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Ginger Baker, virtuosic rock drummer for Cream, dies at 80

Cream At Madison Square Garden
Eric Clapton, left, Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce in 1993, at Cream’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
(Chris Martinez / Associated Press)

Ginger Baker, esteemed as one of the most virtuosic drummers ever to sit behind a kit through his innovative work with English rock bands Cream and the short-lived Blind Faith, died on Sunday. He was 80.

His Facebook page posted, “We are very sad to say that Ginger has passed away peacefully in hospital this morning. Thank you to everyone for your kind words over the past weeks.” Baker’s family had previously issued statements on Twitter and Facebook saying that he was “critically ill” and asking fans to “please keep him in your prayers.”

Baker revealed in 2013 that he had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease after a lifetime of smoking. He underwent open-heart surgery in 2016. He also suffered chronic back pain from degenerative osteoarthritis.

Baker formed Cream in 1966 with guitarist Eric Clapton and bassist Jack Bruce. Clapton had emerged as a stellar guitarist during his stint with the Yardbirds, while Baker and Bruce both established their credentials as members of the Graham Bond Organisation.

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In concert, Cream pushed rock to new extremes of volume and expanded the boundaries of rock song conventions, with each member frequently taking extended solos, live and on record, bringing the music to new pinnacles of technical and creative dexterity. It was not, however, at the expense of chart success: Cream logged a handful of hits in short order, with signature songs including “Sunshine of Your Love,” “White Room,” “Badge,” “I Feel Free” and its hallmark reworking of a Robert Johnson blues number, “Crossroads.”

Cream
Cream — Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker and Eric Clapton — plus friends, at London’s Heathrow Airport in 1967.
(Peter Kemp / Associated Press)

Peter Edward Baker was born Aug. 19, 1939, in Lewisham, a borough of south London. He grew up in postwar England admiring jazz drummers including countryman Phil Seamen, from whom he took lessons as a teenager — although he described himself as largely self-taught — as well as American drummers such as Max Roach, Art Blakey and Elvin Jones.

Baker injected rhythmic complexity and dizzying flourishes into his playing, pushing his instrument’s role in a rock setting well beyond basic timekeeping, reflecting the expansive mindset of the dawning psychedelic era.

“He changed the game,” said John Sykes, incoming chairman of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which inducted Cream in 1993. “I was in awe of him because he was trained as a jazz drummer and played in a completely different way, and sounded different from most [rock] drummers, like Charlie Watts.”

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Cream released four albums before disbanding in 1968, among them “Fresh Cream,” which included Baker’s five-minute drum solo on the track “Toad,” which quickly became a highlight of the group’s concerts.

Baker went on to form the supergroup Blind Faith, teaming again with Clapton, as well as bassist Ric Grech from the band Family and organist-singer Steve Winwood from Traffic. The quartet released just one album, “Blind Faith,” and then disbanded.

That segued into Ginger Baker’s Air Force, a rock fusion group with which he toured and recorded in the early 1970s, before moving to Lagos, Nigeria, to indulge his fascination with African music, collaborating at one point with Nigerian saxophonist Fela Kuti.

“He understands the African beat more than any other Westerner,” Nigerian drummer Tony Allen once said.

">October 6, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js” charset="utf-8"></script>Among the other ensembles Baker was part of in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s were the Baker Gurvitz Army, progressive rock band Hawkwind and Masters of Reality. Along the way, he struggled with heroin addiction, which he said he overcame in 1981.

In 1994, he formed the Ginger Baker Trio with bassist Charlie Haden and guitarist Bill Frisell, and briefly took part in BBM, a power trio that reunited him with Bruce and also featured Northern Irish blues-rock guitarist Gary Moore.

Baker, Clapton and Bruce came together again in 2005 for four shows at the Royal Albert Hall, documented in a live recording. Bruce died in 2014 at age 71.

Baker published his autobiography, “Hellraiser,” in 2009, and resumed touring in 2013 and 2014 with Ginger Baker Jazz Confusion, consisting of saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis, bassist Alec Dankworth and percussionist Abass Dodoo.

When heart surgery was required in 2016, Baker wrote on his blog, “Just seen doctor ... big shock ... no more gigs for this old drummer ... everything is off ... of all things I never thought it would be my heart.”

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That same year, he was ranked No. 3 in Rolling Stone’s list of the “100 Greatest Drummers of All Time,” behind first-place finisher John Bonham of Led Zeppelin and the Who’s Keith Moon.

“Gifted with immense talent, and cursed with a temper to match, Ginger Baker combined jazz training with a powerful polyrhythmic style in the world’s first, and best, power trio,” Rolling Stone wrote at the time, referring to Cream. “[T]he London-born drummer introduced showmanship to the rock world with double-kick virtuosity and extended solos.”

Updates:
1:20 PM, Oct. 07, 2019: This post was updated to include Twitter post about Baker’s death from Beatles drummer Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney and Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger.

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