Here’s the gist of a startling ad that has been running in the “Session Players” portion of Music Connection magazine’s classified section:
Instruments: Drums (all types)
Styles: Rock, African, Jazz, Pop, Blues.
Qualifications: 33 years pro. Acknowledged worldwide as the top drummer.
Credits include Cream and Blind Faith.
Yes, it’s that Ginger Baker: the percussion colossus who was a key member in the ‘60s of the legendary band Cream (with Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce) . . . a man whose power-playing inspired a generation of drummers.
Why would he have to resort to placing an ad to get work?
“It’s like I’m a newcomer,” said Baker, 49, a droll, affable, candid Englishman. “I’m starting over here.”
Baker spent most of the ‘80s on an olive ranch in a small town in Italy, dabbling in music while finally kicking the heroin habit that contributed to the downfall of his career. After the Baker-Gurvitz Army albums of the mid-'70s he did nothing substantial in the studio for the next decade.
Then producer Bill Laswell talked him into doing some session work on a Public Image Limited album, called “Album,” in 1985. That was followed by an obscure solo album on tiny Celluoid Records--"Horses and Trees"--featuring eclectic, percussive instrumentals sprinkled with assorted African influences. Those sessions whetted his appetite for playing live.
Recently, anxious to work again, he moved to the Los Angeles area. Since big-city life doesn’t suit him, and also because of his desire to be near his horses, he’s been renting a ranch near Palmdale.
On the afternoon of the interview, Baker--wearing a rumpled sport jacket and frantically chain-smoking--was in his agent’s West Hollywood office. It was the agent, Baker said sheepishly, who placed that infamous ad: “I wasn’t too keen on it. That’s not my style. I could do OK without ads.”
But that strategy worked. Baker has been able to assemble a band that has played local clubs and is scheduled for a Friday show at the Trancas Restaurant and Music Hall near Malibu. But this unit, he insisted, is just temporary:
“I want to get the feel of playing live again and to let people know I’m back on the scene.”
For this talented musician, who’s sampled superstardom and basked in the acclaim associated with being the best, scrounging for decent musicians to work with and playing clubs must be humiliating and embarrassing.
But if Baker feels that, he never let on. No amount of prodding would make him say how he really feels about his situation. His attitude was really hard-nosed. His only comment: “What happened to me, that’s just life. It’s up and down, up and down. I don’t get sentimental about it--and I try not to look back.”
One of the biggest mistakes you can make with Baker is to call him a rock drummer.
“No, no, no!,” he said emphatically. “I’m a jazz drummer. I’ve always been. Rock is just one thing I’ve done. I’ve played blues and African music too. But I’ve always been a jazz drummer.”
Baker, whose real first name is Peter, is a Londoner who actually started out as a trumpet player. But, while immersing himself in the ‘50s jazz scene, he discovered his real calling. Drumming, he explained while tapping out an impromptu solo on the table, is in his blood.
Baker worked in jazz bands before investigating blues in the early ‘60s, which eventually led him into rock. In 1966, he formed Cream with Clapton and Bruce. “We wanted a band that would be popular and have No. 1 records,” he said. “But still, it wasn’t really a rock ‘n’ roll band. There was tremendous jazz feel in Cream. It was 80% improvisation.
“We weren’t into straight rock--none of the real jazz musicians in London were. Jazz musicians thought the Beatles were rather funny. And the Stones--real musicians used to laugh at them. It was simplistic music.”
The three musicians, who never really got along well together, finally split up in 1968 after recording five gold albums, including “Disraeli Gears” and “Wheels of Fire,” and two classic Top 10 singles, “Sunshine of Your Love” and “White Room.”
The band was such an influential force in rock that Cream fans began circulating reunion rumors almost as soon as the group called it quits. After 20 years, the rumors still haven’t died down and Baker thinks it is possible that Bruce and Clapton are thinking about working together again. “But no one has spoken to me about this,” he said. “I have little contact with them. The last time I saw them was 2 1/2 years ago.”
After Cream, Baker’s bands were short-lived--and definitely not commercial blockbusters. Blind Faith, with Clapton, lasted only three months in 1969. The next group, Air Force, which included Steve Winwood, lasted just two albums. In the early ‘70s Baker spent a few years in Nigeria exploring African music before joining the Baker-Gurvitz Army in the mid-'70s. After that one marched into oblivion, Baker grew even more disenchanted with the music scene and dropped out.
Baker waged a constant battle in the ‘60s and ‘70s with heroin addiction. “The first time I used smack I thought it helped me play better,” he said. “People I admired, like Charlie Parker, were using. But I soon found out it didn’t help me play better.”
During the next 20 years he suffered through the nightmare of addiction, he said. “On most of the Cream stuff I wasn’t using,” he said. “I slipped only occasionally when I was with Cream. I was off and on 29 times before I finally quit.”
When he moved to Italy in 1980 to that olive farm, the main reason was to escape London’s junkie environment. “I had to get out,” he said. “All the people I knew were junkies. If I had stayed I was going to wind up dead. I quit on my own. Nobody can cure a junkie but the junkie himself.”
Baker said he’s been clean for seven years, despite innumerable opportunities to backslide.
“If I had problems I used to use it as a crutch,” he explained. “Get stoned--no feeling, no worries, no problems. I knew I was cured because during the past four years, I’ve been through so much crap and I didn’t start using again.
“I’ve had various family problems. I’ve been married twice and I have three children. The breakup of my second marriage was horrible. Thank God I was able to get through all that without getting stoned. I have a few drinks but nothing more than that.”
Many industry people and fans knew about Baker’s deadly habit. That’s why there have been so many rumors about his death over the years. “The first time I heard I was dead I was driving from L.A. to San Francisco with three girls,” he recalled. “There was a radio announcement that said I had died of a heroin overdose. I looked around at the three girls and said to myself: ‘Maybe I’m in heaven.’ ”
That rumor was making the rounds a few years ago until his work on the Public Image album alerted people he was alive.
Eventually, Baker wants to form a group of about eight musicians plus female singers. “I want a band capable of playing rock, jazz, blues--you name it,” he said.
Baker insisted that neither long layoffs nor age have eroded his skills.
“I’m better than I used to be,” he boasted. “When a good drummer doesn’t play regularly, he loses speed. But that comes back. And you don’t lose technique. That’s part of you. When people who really know music hear me play, they know it’s Ginger Baker.”