Earlier this week, Ginger Baker passed away at the age of 80. To say that music lost a legend is an understatement.
If you know a thing or two about rock, you’ll know the name. Along with John Bonham and Keith Moon, Baker redefined the role of the drummer in a rock n’ roll band.
Through his playing in Cream – the first rock supergroup – Baker helped to elevate the percussionist beyond the position of mere timekeeper. His style combined the jazz lyricism of Phil Seaman, Art Blakely and Max Roach with the raw power of rock n’ roll. “Toad” his live centerpiece, during the Cream days, is widely credited as the first rock drum solo. The effect, as the New York Times observed in 1970, was like watching a “human combine harvester.”
But Baker was more than just a great rock drummer. As Rolling Stone notes, the man was a paradox, fusing different styles in a varied career that incorporated jazz, African music, prog and more:
“If you only know him in one context — with barnstorming blues-rock trio Cream, in short-lived supergroup Blind Faith, alongside Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti, or in one of his later jazz combos — you’re missing out on a fuller understanding of the contribution this irascible icon made to his art form.”
Baker himself would likely have agreed with that sentiment. Legendarily cantankerous and volatile, he hated being pigeonholed. “I’ve never played rock,” he told Jazz FM in 2013, while he insisted in 2015 that heavy metal – the a genre his powerhouse drumming undoubtedly influenced – was “an abortion.”
Ginger, by all accounts, was not an easy man to get on with. Given to fighting with his bandmates, particularly longtime sparring partner Jack Bruce, his caustic streak would, in his later years, define him as much as his drumming. In the critically acclaimed documentary “Beware of Mr. Baker,” released in 2012, audiences witnessed a man prone to whacking the filmmaker with his cane when he didn’t agree with him.
Health problems would also blight his twilight years. In 2013, he developed chronic obstructive pulmonary disease from years of heavy smoking, and chronic back pain from degenerative osteoarthritis. By 2016, “serious heart issues” led to him cancelling all future gigs. Speaking of his many ailments in typical Baker style, he once claimed, “God is punishing me for my past wickedness by keeping me alive and in as much pain as he can.”
Explosive and self-destructive, Ginger made a fair few enemies in his time. But their numbers pale in comparison to those who were drawn to his phenomenal playing and sheer musicality. As Time notes:
“His many admirers saw him as a rounded, sophisticated musician — an arranger, composer and student of the craft, absorbing sounds from around the world.”
It’s fair to say that Ginger was a man who left his mark.
Was he difficult?
Was he a nice guy?
But, the music he left behind – a testament to his incredible talent – will undoubtedly be his greatest legacy.
What are your memories of Ginger Baker? Did you ever see him live? Share your stories in the comments.