LONDON (AP) — Ginger Baker, the volatile and propulsive British musician who was best known for his time with the power trio Cream, died Sunday at age 80, his family said.
Baker wielded his blues power and jazz technique to help break open popular music and become one of the world’s most admired and feared musicians.
With blazing eyes, orange-red hair and a temperament to match, the London native ranked with The Who’s Keith Moon and Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham as the embodiment of musical and personal fury. Using twin bass drums, Baker fashioned a pounding, poly-rhythmic style uncommonly swift and heavy that inspired and intimidated countless musicians. But every beat seemed to mirror an offstage eruption — whether his violent dislike of Cream bandmate Jack Bruce or his on-camera assault of a documentary maker, Jay Bulger, whom he smashed in the nose with his walking stick.
Ginger Baker, great drummer, wild and lovely guy. We worked together on the 'Band on the Run' album in his ARC Studio, Lagos, Nigeria. Sad to hear that he died but the memories never will. X Paul pic.twitter.com/Rne4tn6A2i— Paul McCartney (@PaulMcCartney) October 6, 2019
Bulger would call the film, released in 2012, “Beware of Mr. Baker.”
Baker’s family said on Twitter that he died Sunday: “We are very sad to say that Ginger has passed away peacefully in hospital this morning.”
His daughter Nettie confirmed that Baker died in Britain but gave no other details. The family had said on Sept. 25 that Baker was critically ill in the hospital.
Beware of Mr. Baker, Cream, Documentary, Ginger Baker
While Rolling Stone magazine once ranked him the third-greatest rock drummer of all time, behind Moon and Bonham, Baker had contempt for Moon and others he dismissed as “bashers” without style or background. Baker and his many admirers saw him as a rounded, sophisticated musician — an arranger, composer, and student of the craft, absorbing sounds from around the world. He had been playing jazz since he was a teenager and spent years in Africa in the 1970s, forming a close friendship with the Nigerian musician-activist Fela Kuti.
“He was so unique and had such a distinctive personality,” Stewart Copeland of the Police told www.musicradar.com in 2013. “Nobody else followed in his footsteps. Everybody tried to be John Bonham and copy his licks, but it’s rare that you hear anybody doing the Ginger Baker thing.”
But many fans thought of Baker as a rock star, who teamed with Eric Clapton and Bruce in the mid-1960s to become Cream — one of the first supergroups and first power trios. All three were known individually in the London blues scene and together they helped make rock history by elevating instrumental prowess above the songs themselves, even as they had hits with “Sunshine of Your Love,” ″I Feel Free” and “White Room.”
Cream was among the most successful acts of its time, selling more than 10 million records. But by 1968 Baker and Bruce had worn each other out and even Clapton had tired of their deafening, marathon jams, including the Baker showcase “Toad,” one of rock’s first extended drum solos. Cream split up at the end of the year, departing with two sold-out shows at London’s Albert Hall. When told by Bulger that he was a founding father of heavy metal, Baker snarled that the genre “should have been aborted.”
To the surprise of many, especially Clapton, he and Baker were soon part of another supergroup, Blind Faith, which also featured singer-keyboardist Stevie Winwood and bassist Ric Grech.
As Clapton would recall, he and Winwood had been playing informally when Baker turned up (Baker would allege that Clapton invited him). Named Blind Faith by a rueful Clapton, the band was overwhelmed by expectations from the moment it debuted in June 1969 before some 100,000 at a concert in London’s Hyde Park. It split up after completing just one, self-titled album, as notable for its cover photo of a topless young girl as for its music. A highlight from the record: Baker’s cymbal splashes on Winwood’s lyrical ballad “Can’t Find My Way Home.”
Africa is to Baker what India was to George Harrison. In the 70s, he left the American music scene for West Africa, ending up in the Nigerian capital Lagos.
In Lagos, Nigeria, he took up polo, drove a Land Rover across the Sahara, set up a recording studio.
He recorded with Kuti and other notable Nigerians, jammed with Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, and other jazz drummers and played with John Lydon’s Public Image Ltd.
Until recently, he lived in South Africa on a sprawling polo ranch with 38 horses behind the “Beware of Mr. Baker” sign from the film.
But when I ask about it Baker tells me a story completely at odds with the terrifying man at the heart of the film.
“When I was living in South Africa I upset these white racists who ran the local polo club where I was a member,” he says. “I hated them. They thought because I was white I was going to go along with them.”
In fact, Baker had developed his obsession with polo not in England but in Nigeria, with black and white players.
“After I refused to join their racist club, ‘Beware Mr. Baker’ appeared in red graffiti on the fence,” Baker says, his eyes narrowing. “So I put up a sign next to it that said ‘Beware of Mr. Baker’.”
Baker says the racists had their own private army, a militia that whites were expected to pay to keep their property safe. “I told them to f*** off,” he says.
