The world’s greatest drummer has died.
The outspoken, difficult and brilliant Ginger Baker was 80 years old.
Peter Edward “Ginger” Baker, known for his lanky physique, red hair and wolfish grin, was born August 19, 1939 in South London. During his lifetime, he played with everybody from Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood, to George Harrison and Johnny Rotten.
As was true of many famous 1960s English musicians, he grew up in a war-torn world. Ginger’s father was killed in action in October of 1942. In a letter written from the army to the toddler Ginger, his father advised him to “be a man at all times” and to avoid excessive drinking. Also, don’t smoke. Ginger, however, smoked his entire adult life. And his father, unfortunately, didn’t say anything about staying clear of heroin, which would bedevil Baker for decades.
Gifted with a natural sense of rhythm, Baker took to drums quickly as a teenager. He will be best remembered for playing in Cream, the first of the 1960s supergroups. But his work with Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton comprised only three full studio albums and less than three years of his career. Before joining Cream, Ginger had played with Jack Bruce in the Graham Bond Organization. By the time Baker joined Cream, he had established himself as a virtuoso drummer. He had also developed a bad heroin habit.
Cream didn’t last long. The power trio sold millions of records, spawned classic rock staples such as “Sunshine of Your Love,” White Room,” “Badge” and Clapton’s live cover of Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads.” They also were strung-out, fought constantly, and enraged rock minimalists.
Cream wasn’t a prog band, but they laid the groundwork for groups such as Jethro Tull and Yes, who had no qualms about cutting 20 minute songs. That would all change when the punks arrived. But even they liked Ginger. Public Image Ltd’s lead singer, after all, was Johnny Rotten.
Love them or hate them, Cream set a new standard for rock and roll. They showed that if your band was talented enough, it could blow the roof off with just three people. Solos got longer. The amps got bigger and louder.
At first, Baker didn’t mic his drums. That changed when he realized he had to keep up with Clapton’s guitar pyrotechnics and Bruce’s thunderous bass lines. Cream was the first hard rock jam band, paving the way for groups such as the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead. The Allmans and the Dead might’ve had two drummers. But Ginger Baker played like three.
Baker brought a new understanding to the drums. He was a rock drummer, but one heavily influenced by jazz. His playing was technically proficient but also original. Ginger opted for complexity rather than just speed. It’s no wonder he had a passion for horses. You can hear the gallop in his drum work.
Before anyone knew who John Bonham or Neil Pert was, Ginger was playing behind monster kits and pounding away on double bass drums. He could also lay a beat as heavy as anything you might hear before Led Zeppelin.
Ginger emerged as one of the members of holy trinity of great English rock drummers, the others being Keith Moon and John Bonham. Unlike Moonie, Ginger had no problem taking extended solos. His masterpiece is the 16-minute drum drama “Toad” from Wheels of Fire. Baker also composed some of Cream’s more interesting numbers, such as “Sweet Wine” from the band’s 1966 debut album and Wheels of Fire’s “Pressed Rat and Warthog”. But with his heavy Cockney accent, Baker was no singer.
Cream was—as Lester Bangs wrote of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer—“three egos exploding” on stage. The band broke apart before they could finish a fourth studio album. Clapton and Baker got along well enough to form Blind Faith in 1968 with Steve Winwood and Ric Grech. Another supergroup, Blind Faith lasted for even less time than Cream did. Baker, who loved live performance, hit the road, putting together a merry band of musicians called Ginger Baker’s Air Force
By the 1970s, Baker found himself involved with various groups and projects, becoming a kind of superstar journeyman musician. Unlike Keith Moon, who didn’t like practicing, Baker continued to study the drums. He traveled to Africa to learn the intricacies of native rhythms. He remained there a long time. Ginger went native—wife and kids be damned.
Baker also struggled with addiction in the 70s. In his highly readable memoir—the aptly titled Hellraiser—Baker explains how addicts in 1960s England could go to the chemist’s (what we yanks call “the pharmacy”) to get a prescription for hard drugs. I wouldn’t have believed this had I not read similar accounts in Keith Richards’ autobiography,
Life. Getting the coke and smack from the doctor may seem crazy to us pill-loving Americans, but in a way, it might have kept these musicians alive. They were able to get pure drugs, not street garbage.
