Ginger Baker Appreciation: The Cream Innovator Brought a New Level of Rhythmic Complexity to Rock

Baker, in shearling coat and snakeskin boots, in 1970.
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Baker, in shearling coat and snakeskin boots, in 1970.

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.

After Cream broke up in 1968, Baker and Clapton, along with Steve Winwood, formed Blind Faith, which lasted less than a year. Baker went on to start his own group, Ginger Baker’s Air Force, which made two eclectic albums in 1970. By then the hard, showy drumming he had pioneered with Cream was de rigueur in rock.

So in 1971, Baker drove across the Sahara in a Land Rover to Lagos, Nigeria; set up a recording studio (where Paul McCartney later made Band on the Run); and played with Kuti, with whom he recorded the album Live!

Baker spent the late ’70s in the Baker Gurvitz Army. Later, he played on Public Image Ltd’s Album, made two acclaimed experimental LPs with producer Bill Laswell and recorded with jazz musicians like Bill Frisell and Sonny Sharrock.

Along the way, Baker made and lost several fortunes while moving around the world, from a small olive farm in Italy to Parker, Colo., where he founded a polo team. In 2005, he reunited with Cream for a series of shows in London and New York. By the time Beware was filmed, however, the money he had earned from those concerts was gone — spent on polo horses and feuds. Baker still had enough energy to hit director Jay Bulger with his cane, though, in what became the movie’s opening scene.

Beware is filled with stories of such bad behavior, as well as testaments to Baker’s influence from top drummers like The Police’s Stewart Copeland and Rush’s Neil Peart, who called him “the pioneer of a rock drummer.” With the kind of chops that later generations strove to emulate, Baker brought a new level of rhythmic complexity to rock — and then went far beyond.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 12 issue of Billboard.