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Cream: Possibly the Greatest Rock Band of All Time

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Jim Dorsch has been a writer and editor for 25 years. He is a longtime devotee of progressive and avant garde rock music.

Fans argue all day long about which band is or was the greatest. A strong case exists for Cream, with its heady blend of power, subtlety, strong writing and excellent musicianship. Cream was a new kind of rock group that stressed instrumental prowess and improvisation, changing the landscape of rock music.

Cream formed in 1966 and disbanded in 1968. The band played at guitarist Eric Clapton's 1979 wedding and its 1993 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and reunited in 2005 for gigs at the Royal Albert Hall in London and Madison Square Garden in New York.

Cream was an unusual grouping of musicians. Scottish-born Jack Bruce (1943-2014) was classically trained on the cello and played bass in jazz bands. Ginger Baker (b. 1939) was a largely self-taught drummer who rightly considered himself a jazz musician. A star in England, Eric Clapton (b. 1945) was grounded in blues and fresh from stints with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers and the Yardbirds.

The Players

John Simon Asher Bruce was born just north of Glasgow, Scotland, in Bishopbriggs. He sang in music competitions as a youth, with the result that he knew how to project from the abdomen when he sang. This helped him become a powerful singer as a professional. Bruce abandoned his studies at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama to play professionally.

Not yet 20, he joined Blues Incorporated, a London-based band led by Alexis Korner that included Graham Bond on organ and alto sax, Dick Heckstall-Smith (later to join Colosseum) on tenor saxophone and Ginger Baker on drums. The band played a wide range of music, including jazz, blues and R&B.

A number of personnel changes eventually produced a new band, the Graham Bond Organization, featuring Bond, Baker, Bruce, Heckstall-Smith and John McLaughlin on guitar. Around this time Bruce was required to play bass guitar for a session, as opposed to the double bass he had played until then. He immediately fell in love with the instrument, and made the change. When McLaughlin departed, Bruce started to play his six-string electric bass more like a guitar. The band's repertoire included the song “Train Time” (Peter Chatham), showcasing Jack Bruce on harmonica. This song later became a fixture in Cream's live shows. Baker's “Camels and Elephants” featured a drum solo; the song developed into the Cream song “Toad.”

With Cream, Jack Bruce perfected his “lead bass” style, filling out the sound of the trio. (John Entwistle was similarly busy with the Who.) He was an excellent singer, taking most lead singing duties, with Eric Clapton contributing the occasional lead and harmonizing.

Jack Bruce became the band's primary songwriter, working with poet Pete Brown (b. 1940). Baker had crossed paths with Brown, and started working with him on songs for Cream, but it was Bruce who gelled with the poet. The duo wrote many of Cream's biggest songs, including “I Feel Free,” “White Room” and (with Clapton) “Sunshine of Your Love.” Brown and Bruce continued to write together after Cream's demise. Baker has always been bitter about the way the writing, and consequent royalties, devolved mainly to Bruce and Brown.

Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce had a love-hate relationship: Baker loved to hate Bruce. Baker's issues often stemmed from a desire for Bruce to turn down the volume. Living in South Africa in 2009, he told The Irish Independent, “Nowadays, we're happily co-existing in different continents ... although I was thinking of asking him to move. He's still a bit too close.” Bruce and Baker frequently fought and sabotaged each other's instruments. Baker, who essentially managed the Graham Bond Organization, fired Bruce, who afterwards briefly played with John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, whose members included Eric Clapton, and then with Manfred Mann.

Peter “Ginger” Baker was born in London, and was on the road playing at the age of 16. He played in trad (Dixieland) bands to make a living, but soon gravitated toward the British blues scene. Drummer Charlie Watts helped Baker get a job with Blues Incorporated in 1962, which put him together with Jack Bruce. Blues Incorporated was managed by Robert Stigwood (b. 1934), an Australian who would play the same role with Cream.

Baker was devoted to cycling as a youth. He found himself playing drums at a party on a dare, and immediately took to it. His conditioning and strong legs, due to long-distance cycling, gave him unmatched stamina behind the kit. He devoted himself to drumming, building his own drum set and learning about African rhythms from his hero, the English drummer Phil Seamen (1926-1972), who introduced Baker to heroin, a substance also familiar to Jack Bruce.

Ginger Baker is a master of drum rudiments, something he learned from Seamen, who also taught him a balanced attack with all four limbs. He is schooled in polyrhythms. For a good example, put on your headphones and listen to “Ginger Spice” on Baker's 1999 album, Coward of the County with the Denver Jazz Quartet to Octet. Baker filled out Cream's sound with extended rhythmic patterns on the toms. He is the subject of an award-winning documentary, Beware of Mr. Baker (2012).

Fresh Cream

The Graham Bond Organization had wound down by 1966, and Baker was looking for a new gig. He had known Clapton for a few years and once jammed with him, and he now approached the guitarist with the idea to write together or form a band. Clapton immediately agreed to put together a group. He suggested Jack Bruce as the third member of the band; he had played with Bruce off and on in the Bluesbreakers and seen how well Baker and Bruce played together. Baker reluctantly agreed.