Instead, he held polo days for the local Aids orphanage and allowed black squatters on to his property.
In the end, the dispute drove him out of KwaZulu-Natal and to the beautiful mountains of the Western Cape where he set up a new polo ranch.
There’s a line in the Cream song Born Under a Bad Sign: “If it wasn’t for bad luck, I would have no luck at all.” And trouble seems to follow Baker wherever he goes.
There have been plenty of people waiting to exploit his vulnerability as a rich drug addict and, later, his naivety.
“There have also been many good friends,” he says. “Eric Clapton has always been good to me.”
In his current hand-to-mouth existence, he says, Clapton is helping him still.
At Tulbagh, on the Western Cape, where Baker sank his last £1million and personally built new stables, he took on a woman from the local bank as a personal accountant.
“She had all my online banking passwords and sorted out my paperwork,” he says.
“She was taking money from my account and she then deleted all the evidence.”
A two-year court case followed, in which the woman, Lindiwe Noko, 25, claimed she had been having an affair with Baker.
“I was very fond of her,” Baker says. “But there was nothing sexual. That was all lies.”
The documentary was being filmed throughout this time. Baker was totally stressed out, losing everything.
He says the filmmaker, Jay Bulger, was always in his face, leading to the assault.
The court found Noko guilty but Baker never recovered his huge legal costs.
The ranch was lost like so many ventures before – a studio in Nigeria which lost him every penny made from Cream.
There was also a farm in Colorado he had to abandon and the ranch besieged by racists in KwaZulu-Natal. “Leaving my horses broke my heart,” he says.
Almost penniless, Baker returned to England with his 33-year-old fourth wife and a stepdaughter he clearly loves, perhaps even now making up for all those years of neglecting former wives and three children.
He founded Ginger Baker’s Air Force, which cost a fortune and imploded after two albums. He endured his old enemy, Bruce, when Cream was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993 and for Cream reunion concerts a decade later. Bruce died in 2014.
Baker continued to perform regularly in his 70s despite arthritis, heart trouble, hearing loss dating from his years with Cream and lung disease from smoking. A stranger to no vice, immodesty included, he called his memoir “Hellraiser: The Autobiography of the World’s Greatest Drummer.”
“John Bonham once made a statement that there were only two drummers in British rock ‘n’ roll; himself and Ginger Baker,” Baker wrote in his book. “My reaction to this was, ‘You cheeky little bastard!’”
Born in 1939, Peter Edward Baker was the son of a bricklayer killed during World War II when Ginger was just 4. His father left behind a letter that Ginger Baker would quote from: “Use your fists; they’re your best pals so often.”
Ginger Baker rebuilt the farmhouse he lived in with his own hands. “I was born up a ladder with a trowel in my hand.”
He speaks movingly of his father Frederick who was killed in the Second World War when Baker was four years old.
“He died because of that stupid sod Churchill,” he says. “The invasion of the Dodecanese was his worst disaster.
“My dad’s in the British cemetery on Leros. The last message they put out was ‘situation desperate’. He probably sent it ’cos he was the signalman.”
Baker was a drummer from early on, even rapping out rhythms on his school desk as he mimicked the big band music he loved and didn’t let the occasional caning from a teacher deter him. As a teenager, he was playing in local groups and was mentored by percussionist Phil Seamen.
“At this party, there was a little band and all the kids chanted at me, ’Play the drums!‴, Baker told The Independent in 2009. “I’d never sat behind a kit before, but I sat down — and I could play! One of the musicians turned around and said, ‘Bloody hell, we’ve got a drummer’, and I thought, ‘Bloody hell, I’m a drummer.’”
Baker came of age just as London was learning the blues, with such future superstars as Clapton, Mick Jagger and Jimmy Page among the pioneers. Baker joined Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, where he met (and soon disliked, for allegedly playing too loud) the Scottish-born bassist Jack Bruce, with whom he was thrown together again as members of the popular British group the Graham Bond Organization.
Clapton, meanwhile, was London’s hottest guitarist, thanks to his work with the Yardbirds and John Mayall’s Blues Breakers, his extraordinary speed and agility inspiring “Clapton is God” graffiti. Clapton, Baker, and Bruce would call their band Cream because they considered themselves the best musicians around.
“Oh for god’s sake, I’ve never played rock,” Baker told the blog JazzWax in 2013. “Cream was two jazz players and a blues guitarist playing improvised music. We never played the same thing two nights running. Jack and I had been in jazz bands for years. All that stuff I did on the drums in Cream didn’t come from drugs, either. It was from me. It was jazz.”
HILLEL ITALIE I Associated Press Ros Wynne Jones I Mirror I Edited By Michael Onas
Italie reported from New York. Kelvin Chan contributed from London.