Ginger Baker, the influential drummer from Cream and Blind Faith is dead. He was 80. He had been in poor health for years. A week or so ago we all got wind that his final breath was drawing near. By the time you read this the news is already everywhere. Ginger Baker is dead. He was 80. He was spiritually dead along time ago and probably lived to 250 on some level.
Peter Edward Baker was nicknamed Ginger due to his flaming hair. He was driven by a flaming temper and became one of the more innovative and influential rock drummers. He was often top of the list – or very near the top – when people talked about great players. My own view is that he was never anywhere near the best, but always and most certainly one of the most important. His influence was huge. And his visibility was key. He elevated the drums and role of the drummer.
His early jazz playing was incongruous when matched with the easy-listening side of the genre (Acker Bilk) so he carved a niche working in the early British blues boom with bands like Alexis Korner’s Blues Inc and The Graham Bond Organisation. From there it was to the formation of Cream, often described as the first supergroup. And this is where Ginger’s personality and playing had an equal share in the music made by the band. Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton contributed to the writing, singing and playing – and were noted players already. Ginger was too. It was perfect-storm music and the scurrying tempest was so often summoned by the swirling arms and jogging double-bass pedals of Mr. Baker. Beware indeed.
In-fighting grew out as Bruce and Baker hurled their instruments – and fists – at one another and clashed like the 5/4 time signatures Ginger fitted deep inside pop songs.
Together for just over two years, Cream made four long-player records, having album and single hits and a fearsome reputation as a live band.
Some 20 years after they called it a day their music became one of my big inspirations and alongside Ringo Starr it was Ginger Baker that was my early drum-hero. Learning his parts, or at least trying in earnest, was how I got hooked on the instrument.
The songs were dazzling to a young mind. Sunshine of Your Love, I Feel Free, Tales of Brave Ulysses, Strange Brew, Swlabr…There are more. Many more. And that classic Best of Cream compilation is one of the record I’ve played the most in my life.
My favourite music by Ginger Baker is actually the trio jazz he created with Bill Frisell and Charlie Haden in the mid-90s. Here you hear him thinking. Reacting. It’s still this wondrous, incongruous fit and feel of a rocker on jazz or a jazz-lover re-working the feel and fit of the genre to suit his skills. But it works.
He was known as a hell-raiser. A bad man. Leaving a trail of four broken marriages, relapsing on heroin something like 30 times. When a filmmaker tried to document Ginger’s life and influence in the frightening and hilarious Beware of Mr. Baker the opening frames show a septuagenarian Baker chasing the director out, bloody-nosed by Baker’s walking stick.
His first wife believed Ginger was alive because the devil looked after his own – she had a line about how if a plane crashed and there was only to be one survivor it would be Baker.
Even if you never cared about Ginger’s own playing – and I’m not sure why that would be, though I’ll acknowledge he is somewhat overrated due perhaps to his dominant personality – he travelled to Africa to learn at the feet of Fela Kuti. He recorded and toured with him and played drum duets with the master, Tony Allen. And in some sense was raising awareness – in and around the hell – in his unofficial role, when living in Nigeria, as a white saviour shining a light on some of Africa’s greatest and most important music.
The studio he built there was used, famously, for Paul McCartney’s Band on The Run. These are the grace-notes of his career.
Throughout the 70s he would make music with big bands under names like Ginger Baker’s Air Force and African Force and Baker Gurvitz Army. Some of the music was wonderful. There was a stint in Hawkwind. A great cameo on a PiL album. And plenty of other places to find the music of Mr Baker.
There was a Cream reunion or two. They ended badly. Of course.
There was the almost-Cream reunion where he and old sparring partner Bruce teamed with Gary Moore.
There was a final album in 2014 called Why? It’s really rather good.
If he only made that I’d still think of him as a great. If he had only contributed his third of Cream he’d be important. If all we had to judge him on was the loan Blind Faith record then he’d be worth hearing. And for me, the album I care about the most now – by miles – is Going Back Home. If you haven’t heard it give it a whirl today. Or tomorrow. Sure, you’ll probably move from that back to Disraeli Gears and fair enough too. But that jazz trio album has heart and soul in it. Something you only ever really found in Ginger’s music. Barely ever did it seem to be in his life off-record or off-stage. He was maybe the very epitome of a complicated creative; unreliable narrator, difficult hero. He was so thoroughly unikeable – until you heard him again with a set of sticks or brushes in his hands and planning a pathway in his head for cutting right through to the heart of a song.
R.I.P. Ginger Baker