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RIP, the Cream of the Drummers

October 22, 2019

        Peter Edward Baker left the planet a couple weeks ago — and left it without one of the best rock drummers ever.

        Known as Ginger — because he was one, as in very red-haired — from childhood on, Baker succumbed to heart problems that had ended his performing career three and a half years earlier. Considering his lifestyle and habits, it was amazing that Rock and Roller’s Disease hadn’t gotten to him long before he was closing in on 80.

        Ginger Baker is best known as the drummer for Cream, the late 1960s psychedelic rock/blues band that also brought guitar virtuoso Eric Clapton to prominence. But it’s sometimes easy to forget that Cream was really the first “supergroup,” and that Baker, bassist Jack Bruce and Clapton were big names in Britain when they came together in 1966.

        For Baker and Bruce, most of that fame came from the Graham Bond Organisation, which the former at one point led. Bruce had also played briefly with Clapton in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, and also for Manfred Mann. GBO was a jazz-influenced rhythm and blues outfit, and Mayall’s band was one of the early U.K. electric blues groups.

        While Cream was best known as a loud rock band that mined the blues idiom extensively, Baker’s roots were more varied. He started drumming at age 15, took lessons from British jazz great Phill Seamen, and counted American bebop and jazz percussionists like Art Blakey, Elvin Jones and Max Roach among his influences. But he also incorporated elements of African rhythms in his style — an interest that eventually led him to work in Africa, and play world music.

        That happened after Cream had broken up — in part, because of the long-running mutual non-admiration between Baker and Bruce. (The animus started with the Bond Organisation, where Baker was assigned to fire Bruce, and had to scare him away with a knife.) One issue was that Bruce wanted to turn the new, more powerful monitor speakers up louder than liked by Baker, who said it was destroying his hearing.

        Post-Cream breakup, Cream joined Clapton, Rich Grech of Family and Steve Winwood of Traffic in an even-shorter-lived supergroup, Blind Faith. He then formed the fusion group the Ginger Baker Air Force, which also didn’t last long, followed by the Ginger Baker Drum choir; they released one 45 rpm single.

        Baker in 1971 established a recording studio in Nigeria, a project which had some success but folded in the early ’80s. During that period, though, his next musical endeavor, the Baker Gurvitz Army, recorded three albums before folding in 1976.

        Baker then did some session work, which led him to join the U.K. space rock band Hawkwind briefly, and to work with ex-Sex Pistol John Lydon and the Masters of Reality. He also tried his hand at acting, unsuccessfully auditioning for a Weird Al Yankovic movie but landing a part in the 1990 TV series Nasty Boys.

        After getting involved in polo in Colorado, he played with a couple more short-lived bands — one, BBM, included Bruce. In 2005, despite the continuing friction between he and his former bandmate — Bruce, at the time, joked that Baker’s residence in South Africa was too close to his in England — Cream reunited for a series of U.K. concerts. 

        Baker last toured in 2013 and ’14, with a jazz fusion band that included saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis, a former member of James Brown’s band. But two years later, a serious heart condition caused him to cancel all future performances.

        Long before that, Baker had proven himself a major influence in rock drumming. His five-minute cut on the first Cream album, “Toad” — based on themes he developed with the GBO — was the first extended rock drum solo. Baker and Keith Moon pioneered the use of the double bass drum kit in rock, the Who percussionist getting one on the stage first because he cobbled one together from two kits, while Baker waited for a custom-made outfit.

        Baker is said to have influenced a legion of rock drummers, ranging from Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham to Neal Peart of Rush to Alex Van Halen. “He set the bar for what rock drumming could be,” Peart is quoted as saying. Drum! magazine listed him as one of the “50 Most Important Drummers of All Time,” and he ranked third in a Rolling Stone poll, and on that magazine’s “100 Greatest Drummers of All Time” list.

        Which brings to mind an under-the-influence debate I had with a friend 50 years or so ago, started by my claim that Ginger Baker was simply the best drummer. Steve, who was more knowledgeable about music than I was at the time, countered that Buddy Rich was the best.

        Rich, who played with Tommy Dorsey and Count Basie, was indeed one of the most influential drummers of all time. But if rock is more to your taste than Big Band, Peter Edward Baker was The Cream.

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