Although best known for his early work drumming for the Eric Clapton-led bands Cream and Blind Faith, Ginger Baker was a born explorer who earned the kind of success that, paired with his skills and restlessness, afforded him the opportunity to seek.
The hard-living, quick-tempered British percussionist, who died Sunday at age 80, took full advantage of his success in the mid- and late 1960s on Cream hits including “White Room,” “I Feel Free” and “Sunshine of Your Love.”
Open to tripping in many senses of the word, Baker immersed himself in African drums in the 1970s and experimental percussion in the ‘80s, mixing his background in rock, blues and jazz patterns with Nigerian Afro-beat and Middle Eastern accents to create poly-rhythmic jams that sound as fresh today as when they were recorded.
At each step, Baker moved away from mainstream FM rock and onto a tangle of diverging paths. By the time of his death he’d recorded so much music that it can be tough to get a bead on his output. Below, 10 crucial Baker-propelled works from across the decades.
Ginger Baker Drum Choir, “Atunde!” (1971)
From a blues-based fuzz-rock trio to a three-piece drum choir? Yes. Baker moved in odd directions, most not so much driven by a desire for hit records but so he could travel and make music.
Pure percussion with call-and-response vocals, Baker issued this at the same moment that much of the rock culture was harmonizing along with singer-songwriters such as James Taylor and Crosby, Stills & Nash. Needless to say, the single didn’t generate enough demand for an LP.
Ginger Baker and Salt, “Improvisation No. 1" (1972)
In 1970, Baker saw the great Nigerian bandleader Fela Kuti in London and headed to Lagos the next year. There, he joined Kuti for the recording sessions that bore the classic album “Fela Ransome-Kuti and Africa 70 with Ginger Baker Live!” Baker also hooked up with musicians and singers he’d invite to Munich in 1972. Among them, Kuti’s longtime backup singers the Lijadu Sisters and psychedelic funk guitarist Berkley Jones.
Baker’s tag-team partner on this release? The great jazz drummer Art Blakey, who, as part of the Jazz Messengers, had long been one of Baker’s favorite players. Baker released these untitled live recordings in 2010, and they didn’t make much of a dent upon arrival. They deserve to be heard.
Ginger Baker, “Makuta”
Ginger Baker’s 1986 solo album “Horses and Trees” is a creative peak, one facilitated in New York City through producer-bassist Bill Laswell’s many connections. Among them: the searing electric guitarist Nicky Skopelitis, Funkadelic founding member Bernie Worrell, Brazilian percussionist and singer Naná Vasconcelos, turntablist D. St. and Senegalese drummer Aïyb Dieng.
Tying all of it together is Baker, sitting upright in his kit like a proper gentleman but smashing drumheads and cymbals like a toddler throwing a tantrum.
Baker may have made a lot of money, but he spent a lot more of it. Good thing for his family he wasn’t above joining bands to pay his bills. In 1980, the drummer hooked up with the space-rock band Hawkwind for its album “Levitation.”
A mess of riffs, oscillators and pounding, Baker pushed Dave Brock and company’s hard rock in ways that predicted desert rock heroes Kyuss and Queens of the Stone Age.
Bakerandband, “The Land of Mordor” (1982)
Baker’s best recorded expressions are, by far, his instrumentals. “The Land of Mordor,” taken from a one-off album by another of his trios, called Bakerandband, journeys to the Middle Earth of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
Is it any good? It’s no better or worse than anything in Spinal Tap’s oeuvre, which means it’s definitely worth a listen.
Masters of Reality feat. Ginger Baker, “She Got Me When She Got Her Dress On” (1992)
Every few years, until his failing health kept him away from the drums, Baker would surprise his followers with a left-field move, and few were more surprising than when he became part of stoner-rock band Masters of Reality.
As a member of yet another power trio, Baker took a seat behind the band’s founder, Chris Goss, on its 1992 album, “Sunrise on the Sufferbus,” for Rick Rubin’s Def American imprint.
Ginger Baker Trio (1994)
In a 1970 interview with NME, Baker suggested that he’d likely have to be put out to pasture in a half-decade. “I’ll have nothing left to give physically after that. I use both feet the way I play, and to be honest it’s shattering,” he said. “After 35 or so I won’t be able to keep it up even if I want to.”
He apparently hadn’t yet realized that he need not hit the drums so hard, and that open space has its own kind of rhythm, as this complex set of instrumental jazz, featuring Bill Frisell on guitar and Charlie Haden on bass, attests. Most striking is the closing Baker composition, “East Timor,” which finds the drummer reciting in his gritty South London accent, as Frisell and Haden glide along, an indictment of the then-Indonesian occupation of the titular island-state.
Ginger Baker and Tony Allen drum solo (2013)
Nigerian drummer Allen began working with Kuti in the 1960s, and was part of Africa 70 when Baker jammed with them in Lagos in the early ‘70s.
In 2013, Allen and Baker reunited to celebrate Kuti’s legacy, and watching them play suggested that the beat they commenced all those decades ago had been thumping in the ether the whole while.
Ginger Baker, “Middle Passage” (1990)
A 1990s beat-fest that blends Jamaican dub, Middle Eastern percussion, bass-heavy post-punk (courtesy of former Public Image Ltd. bassist Jah Wobble) and, yes, Baker holding it all together. Of particular note across this lesser-known gem is the sound of Turkish flautist and ney player Omar Faruk Tekbilek.
As was typical of Baker, “Middle Passage” featured a host of percussionists he’d met along the way. More generous than he was competitive, Baker’s philosophy advocated for the borderless power of music to serve as uniter.
“Beware of Mr. Baker” documentary (2012)
Was Ginger Baker a nice person? Maybe if you were a musician or if he liked you. But as this unflinching 2012 documentary confirms, the artist had some issues. Anger, definitely. Drugs? Oh, yes. Violence. A lot.
Directed by Jay Bulger, who at one point gets attacked by Baker for doing interviews behind Baker’s back, this authorized documentary features the subject, family and followers recollecting on his life and work. “Use your fists — they are your best pals,” Baker recalls his father telling him as a teen. The advice set the son on a course that likely would have landed him in jail were it not for the drums.