Ginger Baker, one of the most innovative and influential drummers in rock music, has died at the age of 80. A co-founder of Cream, he also played with Blind Faith, Hawkwind and Fela Kuti in a long and varied career. His style combined the lyricism of jazz with the crude power of rock. One critic said watching him was like witnessing “a human combine harvester”. But he was also a temperamental and argumentative figure, whose behaviour frequently led to on-stage punch-ups.
Nicknamed Ginger for his flaming red hair, the musician was born Peter Edward Baker in Lewisham, south London, shortly before World War Two. His bricklayer father was killed in action in 1943, and he was brought up in near poverty by his mother, step-father and aunt. A troubled student, he joined a local gang in his teens and became involved in petty theft. When he tried to quit, gang-members attacked him with a razor. His early ambition was to ride in the Tour de France but was forced to quit the sport when, aged 16, his bicycle got “caught up” with a taxi. Instead, he took up drumming. He played with jazz acts like Terry Lightfoot and Acker Bilk but his style – fragmented and aggressive, but articulate and insistent – was often an odd fit. Instead, he gravitated towards London’s burgeoning blues scene and, in 1962, joined Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated on the recommendation of Charlie Watts – who was leaving to join the Rolling Stones.
He gained early fame as a member of the Graham Bond Organisation alongside bassist Jack Bruce – but it was their partnership with Eric Clapton in Cream that made all three superstars. One of rock’s first “supergroups”, they fused blues and psychedelia to dazzling effect on songs like Strange Brew, Sunshine of Your Love, Badge and I Feel Free. They sold more than 35 million albums and were awarded the world’s first ever platinum disc for their LP Wheels of Fire. But the volatility that fuelled their performances was rooted in animosity. Baker and Bruce’s arguments were frequent and violent, even driving Clapton to tears on one occasion. Once, Baker attempted to end one of Bruce’s solos by bouncing a stick off his snare drum, and into Bruce’s head. The band eventually split after two years and four albums, with a farewell concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 1968.
Following the band’s demise, he teamed up with Clapton and Steve Winwood to form Blind Faith, followed by the ambitious 10-piece Air Force, which combined his interests in jazz and Afro-fusion. While the musicianship was of a high standard, the eclectic mix of jazz, blues, African music and a surfeit of drums – there were three percussionists – was never going to inspire a mass following. After one studio album and a live concert at the Royal Albert Hall, Air Force, undermined by personnel changes, finally crashed and burned. The drug-related death of his friend, Jimi Hendrix, persuaded Baker it was time to leave the London music scene and get clean.
He helped Paul McCartney record the classic Wings’ album Band On The Run, although their relationship soured over claims that he was never paid. Financial problems of one sort or another dogged him throughout this period and he eventually lost control of his studio. Away from music, he took up rally driving and, somewhat incongruously, developed a love of polo, building up a sizeable collection of ponies, despite his tendency to get injured.
Cream were inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993, briefly reuniting to play three songs, then teamed up again in 2005 for a series of concerts in London and New York. Almost inevitably, the performances ended with Baker and Bruce fighting on stage. Baker had, in fact, headed to South Africa, where he spent the reunion money buying polo ponies and funding a veterinary hospital. In 2012, he became the subject of a hugely enjoyable documentary – Beware of Mr Baker – which illustrated how his jaw-dropping drumming was neither as wild nor as extraordinary as his personal life. The musician fought osteoarthritis to record his final album, Why?, in 2014. Two years later, he underwent open heart surgery and announced his retirement from touring. Baker was 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. Baker was married four times and fathered three children, Nettie, Leda, and Kofi.