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Remembering Ginger Baker: Cream of the crop

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Cream drummer Ginger Baker has passed away at age 80 (Screenshot via YouTube)

Legendary rock drummer Ginger Baker has passed away, having inspired generations of drummers and leaving a remarkable legacy, writes Jenny LeComte.

GINGER BAKER, the volatile and unpredictable drummer who rose to fame with the 1960s rock supergroup Cream, has died at 80.

He was born Peter Edward Baker on 19 August 1939 in Lewisham, South London, obtaining the nickname “Ginger” in childhood because of his shock of flaming red hair. He started playing the drums when he was 15 and later took lessons from jazz great Phil Seaman.

Classical jazz training enabled Baker to achieve early fame with The Graham Bond Organisation, a rhythm and blues group with strong jazz influences. Through this group, Baker met legendary bass guitar player Jack Bruce and they reportedly hated each other with a passion. Their volatile relationship included on-stage brawls and sabotaging each other’s instruments. On one occasion, Baker, who reportedly had a fiery temper, pulled a knife on Bruce. However, despite the fact they quarrelled constantly, Baker and Bruce’s musical styles were highly compatible.

In 1966, Baker founded the supergroup Cream with future Rock and Roll Hall of Fame guitarist Eric Clapton. Clapton had already achieved fame with The Yardbirds and admired Baker as a musician. However, when Clapton insisted on Bruce being included in the Cream lineup, Baker was reportedly so surprised that he nearly crashed the car he was driving at the time.

Cream got their name because Baker, Bruce and Clapton were considered “cream of the crop” amongst the blues and jazz musicians in the then-exploding British music scene. Although Cream only lasted for two years, it was phenomenally successful, selling more than 15 million records worldwide. All three members sang lead and backing vocals and their music spanned many genres of rock.

One of their finest songs was the blues number, Crossroads.

They also pioneered psychedelia, producing hits such as Strange Brew and White Room, which is arguably one of the most perfect rock songs ever recorded.

Another memorable single was I Feel Free, which was included on the American edition of the Fresh Cream album. In this song, Baker was the star performer as opposed to being relegated to a backing position, as many drummers were in those days.

By the time Disraeli Gears was released in 1967 and reached the top five on both sides of the Atlantic, Baker had developed a reputation as a formidable and powerful drummer. The standout track from Disraeli Gears was Sunshine of Your Love, a slick blend of British rock and Mississippi Delta Blues. It became the band’s unofficial anthem.

By 1968, the mutual enmity between Baker and Bruce had reached the point where Cream could not continue. After briefly working with Clapton in Blind Faith and leading a band called Ginger Baker’s Air Force, Baker became enamoured of African drumming and music in general. He set up a recording studio in Lagos, Nigeria in 1971 and began working closely with Nigerian musician and human rights activist, Fela Kuti. Baker also collaborated with various artists, including Gary Moore, Masters of Reality, Public Image Ltd and Atomic Rooster.

In the early ‘80s, Baker decided to take some time out from music and moved to an olive farm in Italy. He briefly joined Hawkwind and eventually found regular work as a session musician.

However, it could be fairly said that Baker was perhaps his own worst enemy. He was noted for his eccentric and often self-destructive lifestyle and battled heroin addiction for many years. That said, Baker was respected for his style and showmanship. He used two bass drums instead of the conventional one and performed lengthy drum solos in many of his songs.

In 2005, Baker reunited with Clapton and Bruce for a series of Cream concerts at the Royal Albert Hall and Madison Square Garden. In a Rolling Stone article, Bruce commented on the bad blood between him and Baker. At the time, he was living in the UK and Baker was in South Africa.

Bruce said:

“It’s a knife edge thing between me and Ginger. Nowadays, we’re hapily co-existing on different continents, although I am thinking of asking him to move. He’s still a bit too close.”

In 2008, Baker was swindled out of almost half a million rand (U.S. $60,000) by a bank clerk called Lindiwe Noko, whom he had hired as a personal assistant. Noko gained access to Baker’s bank accounts and made unauthorised withdrawals, claiming the money was a gift because she and Baker had since become lovers.

Baker said:

I’ve a scar that only a woman who had a thing with me would know. It's there and she doesn’t know it’s there.”

Noko pleaded not guilty but was ultimately convicted of fraud and served three years of community service — a sentence Baker described as “a travesty”.

In 2012, an unflattering documentary called Beware of Mr Baker was released. It got its title from a sign outside Baker’s South African compound and was a disturbing depiction of Baker’s combative personality.

Rolling Stone reporter David Fricke commented:

‘...you get closer to Baker at your peril.’

While Baker was not an easy man to get to know or like, his musical legacy is nonetheless impressive.

Author and columnist Ken Micallef observed:

‘...the pantheon of contemporary drummers from metal, fusion and rock owe their very existence to Baker’s trailblazing work with Cream.’

Rush drummer Neil Peart wrote about Baker's legacy:

‘His playing was revolutionary — extrovert, primal and inventive. He set the bar for what rock drumming could be. Every rock drummer since has been influenced in some way by Ginger — even if they don’t know it.’

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