Ginger Baker was a prodigiously talented and volcanically temperamental rock drummer who helped form Cream, rock and roll’s first supergroup, and inspired awe and imitation in a generation of drummers.
Cream, a trio that included guitarist-singer Eric Clapton and bassist-singer Jack Bruce, set a powerful standard for “supergroups”, bands composed of independent star musicians. During their two-and-a-half-year run, Cream sold millions of records and released a number of bluesy, jazzy and psychedelic hits including “White Room”, “Sunshine of Your Love” and “Tales of Brave Ulysses”, in addition to rock-driven versions of blues standards such as “Crossroads” and “Spoonful”.
Clapton’s guitar work was virtuosic, Bruce provided a propulsive bass line, and Baker was widely acknowledged as rock drumming’s first colossus, as mesmerising a showman as any preening lead singer or flamboyant guitarist.
Often behind a parapet of drums, Baker’s Mephistophelean stage presence, combined with his remarkably tasteful drumming, elevated the rock drummer from faceless metronome to percussive demigod.
His penchant for rhythmic innovation reached an apogee when he authored what many deem rock’s first epic drum solo, in Cream’s 1966 instrumental “Toad”. It was an explosion of polyrhythmic lightning, with sustained fury, lightness and clarity.
“His playing was revolutionary – extrovert, primal and inventive,” Rush drummer Neil Peart once said. “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.”
Baker professed reverence for jazz drummers Elvin Jones, Art Blakey and Max Roach, and that informed his unerring sense of complex rhythm. But he was often reviled for his cantankerous belligerence on and off stage, and eruptions at his bandmates hastened Cream’s dissolution.
Addicted to heroin at a young age, the often cadaverously gaunt drummer became infamous for his near-sadistic behaviour with his fellow musicians (he once pulled a knife on Bruce) and for going through projects and collaborators like so many disposable tissues.
Baker’s drug-fuelled, profanity-laced rages, all spewed in his back-alley Cockney brogue – along with his weaponised disdain for many of rock’s most successful artists – eventually burnt every artistic bridge formed during his musical heyday. He dubbed Mick Jagger a “musical moron”.
Baker squandered several fortunes on polo ponies, and his misadventures were too numerous to be catalogued. They included reckless gunplay, run-ins with tax and immigration authorities, personal bankruptcy, and fractured relationships with three ex-wives and his three children. All of these incidents dogged Baker in a peripatetic life that had him constantly bouncing between England, the United States, Europe and Africa.
His picaresque lifestyle – and rampant ego – were summed up in the title of his autobiography: Ginger Baker: Hellraiser (The Autobiography of the World’s Greatest Drummer).
There was perhaps no more accurate, and recent, portrayal of his lifelong highs and lows than the 2012 documentary Beware of Mr. Baker. He is alternately shown lovingly nuzzling his favourite polo horses and angrily smacking with his cane the film’s director, Jay Bulger.
Although the film presents a series of Baker hosannas offered by such modern-day drum masters as Stewart Copeland of The Police, a dyspeptic Baker is shown virtually immobile in a lounge chair, sucking on a morphine inhaler and taking pills to combat his degenerative osteoporosis.
“My initial attraction to Ginger was figuring out what happens when you live by your own rules without compromise, artistically, spiritually, socially,” Bulger told The New York Times. “Here’s what happens: you wind up alone at the end of the world.”
Peter Edward Baker – nicknamed “Ginger” for his shock of flaming red hair – was born in the London borough of Lewisham on 19 August 1939. His mother earned some money in a tobacco shop, while his father eked out a living as a bricklayer.
Baker was four when his father, conscripted into the military, was among the casualties in the Allies’ disastrous Second World War campaign to capture the strategic Dodecanese islands in the Aegean Sea. He later blamed the loss of his father on “that stupid sod Churchill”.
An indifferent student, he focused his energies on cycling and eventually music. Baker had become obsessed with the drums after he discovered he had what he often termed “time”, or innate rhythm.
His immersion into jazz began when he shoplifted a copy of Jazz at Massey Hall, a bebop recording featuring Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, among other masters. “It turned my life upside down,” Baker later said of that landmark recording.
By 16, Baker had quit school and began his first tours with local jazz acts, soon becoming one of London’s more highly sought jazz drummers. His greatest mentor was Phil Seamen, a drumming wizard who introduced him to African drumming and heroin.
In 1962, Baker joined one of the era’s great blues bands, Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, replacing Charlie Watts. “Charlie told me he didn’t want to be a musician, that there wasn’t any security in it,” Baker later told The Wall Street Journal. “A short time later, Mick and Brian (Jones) said they were forming a band and needed a drummer. I recommended Charlie.”
Following a stint with The Graham Bond Organisation, which also included Bruce, he helped start Cream, the ultimate platform for Baker’s amalgam of drumming: part rock bombast, part jazz’s seductive swing, and all the vital propellant for Cream’s psychedelic blues-rock jams.
After Cream broke up, Baker was left with a lifelong level of bitterness over how little actual writing and publishing credit – and commensurate royalty compensation – he received for his work. That constant omission, Baker often lamented, contributed to his chronic money troubles.
As Cream were imploding, Clapton formed his next supergroup, Blind Faith, with bassist Ric Grech and singer Steve Winwood, and Baker attached himself uninvited. Clapton was wary, given the drummer’s dark history with drugs.
“I took one look at his eyes and was sure he was back on it,” Clapton wrote in his autobiography. “I felt that I was stepping back into the nightmare that had been part of Cream.”
After Blind Faith folded in 1969, Baker relocated to Nigeria the next year, swept up by the Afro-beat fervour. His journey to Nigeria, in a Range Rover, was documented in the 1971 film Ginger Baker in Africa.
Baker settled in Lagos for six years, and it was there that he developed a passion for polo. He also invested his life’s savings in West Africa’s first 16-track studio. There, he jammed and recorded with Nigerian musician and activist Fela Kuti, widely recognised as Afro-beat’s principal pioneer.
By 1982, Baker’s career was spiralling downwards thanks to his gnawing drug addiction, plus run-ins with the British government over taxes. He exiled himself to a small town in southern Italy where he toiled on an olive farm before popping up in Los Angeles a few years later with the impulse to become an actor.
In 1993, Cream were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That imprimatur of success did not resolve Baker’s wanderlust, or his legal and tax woes, and he eventually settled for many years on a South African polo ranch. Beware of Mr. Baker takes its name from a sign he hung near the entrance.
His first marriage was to Liz Finch, with whom he had three children. That and later marriages to Sarah Baker and Karen Loucks ended in divorce. In 2010, he married Kudzai Machokoto, a Zimbabwean nurse.
For Baker, Cream forever bestowed on him a label he abhorred: “rock drummer”. He saw himself foremost as a jazz drummer, with rock as one of his many facets. And yet, he combatively reserved for himself the superlative of greatest rock drummer, unbeatable even with constant, self-inflicted health setbacks.
“When people put drummers like John Bonham, Mitch Mitchell and Keith Moon in the same bag as me, it’s really insulting,” he told The Wall Street Journal. “I have a gift, and none of them is even on the same street as me. The fact that I can still play is a miracle, isn’t it?”
Peter Edward “Ginger” Baker, drummer, born 19 August 1939, died 6 October 2019
© Washington Post