LONDON — 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.
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.
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 super group, 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.”
From the 1970s on, Baker was ever more unpredictable. He moved to Nigeria, took up polo, drove a Land Rover across the Sahara, lived on a ranch in South Africa, divorced his first wife and married three more times.
He recorded with Kuti and other Nigerians, jammed with Art Blakey, Elvin Jones and other jazz drummers and played with John Lydon’s Public Image Ltd. 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.”
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 round 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.”