I am very sad to hear of the death of Ginger Baker today at the age of 80.
I remember that in February 1966, I went to see my favourite band, The Who, at Southend Odeon. At not quite 15 years of age, I was aware that I was one of the younger members of the audience. I left the venue with the excitement, euphoria and temporary deafness that would be expected from seeing The Who and would be reliving every minute of The Who’s performance in my head for some time to come. However, I also took something else away with me that night … a memory of the performance by one of the support bands, The Graham Bond Organisation. I had known nothing of them before the concert and their jazz flavoured RnB was not the kind of material that I would normally have listened to at that age but I had realised that these were accomplished musicians and had been impressed by their showmanship together with their solos and improvisations.
In particular, I had committed 3 of their names to memory … Graham Bond on keyboards, Dick Heckstall-Smith who switched between various woodwind instruments hanging around his neck and occasionally played two of these simultaneously and Ginger Baker who played drum solos that were full of visual and percussive tricks. I would probably also have remembered the name Jack Bruce had he not already been sacked from the band as a result of ongoing conflict with Ginger Baker. Conflicts with other musicians and particularly Bruce would mark Ginger Baker’s career yet despite what would become a legendary feud, the pair would frequently re-unite and play together as one of the most influential rhythm sections in rock music.
Ginger Baker 1980
A month after that concert, the Who released their single “Substitute”. At the time they were embroiled in a legal dispute with their former producer Shel Talmy and two releases of “Substitute” had to be withdrawn because Talmy claimed rights to the Townshend composition used for the B-side. With the record already in the chart but withdrawn from shops, a 3rd release with a new B-side was needed and found in the instrumental track “Waltz for a Pig” billed on the record as being by ‘The Who Orchestra’. But it was actually a recording by The Graham Bond Organisation and being written by Ginger Baker, features his drumming prominently.
A few months later (July 1966), Ginger Baker would re-unite with Jack Bruce and form Cream with Eric Clapton. Only yesterday, Cream cropped up in an online dialogue with an old friend and I described how “Disraeli Gears” was one of the albums that I still remember hearing for the first time and the impact that it had. It was a period when bands were making a transition from the standard, 3-minute pop single and beginning to explore much longer tracks, solos and improvisations on albums and in live performances. With Bruce and Baker’s experience from their time with The Graham Organisation and Clapton’s blues guitar solos, Cream were well-positioned to lead the way in making this transition in the UK.
That same year, Ginger Baker and Keith Moon had both seen drummer Sam Woodyard at a Duke Ellington concert whereupon they each approached Premier to have double bass drum kits made. Baker had already began to develop what would later become the archetypal rock drum solo and an example of this forms the basis of the five-minute-long “Toad” that closed Cream’s debut album “Fresh Cream” (1966). Baker also became interested in African rhythms and began to incorporate these along with a range of drum timbres in his style and technique. As such, he would influence many famous drummers and the use of double bass drum kits together with solos would become virtually standard in rock music.
Cream’s 3rd album, “Wheels of Fire” (1968) was released as a double LP with one disc of studio recordings and the other recorded at live shows in San Francisco during 1968. Although the live disc was titled ‘Live at the Fillmore’ only the 16 minute version of “Toad” was recorded at that venue. The other 3 tracks (including a 16 minute version of Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful”) were recorded at the Winterland Ballroom. “Wheels of Fire” reached number three in the UK and number one in the USA, becoming the world’s first platinum-selling double album.
My schoolmate and I were so impressed with the live album that we barricaded ourselves into the record booth at our local youth club (Southend, Essex) so that we could stay in there beyond the allotted session time and play it in its entirety over the club’s sound system as an alternative to the usual diet of pop and bubble-gum. For this we were permanently banned from the club but were already at an age where we had outgrown youth clubs in any case.
I did not see Cream play live but I did see Ginger Baker play with Blind Faith in their only live performance, the Hyde Park Free Concert on June 7th 1969, another significant event in my life. I am fairly certain that I also saw Ginger either play or guest in one or two subsequent line-ups in the 1970s.
Ginger Baker was Rock’s first superstar drummer and became an inductee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Cream, of the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame in 2008 and of the Classic Drummer Hall of Fame in 2016.
In 2013 Ginger revealed that he was suffering from ill health (COPD and degenerative osteoarthritis). In 2016 there were reports of heart surgery and a bad fall. In September 2019, Ginger’s family announced that he was critically ill and asked all to keep him in their prayers.
Now reunited with his partner in rhythm, Jack Bruce, in another place.
R.I.P. Ginger Baker, legendary rock drummer.
The photograph of Ginger Baker is by Zoran Veselinovic, 1980. It may be used under Creative Commons licence CC BY-SA 2.0.