Updated at 10:42 a.m. ET
There are lots of firsts and superlatives in the career of Ginger Baker, the drummer and bandleader who died Sunday morning at age 80. His death was announced by his family on social media; they had said on Sept. 25 that he was "critically ill," without giving details.
The wild-eyed son of a South London bricklayer, Baker was the engine room of rock's first and still most revered power trio, Cream. He played a similarly key role in shaping the more finessed work of one of rock's first supergroups, Blind Faith.
Then, in the 1970s, Baker led bands that linked the flamboyant intensity of rock to the intricate polyrhythms of jazz and jazz-rock fusion. He was the first rock-era timekeeper to seek out and become fluent in the nuances of African drumming – famously collaborating with the Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti in performances captured on a landmark 1971 live album.
Baker, who was born Aug. 19, 1939, in southeast London, earned the admiration of his colleagues; Cream collaborator Eric Clapton described him as a "fully formed musician." He also had an ego to match his accomplishments: He titled his memoir Hellraiser: The Autobiography of the World's Greatest Drummer. Police drummer Stewart Copeland, one of the many rockers who regard Baker as a primary inspiration, told an interviewer, "He personally is what drums are all about."
But as made clear in the unflattering 2012 documentary Beware of Mr. Baker, the Cream drummer was coarse, cantankerous and confrontational at close proximity. The film opens with the interviewer on the receiving end of a shot to the face from Baker's cane; it goes on to chronicle the acidic relationship between Baker and Cream bassist Jack Bruce, and quotes Baker heaping derision on contemporaries like Keith Moon of The Who and John Bonham of Led Zeppelin.
At one point in the film, Baker's first wife, Elizabeth Ann Baker, says "If a plane went down and there was one survivor, it would be Ginger....The devil takes care of his own."
Baker's early musical experiences involved playing trumpet and banging out rhythms on desks in school in order to get his classmates to dance. After sitting in on drums with a traditional jazz band in London, he was invited to join permanently, despite having very little training. Baker then spent several years on the jazz circuit there, playing with some of London's most accomplished musicians. Years later, he explained that he "never considered himself a rock and roller – I was always a jazzer."
By 1962, Baker joined Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated on the recommendation of another legendary percussionist, Charlie Watts. In that group, Baker connected with Bruce and keyboardist Graham Bond; both Baker and Bruce described the working dynamic as testy and defined by conflict, a preview of things to come with Cream. The three left Korner's group a year later, and worked as the Graham Bond Organisation until 1966, when Bruce briefly joined forces with guitarist Eric Clapton as part of John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers. After hearing that Mayall lineup, Baker then approached Clapton with the idea for a more experimental outfit. Clapton agreed, on one condition: That Bruce play bass and sing. Cream was born.
The trio's first single for manager Robert Stigwood's Reaction label was "Wrapping Paper," a throwaway pop number that would be left off Fresh Cream, the band's debut, when released in December 1966. The album is more stylistically varied than the group's subsequent works — with several jazz-tinged pieces (including a waltz called "Dreaming"), an extended psychedelic romp through Willie Dixon and Howlin' Wolf's classic "Spoonful" that can be considered "proof of concept" for Cream's free-form improvisational focus, and an original, "Toad," that became an epic drum showcase during live performances.
Cream took off quickly, helped by rapid word of mouth about the trio's live shows, and news of a legendary jam at London Polytechnic in October 1966 with then-unknown guitarist Jimi Hendrix. Cream made its U.S. debut in March 1967, eventually playing 71 shows in the States that year and recording its second album, Disraeli Gears, in New York. The album was completed in just three-and-a-half days, just before the musicians' visas expired. The album applied the heavy, strikingly unified sound of Fresh Cream to mostly original material ranging from trippy pop confections ("Strange Brew") to thick, blues-rooted stomps ("Sunshine of Your Love"). The work hit a pop culture sweet spot, establishing Cream as both hitmakers and a respected musical force, the rare rock band described, contemporaneously, with words like "visionary."
But the animosity that defined the relationship between Baker and Bruce years before returned as Cream ascended. Clapton has characterized his role as "referee," and cited the constant conflict as the reason that the trio lasted only two years, despite selling 15 million albums worldwide during its run. Shortly after a New York reunion performance in 2005, Bruce described the dynamic to Rolling Stone as a "knife-edge thing for me and Ginger... 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."
Onstage and off, Baker relished being the wildcard, the rogue, the instigator. Curiously, the same character traits that made people fear Baker face-to-face served him well on stage, where his goading, conversational approach to timekeeping became the catalyst for some of the most ferocious extended jamming in rock history.
Baker pushed Clapton to peaks of soloistic fury he'd never visited before – and wouldn't regularly reach again. That was partly the result of Baker's considerable technique, his ability to sustain an intricate surging rhythm on the cymbals while pursuing another contrasting rhythm on a drum kit outfitted with two bass drums. Where other drummers of his generation focused on power, Baker approached the job of timekeeping with extraordinary control, even finesse. He was a master of polyrhythm.
Baker's ability to guide and shape music – all kinds of music – derived from his keen instinct for drama: He was responsible for many of the unusual phrases, like the stop-time passage at the beginning of "White Room," that made Cream thrilling live. He understood how to "set up" these ideas to unite the musicians, and also knew exactly the right moment to shatter that unity with wicked full-spectrum fills that sent the music into higher gears.
Baker also had a knack for sparking, and then cultivating, marathon musical conversations – in many ways, his approach is the model for generations of jam-band musicians. He'd start by establishing an easygoing groove that coaxed soloists like Clapton and Steve Winwood (his colleague in Blind Faith and the first edition of Ginger Baker's Air Force) into the spotlight. With slight jabs and understated drum chatter, Baker would gradually increase the intensity of the music. Once things hit a lusty rolling boil, his playing would become busier and more agitated – at times in the live performances of Cream and Air Force, it sounds like Baker is engaged in a boxing match with whoever takes a solo. Incredibly, even during those group peaks and frenetic drum features of epic duration, he never seemed to lose track of the pulse.
Guided by his curiosity about African music, Baker moved to Nigeria in 1971 with the intention of opening a recording studio in Lagos. He'd known Fela Kuti during the African bandleader's school days in London, and occasionally served as a substitute for drummer Tony Allen in Kuti's group Africa '70. A recent reissue of their live collaboration includes an entrancing "drum-off" with Allen, one of several trap-kit summit meetings Baker initiated (and promoted heavily) during his career; another, with jazz legend Elvin Jones, happened during a 1971 Air Force performance at the Lyceum in London and is documented on the live Do What You Like.
In the 2012 documentary, Baker says his intention was not to engage in some sort of live competition with Jones and other drummers: "What always happens is, if you're playing with a good guy, you end up playing together."
That pretty much sums up the strange magic of Ginger Baker: Though he wasn't necessarily charming or gracious in social settings, he was somehow able to cultivate genuine interaction and empathy among musicians in live situations. He did this on stages of every conceivable size, in front of massive Hyde Park crowds and in tiny subdued jazz clubs. Among his later-career highlights is Going Back Home, an instrumental trio date from 1994 with guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Charlie Haden. It captures the technical facility that made Baker a legend, and something more visceral besides the primal, journeying spirit he brought to so many projects. There's maybe some quibbling with his "World's Greatest Drummer" claim, but this much is not in dispute: With Baker in the house, a thrill was always guaranteed.