See Why Ginger Baker (RIP) Was One of the Greatest Drummers in Rock & World Music

When talk of clas­sic rock drum­mers turns to Kei­th Moon and John Bon­ham, I smile and nod. What’s the point in argu­ing? They were both, in their dis­tinc­tive ways, incredible—and in their ear­ly deaths, immor­tal leg­ends. Who knows what their careers would have looked like had either lived past 32? But tru­ly, for the all-around breadth of his influ­ence, for the amount of respect he gained in musi­cal cir­cles around the world, no greater clas­sic rock drum­mer ever lived, in my opin­ion, than Gin­ger Bak­er, may he final­ly rest in peace.

The famous­ly rest­less, vio­lent­ly can­tan­ker­ous drum­mer died yes­ter­day at age 80, out­liv­ing most of his peers, despite liv­ing twice as hard for well over twice as long as many of them—a feat of strength we might impute to his ath­let­ic phys­i­cal sta­mi­na and fright­en­ing will.

Like Moon and Bon­ham, he com­bined raw pow­er with seri­ous jazz chops. (Bak­er insist­ed he nev­er played rock drums at all.) After his polyrhyth­mic pum­mel­ing defined the sound of super­groups Cream and Blind Faith, he burned out and moved to Africa to find sobri­ety and new sounds.

Bak­er trav­eled the con­ti­nent with Fela Kuti to learn its rhythms, record­ing live with Kuti’s band in ’71. Afrobeat drum­mer Tony Allen remarked that he under­stood “the African beat more than any oth­er West­ern­er.” (See him jam­ming in Lagos fur­ther down.) Baker’s discog­ra­phy includes clas­sic records with Eric Clap­ton and Jack Bruce, Kuti, Hawk­wind, and oth­er leg­ends. He trav­eled the world play­ing drums for over fifty years. Why, then, did he have such a low pro­file for much of his lat­er life? A 2012 doc­u­men­tary, Beware of Mr. Bak­er, based on a 2009 Rolling Stone arti­cle, offers some answers.

Baker’s seri­ous drug addic­tion and ter­ri­fy­ing per­son­al­i­ty alien­at­ed near­ly every­one around him. The doc­u­men­tary opens with an endorse­ment from anoth­er prick­ly and unlik­able red-haired char­ac­ter, John Lydon (for­mer­ly John­ny Rot­ten), whose Pub­lic Image Lim­it­ed is yet anoth­er project Bak­er ele­vat­ed with his play­ing. “He helped me rise,” says Lydon, and Bak­er would no doubt agree. He was not a mod­est man. He was, by most accounts, a right bas­tard, through and through, all of his life.

But he was too con­trar­i­an to be dis­missed as a mere nar­cis­sist. As a musi­cian, for exam­ple, he always thought of him­self as a sup­port­ing play­er. “I nev­er had a style,” he said in 2013. “I play to what I hear, so who­ev­er I’m play­ing with, what they play has a great influ­ence on what I play, because I lis­ten to what peo­ple are play­ing.” His skill at destroy­ing per­son­al rela­tion­ships was matched by his abil­i­ty for form­ing deep, awe-inspir­ing, if short-lived, musi­cal con­nec­tions. It’s a dichoto­my many drum­mers inspired by him have strug­gled to reconcile—taking lessons from Bak­er the drum­mer but not from Bak­er the man.

How do we sep­a­rate the man from his art? Why try? His mad pirate life makes for an epic saga, and Bak­er is a wild­ly excit­ing main char­ac­ter. He had ear­ly ambi­tions of becom­ing a pro­fes­sion­al cyclist. Though they didn’t pan out, he always retained the char­ac­ter­is­tics: he was both fierce­ly com­pet­i­tive and fierce­ly col­lab­o­ra­tive. Lat­er he picked up an even more rar­i­fied team sport—polo—keeping a sta­ble of hors­es on his gat­ed South African ranch, where he lived in his old age like a colo­nial ex-baron in a Nadine Gordimer nov­el. (He even­tu­al­ly had to sell the spread and move back to Lon­don.)

