Ginger Baker, who died on Oct. 6 at age 80, is best known as the drummer in the late-’60s British rock band Cream, where he showed that a drummer could be a star, as well as a soloist. And after achieving a level of fame few drummers had at the time, he moved to Nigeria and played with Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, became a formidable polo player and earned a reputation as one of rock’s more cantankerous characters.
Peter Baker — nicknamed Ginger for his red hair — grew up in South London, the son of a bricklayer who died in World War II. Baker started drumming as a teenager and in his early 20s began his career in Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, where he replaced future Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts, before joining The Graham Bond Organisation, a British R&B group that also included bassist Jack Bruce. In 1966, Baker, Bruce and Eric Clapton formed Cream, a supergroup that performed psychedelic blues with a level of power and precision new to rock.
Baker arguably did more than any other musician to establish the archetype of the hotshot drummer who lived as hard as he played. He was one of the first rock drummers to use a double bass drum, and for Cream’s first album he wrote the instrumental “Toad,” which features one of the first drum solos on a rock album. Baker stood out when he wasn’t playing, too — even by the standards of the ’60s. According to the 2012 documentary Beware of Mr. Baker, he once pulled a knife on Bruce onstage.