The band issued the uncharacteristic "Wrapping Paper" as their first single. Produced by Robert Stigwood, their first album, Fresh Cream (UK 1966, US 1967), was split evenly between originals and blues covers. It was notable for Baker's solo vehicle, “Toad,” one of the first extended drum solos in rock music. The American version of the LP led off with “I Feel Free,” a hit single in the UK that started with an unadorned vocal segment before Baker's pulsing drums opened the door for Clapton's crunching power chords.

Fresh Cream was recorded in a fairly simple manner, with some overdubbing. The band ran through each song a few times and then laid down a take. The group credited blues artist Skip James for his song “I'm So Glad,” something that wasn't always done at the time.

Eric Clapton grew up in Surrey, just outside London to the southwest. He was first known as a member of the Yardbirds, joining in 1963, but he was uncomfortable with the band's move toward pop music, prompting him to leave for John Mayall's Bluesbreakers in April 1965. He stayed with Mayall for only a few months before embarking on a disastrous trip to Greece as an itinerant musician, returning in November and leaving the band again in July 1966. Among the possible reasons for Clapton's leaving Mayall were smaller paychecks than he received as a Yardbird and Mayall's rules, which prohibited drinking, according to Chris Welch's authoritative book on Cream.

Unlike Bruce and Baker, Clapton had strong roots as a blues player, citing Freddie King, B.B. King, Albert King, Buddy Guy and Howlin Wolf's guitar player, Hubert Sumlin, as influences. Nevertheless, Clapton's bandmates in Cream had a solid underpinning in blues music. Bruce pointed out in the 2006 documentary Cream: Disraeli Gears that jazz musicians such as Ginger Baker and himself were expected to know blues.

Disraeli Gears

The second LP, Disraeli Gears, was recorded at Atlantic Studios in New York in May 1967. The LP slanted the mix toward psychedelic rock, with tunes like “Tales of Brave Ulysses” and “SWLABR.”

Ahmet Ertegun (1923-2006) had arranged for Atlantic to distribute Cream's records in the U.S. Disraeli Gears was produced by Felix Pappalardi (1939-1983), a classically trained musician who has sometimes been called a fourth member of the band. Pappalardi helped with arrangements and played on sessions. He co-wrote the songs “Strange Brew” and “World of Pain” with his wife, Gail Collins. The engineer, Atlantic's legendary Tom Dowd (1925-2002), was amazed to see the trio's towering stacks of Marshall amps. “The volume was simply staggering … It was pure bedlam,” he recalled for Mix.

Ertegun didn't seem to be in tune with the psychedelic material, noted Jack Bruce. He didn't care for tunes like “Sunshine of Your Love,” but the song, which was necessary to fill out the LP, became a smash single. According to Bruce, Ertegun thought that Clapton should be the lead singer because he was the guitarist. Baker and Bruce bridled at the idea that they were merely Clapton's backup musicians, particularly since Baker had formed the band and Bruce was the primary composer.

Wheels of Fire

The double-album Wheels of Fire included live and studio LPs. The band recorded in the studio with Pappalardi in London in July and August 1967 and at Atlantic Studios in January and February 1968. Six shows were recorded, mostly at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco in March 1968.

The studio LP featured three songs by Ginger Baker and pianist Mike Taylor. Bruce and Brown contributed four songs and Clapton nominated two covers. Pappalardi produced and Dowd engineered. Pappalardi took a more active role as a player, and the record generally features fuller instrumentation, with Baker adding bells and glockenspiel and Pappalardi contributing on bells, viola, organ, trumpet and tonette.

The live record showed the band stretching out with extended improvisations. “Spoonful” clocked in at almost 17 minutes, with Ginger Baker taking “Toad” to 16:15. The LP is called Live at the Fillmore, but only “Toad” was recorded there. This record fully showcases the remarkable interplay of these three virtuoso musicians.

Goodbye

According to Clapton, Cream's extended improvisations became vehicles by which the band's members could show off. He is said to have stopped playing at one performance, and Baker and Bruce kept on, having not noticed. The group suffered from abuse of drugs and alcohol, and Bruce's increasing volume saw Baker struggling to be heard above the din. The end was nearing.

Goodbye was recorded late in 1968 and released early the following year. The album featured three live songs recorded at the Forum in Los Angeles in October, and three from the studio, notably “Badge,” written by Clapton and George Harrison (1943-2001). Harrison played rhythm guitar on the song, credited as L'Angelo Misterioso.

Life After Cream

Blind Faith soon formed, with Clapton, Baker, Steve Winwood on keyboards and Ric Grech (1946-1990) playing bass. The band issued one album.

Clapton steered his work toward ensemble playing. He worked with Delaney & Bonnie before recording his first solo album, scoring a hit with J.J. Cale's “After Midnight.” He then formed Derek and the Dominoes, which recorded “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs” with Tom Dowd at Criteria Studios in Miami. Featuring the twin guitars of Clapton and Duane Allman, the album was released in 1970. Clapton took time off in the early 1970s due to heroin addiction, returning to work in 1974. The album 461 Ocean Boulevard included Bob Marley's song “I Shot the Sheriff,” which became Clapton's first #1 solo hit. He scored again with J.J. Cale's “Cocaine” in 1980.

