Ginger Baker, drummer and co-founder of 1960s blues-rock supergroup Cream, died on Sunday (Oct. 6), his family confirms. He was 80.
Baker’s death follows a 2016 fall in his home and subsequent open heart surgery after being diagnosed with a heart condition, and the news follows recent posts on his social media channels that he was hospitalized in “critically ill” condition.
Baker leaves behind a legacy as the drummer for Cream, his 1960s power trio with guitarist Eric Clapton and bassist Jack Bruce that tossed up the blues with sunshine-pop, hitting the Billboard Hot 100 hard with “Sunshine of Your Love” (No. 5) and “White Room” (No. 6) in 1968. The band split in 1968 and reunited in 2005 for a residency at the Royal Albert Hall, captured that year on the live album Royal Albert Hall London May 2-3-5-6, 2005.
Late in life, Baker often appeared in the press as a lovable, irascible grouch, living in South Africa with his Zimbabwean wife, Kudzai, while treating his emphysema and degenerative spine condition. During Cream’s brief reunion, he sang his oddball interlude “Pressed Rat and Warthog” (from 1968’s Wheels of Fire) with ill-fitting socks falling down his legs and fought bitterly with Bruce onstage.
“It’s a knife-edge thing for me and Ginger,” Bruce was quoted as saying in Rolling Stone. “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.”
The son of a tobacco shop employee and a bricklayer who was killed in WWII, Baker was enamored early on with jazz legends like Art Blakey, Max Roach and Philly Joe Jones. He made the rounds in traditional jazz combos in the mid-1960s before coming into orbit of British blues nuts Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce. The former was fresh from the Yardbirds and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers; the latter would jam with Baker in the blues-jazz band the Graham Bond Organization. Considering themselves the “cream of the crop” of British bluesmen, they called themselves Cream and released their debut Fresh Cream in 1966.
Apart, the members of Cream were good-to-great blues sidemen. When they got together, they were dynamite. Their riff-heavy originals like “Sunshine of Your Love” inspired riff-mongers from The Allman Brothers Band to Lynyrd Skynyrd. When they tackled the blues, they were reverent, staying true to the melodic backbones of Skip James’ “I’m So Glad” and Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful” while giving them a fresh, modern feel.
Cream released two more albums during their run, 1967’s Disraeli Gears and 1968’s double-disc Wheels of Fire, and 1969’s Goodbye, a mix of live and studio recordings, followed after their split. Despite existing for only two years, Cream sold over 35 million records over their lifespan.
With Cream in the rearview mirror, Baker and Clapton started another blues-rock supergroup, Blind Faith — another blues-rock supergroup featuring bassist Ric Grech and Traffic guitarist Steve Winwood — in 1968. The band burned out even quicker than Cream, releasing a 1969 self-titled album and undergoing one tour before going their separate ways. In 1972, Baker released two solo albums, Ginger Baker at His Best and Stratavarious, in which he dabbled in jazz fusion and Afrobeat.
From 1980 onward, Baker briefly joined space-rock agitators Hawkwind, one of over a dozen drummers in the band’s history. "Ginger fitted the band like a glove," their guitarist Huw Lloyd-Langton said in the 2004 biography The Sage of Hawkwind. "His style was just right for it." During the dawn of metal, Cream’s heavy blues was sometimes cited as an influence, which made Baker irate.
“I loathe and detest heavy metal. I think it is an abortion,” he told Forbes in 2015. “They don’t seem to understand I was thrashing in order to hear what I was playing. It was anger, not enjoyment — and painful.”
Baker went on to stretch beyond blues-rock, playing on Public Image Ltd.’s 1986 album Album and in a jazz trio with Bill Frisell and Charlie Haden. In 2009, he published an autobiography, Hellraiser: The Autobiography of the World’s Greatest Drummer. He stayed behind the kit until heart issues laid him low in 2016. “Just seen doctor… big shock,” he wrote on his official blog. “No more gigs for this old drummer. Everything is off. Of all things, I never thought it would be my heart.”
Even as his health seriously declined, Baker opted to spit in the face of death. “You know, one day they’re going to take all the best humans, go to Mars, leave us behind, and that’s going to be it!” he told Rolling Stone, gesturing to a National Geographic show about the big bang theory on a nearby television.
“But death is the final great adventure!” he added. “When I die, put me in a lead coffin and throw me out to sea!”