Baker, of course, could have done himself in at any point in the 70s. He could’ve gotten the wrong dose in Africa. He might also have pissed off the wrong heavily-armed militiamen in one of his many off-road adventures there.
Ginger’s time in Africa was not misspent. The knowledge he gleaned from African drummers found its way into his work. He could still lay down a rock beat, but he also excelled at world music, as on his 1990 release Middle Passage. He became an eccentric, a polo player, a white African Zelig who partied with Paul McCartney in Lagos when Sir Paul recorded Band on the Run.
By 1980, Baker found himself in Italy, where he helped clean himself up by picking olives in the countryside. He also got to spend a lot of time around horses, probably his first love after the drums.
He continued to drift from project to project. A try-out for the Who after Moon’s death was not successful. Pete and Roger likely figured one difficult drummer was enough.
In the 1990s, Baker’s drumming gained a new generation of fans through classic rock radio play. Since Cream wouldn’t reunite, he did the next best thing by joining BBM, a super group consisting of Jack Bruce, Baker, and Gary Moore. The band was a Cream clone, but without the stellar records sales. BBM didn’t last long.
Perhaps the best work Baker did post-Cream was with jazz musicians Charlie Haden and Bill Frisell as the Ginger Baker Trio. Their debut, Going Back Home, was Baker’s best solo effort. It even got airplay, albeit as bumper music for NPR news segments. A second album by the trio, Falling off the Roof, wasn’t as inspired, but it was still pretty good. His last jazz album was recorded in 1999 with the Denver Jazz Quintet. It’s another solid effort.
In 2005, Cream reunited for a show at the Royal Albert Hall. Ginger took the king’s ransom he made from the concert and blew it on horses—the one habit more expensive than heroin. Jack Bruce’s death in 2014 assured there would be no more Cream reunions. After Bruce’s death, Baker suffered from heart problems and other ailments. His last album was 2004’s Why?
Baker’s personality was as erratic as his artistic output. In his autobiography, Clapton describes Baker as a “very shy and gentle man, thoughtful and full of compassion.” However, in the 2012 documentary, Beware of Mr. Baker—filmed at the drummer’s compound in Africa—a different Ginger emerges. Gonzo filmmaker Jay Bulger, who directed the movie, lied about being a writer from Rolling Stone, so he could get access to Baker. Bulger titled his 2009 Rolling Stone article “The Devil and Ginger Baker.” Apparently he couldn’t get enough of the Cream drummer. He went deeper into the heart of darkness, and at one point, we see Baker and Bulger engaged in a shouting match. At the end of the film, Baker smashes Bulger in the face, bloodying his face. It’s a disturbing film, though it is a compelling look at an ailing musical genius.
The Baker in Bulger’s film did not appear well, physically. We see him using oxygen to breath. Baker by then was in his 70s. Clearly his love of cigarettes had caught up with him. Baker, however, had long outlived Keith Moon, who died in 1978, and Bonham, who died in 1980), and seemed proud of that fact. Baker was a survivor to be sure, though as one of his ex-wives said, “the devil takes care of its own.”
In 2016, Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 greatest drummers of all time placed Baker at number 3. While he might have outlived Moon and Bonham, they finished ahead of him on the list.
They probably shouldn’t have.
The paperback edition of Baker’s memoir describes him as “The World’s Greatest Drummer.” He might have been. We can’t say what Bonham or Moon would have done had they lived to be 80. But it is clear that they lacked Baker’s virtuosity. And it wasn’t just about solos. Bonham could solo with the best of them. Moon hated drum solos. And yet, as far as I know, no one but Baker has excelled in so many styles of drumming, whether the hard rock of Cream, his African-inspired work in the 70s, his world music albums, or his later jazz recordings. Baker once said Bonham had technique, but he “couldn’t swing a fucking sack of shit.” He’s right. Baker, in contrast, could play pretty much anything.
I don’t listen to Cream a lot these days. But I haven’t stopped listening to Ginger’s jazz music since I first heard it twenty years ago. Ginger the man surely was no saint. But his brag about being the “World’s Greatest Drummer” wasn’t hyperbole. He did for drumming what Jimi Hendrix did for the guitar. If I were in a band, and for some reason was attending a gig where I had no idea what music was being played, the one drummer I would want with me was Ginger Baker.
Ginger Baker played his drums like he lived his life: to the extreme.