Bak­er was nev­er one to make apolo­gies, so his fans need not make any on his behalf. See him in some clas­sic per­for­mances above—at the top, solo­ing after an inter­view, at Cream’s Roy­al Albert Hall farewell con­cert; then play­ing a solo in a Cream reunion in that same venue almost forty years lat­er. After footage of him jam­ming in Lagos in 1971, we see what the inter­net calls the “BEST DRUM SOLO EVER,” fur­ther up. Just above, meet the man him­self, in all his unre­pen­tant glo­ry, and hear from those who knew him best, in the full doc­u­men­tary, Beware of Mr. Bak­er.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

What Makes John Bon­ham Such a Good Drum­mer? A New Video Essay Breaks Down His Inim­itable Style

Who Are the Best Drum Soloists in Rock? See Leg­endary Per­for­mances by John Bon­ham, Kei­th Moon, Neil Peart, Ter­ry Bozzio & More

Kei­th Moon Plays Drums Onstage with Led Zep­pelin in What Would Be His Last Live Per­for­mance (1977)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Toad says:

    Here’s some ear­li­er his­to­ry of Bak­er and the era he was a part of. The way I’ve heard it told in books and such, Gin­ger Bak­er would have been strict­ly jazz if it had­n’t been for Ray Charles.

    Cream came late; it was the tail end of a great British blues move­ment in which leg­endary indi­vid­ual tal­ents like Long John Baldry, Cyril Davies (search both their names on YouTube for some 1963 clips and you’ll see why they were so well-loved), and the bands of Alex­is Korner and John May­all were the more bluesy end of the spectrum–they always played the blues, and they were rather purist about it, com­plete­ly resist­ing jazz­i­fi­ca­tion. Clap­ton came out of this branch, and nev­er had any jazz.

    But the branch that Gin­ger Bak­er came out of was a bunch of jazz musi­cians who heard Ray Charles and had their life changed. Ray Charles was a legit jazz musi­cian though he’s not thought of that way these days, because he also played sim­pler blues and rave-ups. Bak­er, Gra­ham Bond, and oth­ers were play­ing fair­ly com­plex bebop-style jazz as part of a big jazz move­ment over there, and when they heard Ray Charles sing and play the blues, they were knocked out. They over­came their resis­tance to play­ing those sim­ple changes, because they start­ed get­ting that blues fever, you know? And also they felt they could reach the audi­ence with a more soul­ful, earthy music; jazz was a bit much for the pun­ters of the 60s. So, oth­er than Clap­ton, the oth­er two-thirds of Cream, Bak­er and Bruce, came out of this branch through the Gra­ham Bond Orga­ni­za­tion.

    The Gra­ham Bond Organ­i­sa­tion was one of the great lost oppor­tu­ni­ties of the Brit blues move­ment, and the 60s in gen­er­al. Me, I’d hap­pi­ly give up all of Cream if the GBO could have real­ized their poten­tial instead. Gin­ger Bak­er’s club-shak­ing drums, Jack Bruce’s bass and singing, Gra­ham Bond’s pow­er­ful vocals, Ham­mond organ and sax, and Dick Heck­stall-Smith’s ridicu­lous­ly vir­tu­oso and soul­ful sax play­ing. Imag­ine it’s 1965, you’re in a small Lon­don club, and they come out and open their set by blow­ing the walls down with this:

    The GBO did­n’t make it; they nev­er had a chance, pri­mar­i­ly because Gra­ham Bond was a hor­ri­ble and hope­less per­son for any­thing oth­er than music(where he was a straight-up genius imo); he ran his band into the ground while becom­ing an even worse junkie than Gin­ger Bak­er, which was say­ing some­thing. Oth­er rea­sons for their fail­ure were almost as important–they were great play­ers, but they weren’t song­writ­ers at ALL, and they were too adult for the era; they did­n’t fit com­fort­ably on a bill with more teen-friend­ly types like the Stones or the Yard­birds. They left behind a fair­ly good body of record­ings, great if you’re a devo­tee like me. But it’s the poten­tial they left unre­al­ized that leaves us devo­tees lis­ten­ing through the lines to the music they did­n’t make but which I can almost hear…

  • says:

    Let’s not for­get great Carl Palmer; also, Ian Paice.

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