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GINGER BAKER,
1939-2019

Ginger Baker, one of rock’s first superstar drummers whose initial innovation was the incorporation of jazz styles and solos into the blues-based rock of Cream and Blind Faith, died Sunday in England. He was 80.

Baker’s death was announced with a social media post that read “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.”

In a Facebook post 11 days ago, his family announced that he was critically ill in the hospital, but gave no other details. He has been suffering from heart ailments, COPD and degenerative osteoarthritis for several years.

A cantankerous and wild personality, Rolling Stone listed him at #3 on the 100 Greatest Drummers of All Time list in 2016, largely for influencing nearly every hard rock and heavy metal drummer over the last five decades. He was a polyrhythmic master who brought African and jazz styles to his later bands, eventually closing out his recording career with a sharp instrumental jazz effort.

The Rolling Stone designation came just two years after his triumphant return to jazz, Why? (Motema), and a career that included work with Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, the hard rock bands Hawkwind and Masters of Reality, John Lydon’s post-punk outfit Public Image Ltd., and producer/bassist Bill Laswell.

Post Cream and Blind Faith, Baker also led Ginger Baker’s Air Force, the Baker Gurvitz Army trio and, later in life, a jazz group.

Baker gained worldwide fame in Cream, the power trio he formed with Eric Clapton and his former bandmate in his first rock band, the Graham Bond Organisation, bassist Jack Bruce. He was the first prominent rock percussionist to use a double bass drum, and with “Toad,” on 1966’s Fresh Cream, the trio’s debut, he proffered the first extensive drum solo on a studio album.  

The clash of personalities in Cream led to a shortened life but over the course of four albums they demonstrated an adventurousness  for trio that had no peer beyond the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Clapton and Baker formed Blind Faith with Steve Winwood and Ric Grech, both of whom would perform with Baker’s Air Force, whose lone album featured Baker’s 15-minute tour de force “Do What You Like.”

At a 1971 concert in London, Baker had a famous half-hour-plus drum battle with jazz legend Elvin Jones on  “Do What You Like”; the verdict was a draw.

In 1971 he abandoned rock music and traveled, unannounced, to Nigeria to work with Fela. Baker helped build the country’s first 16-track recording studio in Lagos, and, as a percussionist for hire, would record in Lagos with Paul McCartney when he set up shop to do Band on the Run.

From the early ‘70s forward, Baker largely worked as a freelancer, disappearing at times to try non-music efforts such being an olive farmer in Italy. Baker eventually settled in South Africa.

Cream was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993 and Baker, Bruce and Gary Moore followed that honor with a short-lived power trio. Cream reunited in 2005 for a series of shows in New York and London; a year later, on the 50th anniversary of their debut album, the Recording Academy gave them a Lifetime. Achievement Grammy.

Baker’s story was chronicled in Jay Bulger’s 2012 doc Beware of Mr. Baker,  which won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Doc at SXSW.

 

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