a good road.” He would permanently free himself of heroin in the years to come, but in 1968, it was still a major part of his life and still hurting his relationships.

Later musical projects: All parties agreed that it was time for Cream to come to an end, but they offered a final album first, “Goodbye,” recorded in late 1968 in the band’s last days and released in 1969. Baker and Clapton would soon come together again to form the short-lived supergroup Blind Faith along with Steve Winwood of the Spencer Davis Group and Traffic, as well as Ric Grech of Family.

Blind Faith released just one self-titled album consisting of only six tracks in 1969, but one of them, “Can’t Find My Way Home,” became an indelible classic, beloved for its dreamy feel and its unforgettable lyrics, “And I’m wasted, and I can’t find my way home.”

The band embarked on a single tour in summer 1969, but by the tour’s end, Clapton was ready to be done, and Blind Faith dissolved. But Baker had enjoyed playing with Blind Faith, and he sought to carry on with Winwood and Grech by forming Ginger Baker’s Air Force in 1969. Joined by several other musicians, the three released an initial self-titled album before Winwood and Grech moved on to Traffic, while Baker continued on to a second album with a revised lineup.

Air Force came to an end in 1970 during a tumultuous year for Baker. A friend to Jimi Hendrix, Baker was trying to find him in London – hoping to get high with him – on the day Hendrix died of an overdose. Baker himself nearly died the same way that evening. Having lived through the night and learned of the death of his friend, Baker knew he needed to get away from London and try to get clean. He quickly left for Africa.

Baker made his way to Nigeria, where he struck up a friendship with Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti. He played and recorded with Kuti for several years before returning to London, but in later years he would return to Africa. During his initial time there, Baker was introduced to a sport that would become a second passion — polo.

1980s and beyond: Back in London, Baker eventually took up heroin again, but in 1981, he would kick the habit for good. He again had to leave the U.K. to find sobriety, this time moving to Italy. He later told The Guardian, “That’s when I got clear of it all. I moved to a little village in the middle of nowhere, where nobody spoke English. I got into olive farming. It was very rewarding, very hard work but very good therapy.”

From the 1980s on, Baker would perform occasionally with bands including Hawkwind and Public Image Ltd., and participate in reunions of Cream and Air Force, and tour with Winwood. For a while, he performed with the jazz quartet the Ginger Baker Jazz Confusion. Cream played together in 1993 when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and again in 2005 in a series of shows at the Royal Albert Hall and Madison Square Garden. In 2016, Baker was touring with a re-formed Air Force when he announced that he would no longer be able to play after a doctor’s diagnosis of “serious heart problems.”

Baker wrote the 2009 autobiography “Hellraiser,” and he was profiled in two documentaries, “Ginger Baker in Africa” (1971), chronicling his journey to and musical output in Nigeria, and “Beware of Mr. Baker” (2012), a profile of his life.

Baker’s broad influence is indisputable, with greats of the genre including John Bonham, Neil Peart, and Alex Van Halen finding inspiration in his music. Indeed, when Clapton was asked if other rock drummers of Baker’s heyday — Bonham and Keith Moon the biggest stars among them — could compare to Baker, The Guardian reported he said, “No. No. No. Different league. Completely.”

Notable quotes: The notoriously cranky Baker was undoubtedly aware of his prowess, but he was hesitant to own the breadth of his influence — at least, that is, when it came to heavy metal. Cream is widely considered the band that birthed heavy metal, but if you mentioned that to Baker, he’d bristle, saying, as he told Forbes, “Well, if that’s the case, there should be an immediate abortion.” But in conversation with The Guardian, he acknowledged the great importance of Cream: “I was lucky to be part of a movement in which I was one of the major players.”

What people said about him: “He set the bar for what rock drumming could be. I certainly emulated Ginger’s approaches to rhythm — his hard, flat, percussive sound was very innovative. Everyone who came after built on that foundation. Every rock drummer since has been influenced in some way by Ginger — even if they don’t know it.” —Neil Peart, drummer for Rush

“Ginger Baker, great drummer, wild and lovely guy. We worked together on the ‘Band on the Run’ album in his ARC Studio, Lagos, Nigeria. Sad to hear that he died but the memories never will.” —Paul McCartney

“Sad news hearing that Ginger Baker has died, I remember playing with him very early on in Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated. He was a fiery but extremely talented and innovative drummer.” —Mick Jagger

“God bless Ginger Baker incredible musician wild And inventive. drummer Peace and love to his family,” —Ringo Starr

“RIP Ginger Baker. One of the greatest drummers of all time. Begin with Cream’s Disraeli Gears.” —Steven Van Zandt of the E Street Band

Full obituary: The New York Times

Related lives:   

  • Jack Bruce (1943–2014), bassist and vocalist for Cream
  • Fela Kuti (1938–1997), pioneer of Afrobeat music with whom Baker recorded
  • Ndugu Chancler (1952–2018), legendary session drummer

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