The great drummer Ginger Baker has died. Baker, best known as a member of Cream and Blind Faith alongside Eric Clapton, was 80. In late September, his family announced he was “critically ill in hospital” before updating four days later that he was “holding his own.” This morning, they’ve announced via his Twitter account, “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.” No cause of death has been reported yet.
Baker was born in 1939 into a working class London family, and his father died while fighting in World War II when he was a child. As a teenager, Baker took up the drums, getting lessons from the English jazz drummer Eric Seaman. In the early ’60s, Baker began playing with the Graham Bond Organisation, a UK blues band. And in 1966, Baker and the Graham Bond Organisation bassist Jack Bruce formed the pioneering power trio Cream with guitar wizard Eric Clapton. In Cream, all three members of the band sang lead; there was no real frontman.
Cream’s run was short but consequential. The band only existed for two years, but in that time, they recorded four albums. Their fusion of heavy blues and psychedelic rock helped set the stage for hard rock and heavy metal, and their band format — three people locking in and making as much noise as possible — essentially set the blueprint for the power trio. Every power trio that followed — the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Blue Cheer, ZZ Top, the early Grand Funk Railroad, Motörhead, Rush, Nirvana — owes something to Cream.
Cream were an enormous success early on, scoring #1 albums in both the UK and the US. “Sunshine Of Your Love,” a 1968 single that peaked at #6 in the US, became a garage-band standard. But though they all gelled musically, the members of Cream had issues with each other; Baker and Bruce, in particular, fought bitterly. Cream broke up in 1968.
After Cream, Baker joined the supergroup Blind Faith, which featured Clapton and Steve Winwood. The first Blind Faith show, in London’s Hyde Park in 1969, attracted 100,000 fans. The band only released one album, a self-titled 1969 effort, before breaking up. The next year, Baker founded another band, the jazz fusion group Ginger Baker’s Air Force, which originally featured Steve Winwood, Graham Bond, and the future Wings member Denny Laine. The band’s lineup constantly shifted, and they released one live album and one live-in-studio album in 1970.
In 1971, Baker moved to Lagos and started a long working relationship with the Nigerian Afrobeat king Fela Kuti. Baker was pretty much the first Western musician to really experiment with African music, and he devoted himself to it entirely in a way that few of his successors would. The 1971 documentary Ginger Baker In Africa captures the early stages of that journey. Baker remained in Lagos until 1980, when his studio finally failed.
In his later years, Baker spent time playing with bands like Hawkwind and Public Image Ltd. He also formed a few more short-lived supergroups: Baker Gurvitz Army, Masters Of Reality, BBM, the Ginger Baker Trio, the excellently named Ginger Baker Jazz Confusion. Baker kicked a heroin addiction and spent time living in Italy, Colorado, and South Africa. He reunited with Cream for their 1993 Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame induction and for a series of 2005 shows in London and New York. He also published a memoir called Hellraiser in 2009. Another documentary about Baker, Beware Of Mr. Baker, came out in 2012.
In recent years, Baker has suffered from ill health conditions, including osteoarthritis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He had heart surgery in 2016. His most recent solo album Why? came out in 2016. Baker’s son Kofi recently teamed up with Jack Bruce’s song and Eric Clapton’s nephew to launch a Cream tribute tour, though that’s a bit of a complicated story.
Baker didn’t like to call himself a rock drummer, but he was among the most important rock drummers who has ever lived. His style — brash, showy, and hard-hitting, but also syncopated and in-the-pocket — became in inspiration for generations that followed. He also had great taste, instincts, and ability to rope in great collaborators, even if he and those collaborators didn’t often get along very well. Below, watch some videos of Baker at work.
UPDATE (10/6): The members of the Music Of Cream, a Cream revival act that have toured the world playing the band’s music, have all shared statements about Baker’s death. The three members are Ginger Baker’s son Kofi, Jack Bruce’s son Malcolm, and Eric Clapton’s nephew Will Johns. Here are their words via a press release:
From Kofi Baker (drums):
The other day I had a beautiful visit with my dad…we talked about memories and music and he’s happy that I’m keeping his legacy alive. Our relationship was mended and he was in a peaceful place. Thank you all for the kind messages and thoughts. I love my dad and will miss him always.
From Will Johns (guitar, vocals):
I have really fond memories of Ginger. When I was a kid, he would play games with me and was always a lot of fun when I would see him at Eric’s house. I can remember always asking Pattie, ‘where’s Ginger, where’s Ginger??’ He was cool and I loved him.
From Malcolm Bruce (bass, vocals):
Much love and peace to Ginger’s family and respect to him. He leaves an incredible and innovative legacy. He always explored across the boundaries of creativity, collaborating with musicians from other cultures before the term ‘world music’ was adopted by others, and had a truly musical ability and a natural sense of what was true and beautiful. Rest in peace. It has been an honour to know you!