The history of rock and roll is riddled with near-mythical characters and over-the-top personalities. But even grouped among the most eccentric and talented musicians that the genre has ever produced, Ginger Baker stands alone.
The iconic drummer died on Sunday (Oct. 6) at the age of 80 following a lengthy battle with a debilitating heart condition, but he leaves behind a legacy of unmatched musicianship and wild behavior that solidifies his place among rock music’s most unforgettable figures.
In the 1960s, Baker all but defined our entire concept of what a modern rock drummer is expected to sound and perform like as the percussive powerhouse that drove British Invasion supergroups Cream and Blind Faith to worldwide superstardom and renown. Eric Clapton, the man known to many as “God” at the time, remained the band’s main draw, but as soon as the blues rock-loving fans took their seats, they couldn’t help but take their eyes off the red-haired wild man beating out mind-bending fills and solos for up to 20 minutes at a time over songs like “Toad,” “Spoonful,” and “White Room.” You never knew where he was going to take the music next, and the experience of witnessing his incredible displays of cunning improvisation were utterly mesmerizing.
That Baker would ever change the landscape of music history with Eric Clapton was never a given. After leaving John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers in 1966, the guitarist was plotting his next steps when he crossed paths with Baker — who was drumming along with longtime collaborator and frequent foil Jack Bruce in a band called the Graham Bond Organization. Baker wanted out of the group, and was curious to know if the guitarist was interested in forming a new band together.
But even as talented as this brash, lanky drummer obviously was, Clapton had his reservations; reservations that would be echoed by many across the ensuing decades. “I presumed he must be pretty good, as he was first choice with all the musicians I rated, so I was very flattered that he was interested in me,” the guitarist wrote in his memoir. “I was also rather frightened of him because he was an angry-looking guy, with a considerable reputation.”
Baker’s “reputation” only grew more immense and unbelievable with each passing year. This is a man whose close encounters with death are more numerous than even he could remember; who once claimed that God only kept him alive and in pain for as long as he did to punish him for all of his past wickedness. This is a man who picked up and dropped a debilitating heroin addiction by his own count nearly 30 different times in his life. This is a man who burned more bridges and squandered more lucrative opportunities than any one person could fathom, and for a brief period took up olive farming in Italy while evading the British tax authorities. This is man who felt insulted to be grouped in the same breath as his vaunted contemporaries like Keith Moon and John Bonham. (“I have a gift, and none of them is even on the same street as me,” he once declared to the Wall Street Journal.) This is a man who broke his own documentarian’s nose with metal cane and never felt a single ounce of regret about it either.
Ginger Baker was the kind of person who got along far better with horses than he ever did with human beings and sunk multiple fortunes into the sport of Polo. Throughout his life he married and divorced three different times. His own father was killed in action during WWII and he was raised by his mother. Sadly, the absence of a father figure didn’t inspire him to embrace the paternal role that he sorely lacked in his own youth. He disowned his own son Kofi so many times that long before his death, the younger Baker said, “He’s been dead to me for a long time anyway.”
While others cashed in playing their much-beloved hits, Baker remained the kind of musician constitutionally incapable of resting on his ‘60s rock and roll laurels. In the ‘70s, he stretched galaxies beyond the sonic limits of his British rock contemporaries diving headlong in to the world of jazz fusion with his group Ginger Baker’s Air Force before moving to Africa and collaborating extensively with the iconic Nigerian multi-instrumentalist Fela Kuti. Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen once proclaimed that Baker “understands the African beat more than any other Westerner.”
In the ‘80s, he took an even sharper musical left turn by working John Lydon on the former Sex Pistol’s fifth album with his group Public Image Ltd (simply titled Album) while also diving into the worlds of prog and with the group Hawkwind on their album Levitation. In the ‘90s he embraced hard rock with the band Masters Of Reality, before re-embracing jazz as part of trio with Charlie Haden and Bill Frisell. He remained, throughout his life, an artist in a constant state of sonic evolution. In a nonsensensical world, “The hi-hats, the tom-toms, the cymbals, they all made perfect sense to me,” he told Wales Online.
In 2013, Baker announced his first U.S. tour in quite some time with a group that included James Brown’s saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis and Ghanian percussionist Abass Dodoo. I knew ful well that I shouldn’t expect him to play any of his more renowned material from Cream or Blind Faith when I saw them live the show at Jazz Alley in Seattle, but as a devotee of both of those bands I felt compelled to hear for myself the legendary abilities of the man who beat out the rhythms that defined so much of my early adolescence. Baker appeared in shaky health as he ambled up to the stage, but as soon as he sat down behind the kit, all traces of the many maladies that plagued him at the time vanished. He was like a man transformed and over the next hour, swung with the dexterity of a player half his age; walloping those in the front row with the force from his double-kick.
After the performance ended, he came off the stage and waded through the crowd back toward where the dressing rooms were. I brought along a solitary Vic Firth drumstick and a sharpie on the very off-chance our paths might cross, which inexplicably they did. As Baker approached me, I complimented him on a great performance and asked if I might trouble him for an autograph. He looked me up and down, scowled, stuck his big middle finger right in my face, and kept right on walking. The memory of that moment, so quintessentially Ginger Baker, will remain seared in my memory far past the point of a swipe of black ink on a laminated stick of hickory ever could.
He remains, even in death, the type of one-of-kind musician who often seemed more of a legendary myth than living, breathing human being. A hellraiser of the first order. A drummer without peer. An icon of his own parable.