Ginger Baker has been called the most influential drummer of the 1960s. The legendary sticksman died Sunday at the age of 80. It is one of the great miracles of rock ’n’ roll that Baker even survived the ’60s. By all accounts, Baker should have gone the route of Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin and succumbed to a drug overdose.
Baker used to mainline heroin, cocaine and LSD. If you’ve ever seen any photos of Baker from that era, he looks like a guy who just mainlined heroin, cocaine and LSD. Baker had wild red hair and eyes as big as golf balls.
Baker was ranked third on Rolling Stone's 2016 "100 Greatest Drummers of All Time” list.
Neil Pert of Rush said of Baker, “His playing was revolutionary — extrovert, primal and inventive. He set the bar for what rock drumming could be. … Every rock drummer since has been influenced in some way by Ginger, even if they don't know it."
Baker apparently did know it. He titled his memoir “Hellraiser: The Autobiography of The World's Greatest Drummer.” Humility was not one of his more evolved traits.
Baker put the hell in hellraiser. He once pulled a knife on bandmate Jack Bruce. The 2012 rock doc “Beware of Mr. Baker” begins with the filmmaker walking up to Baker’s home, and Baker coming out and hitting him with a cane in the face. In short, Baker was a maniac. But man, the cat could drum.
Baker is best known as the drummer of the seminal rock power trio Cream, along with bassist Bruce and vocalist-guitarist Eric Clapton. Cream was a fusion of blues, psychedelia and hard rock. They basically took what the Beatles were doing and turned up the rock ’n’ roll elements to 11.
Cream’s first album, 1966’s “Fresh Cream,” features a track called “Toad,” which is a five-minute drum solo. This was unheard of in rock ’n’ roll at that time. In jazz, yes, but it was completely uncharted territory in rock ’n’ roll, and in laying it down on that track, Baker invented the archetypal rock drum solo.
There is a legendary, if not mythical, club show that is said by many who were there, including the Beatles, to be one of the greatest rock shows ever played, when Cream was joined by a then-unknown guitarist named Jimi Hendrix for a show at the London Polytechnic in October 1966.
Cream made four records and only lasted from 1966-68, due largely to the intense feud and downright hatred between Baker and Bruce. Clapton also had no love for Baker. The story goes that Clapton wanted out of Cream, and he and Steve Winwood had been talking about doing a side project called Blind Faith. Clapton showed up to the first Blind Faith rehearsal and who was sitting behind the kit but Ginger Baker with his crazy red hair and golf ball-sized eyes.
Blind Faith would make only one record, 1969’s self-titled album, and it is one of the top 10 rock ’n’ roll records of all time, in my opinion, an absolute masterpiece.
“Can’t Find My Way Home” is a top 5 song for me (admittedly, my top 5 has 13 songs in it).
Blind Faith called it a day in 1969, and Baker would never see the kind of fame and notoriety again that he enjoyed in the ’60s. Indeed, his heyday lasted six years. There is something to be said for being a good team player and seemingly no one could handle Baker driving the backbeat.
Baker was known for his wild, unpredictable and flamboyant performances that were often viewed in a vein similar to that of Keith Moon of the Who. But Baker also employed a much more restrained and straightforward performance style influenced by the British jazz groups he heard during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Years later, Baker explained that he never considered himself a rock drummer. “I was always a jazzer,” he said.
Baker also played a revolutionary role in merging the worlds of rock ’n’ roll and African music. He was the first British rocker to go to the continent and make music that fused the two disparate sounds and rhythms.
In November 1971, Baker backed up the legendary Fela Kuti on a landmark album called “Live!” It was a seminal record that marked the beginning of the mix of rock and African music that culminated in Paul Simon’s 1986 masterpiece “Graceland.”
Baker built a recording studio in Lagos, then the capital of Nigeria. He traveled across the Sahara desert and his trip was documented in the 1973 documentary “Ginger Baker in Africa,” which follows his odyssey as he makes his journey and finally arrives in Nigeria to set up his studio. After many frustrating setbacks and technical hitches, Batakota Studios opened at the end of January 1973, and operated successfully through the ’70s as a facility for both local and Western musicians. Paul McCartney and Wings recorded parts of “Band on the Run” at the studio.
Baker spent the rest of his career moving from one band to another with no outfit ever staying together for more than a coupe of years.
There’s also a Colorado component to Baker’s story. Baker lived in Parker from 1993-99, in part due to his passion for polo. Baker not only participated in polo events at the Salisbury Equestrian Park, but he also sponsored an ongoing series of jam sessions and concerts at the equestrian center on weekends. His past drug history increasingly caused him problems with U.S. immigration, so in 1999 he sold his Parker property and moved to South Africa.
In 2005, Cream reunited for a series of shows at the Royal Albert Hall that were released as a live album. Aside from the 2012 film “Beware of Mr. Baker,” which doesn’t reflect a very positive light on Baker, the former Cream and Blind Faith drummer spent the rest of his life in relative obscurity before passing away over the weekend.
Stewart Copeland, the drummer of The Police, one of the many rockers who regard Baker as a primary inspiration, told an interviewer once, "He personally is what drums are all about."
Copeland must have been referring to a drum solo — wild, improvised and kind of crazy, just like Ginger Baker.