Clapton was treated for alcoholism in 1982. He has had a busy career since recovering, and was the first three-time inductee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, with the Yardbirds, with Cream and as a solo artist.

Jack Bruce released Songs for a Tailor in 1969, the first of a string of albums. He worked in both acoustic and electric jazz, including two albums with Tony Williams Lifetime and an avant-jazz outing, Escalator over the Hill, with keyboard player Carla Bley. He recorded two albums with the power trio West, Bruce and Laing, and two with BLT, which included guitarist Robin Trower. Starting in 1983, he made a series of successful records with Latin/world producer Kip Hanrahan. He worked again with Baker in the early 1990s, with predictable results. Bruce underwent a liver transplant in 2003 after a cancer diagnosis, and almost died. He resumed work in 2004, and passed away due to liver disease in October 2014.

Ginger Baker in 1980

Ginger Baker in 1980

Ginger Baker formed Ginger Baker's Air Force in 1970. The jazz-rock fusion band included Phil Seamen, Steve Winwood, Ric Grech (violin and bass), Alan White (drums), Chris Wood (tenor sax and flute), Graham Bond (tenor sax), Harold McNair (tenor sax and flute), Remi Kabaka (percussion), Jeanette Jacobs (vocals) and Denny Laine (guitar and vocals). The band released two albums.

Baker played with Fela Ransome-Kuti in the early 1970s, and recorded three LPs with the Baker Gurvitz Army. Baker spent a large part of the 1970s in Nigeria, where he built a recording studio that he was eventually forced to sell at a huge loss. Through Ransome Kuti, he became interested in polo and has spent considerable time (and money) in that pursuit.

Baker spent some time in the early '80s growing olives in Italy. Bassist/producer Bill Laswell lured him into the studio to record Horses and Trees (1986) and Middle Passage (1990). He worked with Hawkwind, Atomic Rooster and Public Image Ltd. Baker accepted Bruce's offer to tour together in 1989 and 1990; it was a huge success. Baker formed a trio with bassist Charlie Haden and guitarist Bill Frisell, releasing Going Back Home (1994) and Falling Off the Roof (1996). He was raising polo ponies in Colorado when he made the delightful jazz record, Coward of the County, in 1999.

Cream played a hugely successful series of shows at London's Royal Albert Hall in 2005. The show moved to Madison Square Garden in New York, where Bruce and Baker had at it on stage again. That was the band's final show.

Comments

Mooseman 72 on November 21, 2018:

Disraeli Gears was the first LP I ever purchased. Age 12. SWLABR and Tales of Brave Ulysses shine. On Wheels of Fire, Born under a Bad Sign, Sittting on top of the World, Deserted Cities of the Heart and Those Were the Days were like nothing else anyone produced at the time. Jack Bruce's vocals shone through with the virtuoso musicianship. Their best 15 songs would compete with any others (Neil Young would probably be right there also.). Thanks for your article.

invisible on October 01, 2018:

Good read, thanks! I think I've always liked the more popular Cream songs as I heard them on the radio. I'm just now getting more in depth enjoying their first 3 albums. I'm realizing how each member of the band was brilliant. Even though I love Clapton's guitar, I absolutely love Ginger Baker's drumming.

begin on October 04, 2017:

As far as I'm concerned, apart from the Beatles this is the greatest group from the 60's. You also hear the beginnings of progressive rock.

Edwardlane on May 29, 2017:

Super! Love it! May be best

Jim Dorsch (author) from Alexandria, VA on May 22, 2012:

Glad you liked the article, and thanks for writing the Clapton piece! I'm conflicted, since I'm currently obsessed with King Crimson. But I'm still a huge Ginger Baker fan.

Coolmon2009 from Texas, USA on May 22, 2012:

Nice article on Cream and thank you for linking to my Eric Clapton article.

Jim Dorsch (author) from Alexandria, VA on January 28, 2012:

I suppose that's a danger of living in a greatest-hits culture. There's also the fact that Cream only lasted a couple years.

KF Raizor on January 28, 2012:

Do you think that Cream gets overlooked when the discussion of all-time greats comes up because "classic rock" stations only play one song by them, "Sunshine of Your Love," and that tends to minimize what people know?

Thanks for the hub!

Jim Dorsch (author) from Alexandria, VA on January 28, 2012:

Thanks to all. You might suspect from this piece that my favorite of the group is Ginger Baker, and you would be correct. Cheers.

Nemanja Boškov from Serbia on January 28, 2012:

A very informative and well-researched hub!

I love Cream and Clapton is one of my favorite guitar players of all time!

hlynnstephens from Dallas, Texas on January 28, 2012:

Great! Right on target.

Jools Hogg from North-East UK on January 28, 2012:

Interesting hub. I didn't really know very much about Cream although I have heard them and seen Eric Clapton since he went solo. I like 'I Feel Free' best of all of the songs I have heard but I think I need to go to You Tube after reading this to hear more I also liked a song called 'Badge' which a friend of mine always played back in the day. Thanks! Voted up.

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