Reflection: The Musical Legacy Of Ginger Baker

Reflection: The Musical Legacy Of Ginger Baker

ginger baker
Ginger Baker, 1975 (Photo by Anwar Hussein/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

With a heavy heart, we bid farewell to Ginger Baker, one of the most influential drummers in rock'n'roll history, with classic tracks from Cream, Blind Faith, Ginger Baker's Airforce and his other bands, and his work with Fela Kuti, Gary Moore and others. We also look at the band that he and Jack Bruce first came to fame together in, the Graham Bond Organisation, who had a substantial influence on Australian music in the mid-60s. 
One of rock's most divisive figures due to his prickly personality, Ginger Baker was not one of those feelgood figures – say a George Harrison – whose passing provokes nothing but an outpouring of love. Indeed, prompted perhaps by the man depicted in the 2012 documentary Beware of Mr Baker, quite a few armchair critics have had the knives out for Ginger since his death was announced on Monday. But in tribute to Baker’s passing, Paul McCartney has called him not only "a great drummer" but a "wild and lovely guy", and we're here to celebrate the man's musical legacy anyway. And what a legacy it is.
Best known for his role as drummer in Cream, the band he formed with Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce, Ginger had a profound impact on the music of the second half of the 60s as beyond. The first power trio, the first band to add a thick heaviness and percussive assault to their blues licks (a heaviness that would ultimately soon evolve into heavy metal), and the first all-virtuoso rock outfit, Cream not only changed the way that rock music sounded; they changed the way people thought about it. Eric Clapton had already turned things on their head in his days in the Yardbirds and Bluesbreakers – "Clapton is God" was a commonly graffitied proclamation in London in the mid-60s – but when he joined forces with two equally skillful and forceful musicians, the result was indeed game-changing. 


Cream not only walked the walk, but they also talked the talk. Well, Ginger did anyway. Opinions that Ginger would later offer to Classic Rock magazine summed up his attitude towards his contemporaries in the 60s: "Keith Moon as a drummer? Nah. He was good with The Who, I suppose, when he tried to play like me... If you're going to judge from minus two to 10 then I'm a golden 10. Mitch Mitchell was a journeyman. He was hopeless. John Bonham, Ringo Starr, Charlie Watts… they're a three or four. Mick Jagger is a musical moron. Paul McCartney boasts he can't read music! How can you call yourself a musician, then? John Lennon was the best musician in The Beatles by a country mile. He was a very talented guy. But George Martin was The Beatles. Without him they'd have been nowhere."
Jimi Hendrix – "a great player" – was one musician whose abilities Baker couldn't deny, and it was Hendrix who very soon picked up from where Cream took off. Cream burned brightly but quickly – after two and a half years and four remarkable albums it was over and the band split in acrimony in late 1968.
An outfit that is often overlooked not only in Ginger Baker's story, but in the story of Rock as a whole, is the band that Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce played together in immediately prior to Cream. The Graham Bond ORGANisation was the group in which the pair made their name, and was an outfit that had a profound influence on what was happening on the music scene in the early-mid-60s. Organist and saxophonist Bond was one of the founding figures of the British blues scene, along with Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies. His early 60s band featured the best of young players – not only Baker and Bruce but guitarist John McLaughlin – and he was a mentor to others, including future Deep Purple organist Jon Lord. Bond, like many of his proteges, came from a jazz background, and the jazz training gave these musicians an edge over those coming to blues and rhythm and blues from a rock'n'roll background. As Cream songwriter Peter Brown later told Rolling Stone, "What the Beatles were to the public, the Graham Bond Organization was to musicians."
Whilst they never had hits per se, the GBO's influence was far-reaching. Their 1965 debut album The Sound of 65 had a serious impact on young blues buffs in Australia, including a young Lobby Loyde, whose band in mid-60s Brisbane, the Purple Hearts, turned Bond's arrangement of an old work song called "Early In The Morning" into an iconic Australian classic. Melbourne's Loved Ones also reflected the great influence the album had on burgeoning blues scene down south; they and many of their contemporaries came out of Melbourne's early 60s trad jazz scene, so were very much aligned with where the Bond Organisation were coming from. If you listen closely to Bond's recording of "Early In The Morning" you'll hear where the Loved Ones got the idea for the counter-point handclapping that is such a big part of their classic song "The Loved One".



Check out this wild footage of the Graham Bond Organisation from the film Gonks Go Beat!

Post-Cream, Baker would go onto Blind Faith, alongside Clapton, Stevie Winwood and others before forming his own outfit Ginger Baker's Airforce, which featured his old mentor Graham Bond, and which took a new approach to the jazz and early blues that both men had previously explored. Those explorations led Ginger to Lagos, where he studied more contemporary African rhythms with the hugely influential Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, and even set up his own studio.


A bit later in the 70s, Ginger formed Baker Gurvitz Army with brothers Adrian and Paul Gurwitz (from early hard rockers Gun, best known for "Race With The Devil").

In the 80s and 90s Baker busied himself with stints in Hawkwind and session work for Public Image Ltd amongst others; it was a period he later dismissed. More significant was the short-lived combo in the 90s, The Ginger Baker Trio, with bassist Charlie Haden and guitarist Bill Frisell.


Ginger showed his humanitarian side and hit close to home for Australians with his commentary on the war in East Timor on the 1996 Ginger Baker Trio track "East Timor".

Next came another short-lived outfit BBM, a power trio with the line-up of Baker, Jack Bruce and Irish blues rock guitarist Gary Moore. BBM were a return to Cream-style heaviness, and Baker later credited Moore with ruining his ears!  

The formation of BBM was surprising given the animosity between Baker and Bruce going back to Cream days, but a decade later – in 2005 – they were together again. Cream's triumphant 2005 reunion show at Albert Hall showed just how timeless their music was.


Ginger Baker’s remarkable – and remarkably diverse – contribution to contemporary music will not be forgotten.  

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