So Long Mr. Baker…
So here we are and famed drummer Ginger Baker has died at the age of 80. He lived a hard life, fraught with drug abuse and health issues, so it's amazing that he made it this far. There have been various times in the past that it was announced that he had died, only to turn out to be false news. Sadly, today it is true.
I remember seeing Ginger & Cream on the Smother's Brothers TV show back in, I think, 1967. I was a very impressionable, young drummer and this was my Beatles moment (I was too young to get into the Beatles on Ed Sullivan thing), propelling me to become a rock drummer. Over the years I devoured his drumming, buying and studying every recording of his I could find. He was one of the first drummers to really combine the white European military style drumming (straight 8th notes) with the black African style (triplets). He played like no one else.
I was able to interview him back in the early 90s. I was fortunate to catch Ginger on a good day, and the interview I did with him is truly memorable. He was actually quite gracious and even apologized for being late because one of his dogs had gotten out and it took a while to find him. Yeah, he could be a terror, like in the Beware of Mr. Baker film, but he refused to suffer fools gladly.
Ginger came out of a magical era, along with similar influential British drummers, like John Bonham, Mitch Mitchell, Bill Ward, Ian Paice, Jon Heisman, and others, who brought the swing of their jazz and blues roots to rock drumming. His teacher/mentor was Phil Seaman, the king of British jazz drummers. Phil turned him onto African drumming and really taught him the importance of pulse in music..
It was with Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce, as Cream, that Ginger had his greatest success and influence. Just compare most pop & rock drumming of 1966-68 with that of Ginger. Whereas the drumming of the day tended to be polite and unassuming, Baker pummeled his kit like a whole group of tribal drummers. He is arguably the first heavy drummer, often riding on his toms instead of the cymbals. And then there was that ever present swing to his playing, which really set him apart from other rock drummers.
[This version of my Interview with Ginger is taken from my old web site ~ MB]
This interview originally was published in April 1991, in the 1st issue of Drum Science, a drumming 'zine I published back in the early 1990s. At the time, Ginger was on a sort of come back after being in self exile for many years in Italy as an olive farmer. Bassist/producer Bill Laswell coaxed him into doing some sessions (PIL, Material, and some things that ended up coming out under Baker's own name) and then Baker moved to the States, first settling in California, then later in Denver. He ended up doing a number of clinic tours for Ludwig and got involved in various bands, most notably Masters of Reality, Jack Bruce, and his own jazz trio with bassist Charlie Haden and guitarist Bill Frissell. Eventually he got into trouble with the IRS over various issues and fled to South Africa where he resides today.
While Ginger has a reputation for being a cantankerous sort, I found him in amiable spirits and willing to talk about a variety of subjects. At the time, the possibility of a Cream reunion seemed to be something that would never happen due to years of bad feelings between Baker and Clapton. But time (I'm sure the money helped too) has a way of healing all wounds, and Cream did reunite in 2005 and 2006 for a widely acclaimed series of gigs in London and New York, where Baker showed he has lost none of his unique style.
Ginger Baker: The Return Of A Master
Ginger Baker is a man misunderstood. Sure, he's made statements about being one of the few good drummers, or that there's no one like him. He's also quick to express dismay at today's music scene and the current wave of young drummers. All this has helped form a reputation for being cocky and arrogant. But as I was to find out, he knows what he's talking about.
The young Baker cut his teeth in a succession of English jazz and blues bands. His early influences were Max Roach, Louie Bellson, Elvin Jones, Philly Joe Jones, and most importantly, the legendary Baby Dodds. But the biggest impact on him came from the British jazz great, Phil Seaman, arguably the greatest British jazz drummer ever. It was Seamen who discovered the then twenty year old Baker at a jazz club and took him under his wing. Phil introduced him to African drumming and the world of time, perfect time. Ginger maintained his friendship with Phil, even having him play drums in his own Airforce group, until his untimely death in the seventies.
The African influence, and acute sense of time, brought Ginger's drumming to the fore in 1966 when Cream burst on the scene. He showed that drummers didn't have to play in the background. His driving style inspired many a young drummer. Although the band was only together two brief years, they set the ground work for what was to become hard rock/heavy metal. As Ginger will tell you, Cream was a blues band, they just happened to play loud and hard. "Everyone seemed to think I was into heavy metal, which I'm not," he says. "In fact, I loathe and detest it. As for Cream spawning the whole heavy metal idiom," he protests, "I wish we could've aborted it!"
It's strong opinions like this that have made him seem aloof. But Ginger's background had nothing to do with rock music. He came from the blues oriented groups of Alexis Korner and Graham Bond, where he first worked with bassist, Jack Bruce. Similarly, guitarist Eric Clapton had worked with John Mayhall's Bluesbreakers and the Yardbirds. From these roots, Cream was formed as a blues band.
But Cream has left a bitter taste in his mouth. The public was quick to embrace Cream as Clapton's band. "This is about as far from the truth as it could be," Baker says. "I went to see Eric, and had worked with Jack for four years before Cream started. Well, nearly four years, when Jack's personality got to a stage where we had to stop working together. So I went to see Eric about getting a band and he suggested Jack as a bass player. It filled me with trepidation, but I went to see Jack and that was Cream. It was my band. He (Clapton) doesn't do an awful lot to put the actual truth into words and is quite happy to accept the credit for it, which doesn't really endure him to me."
But it's only natural for the public to pick up on the guitar player as the lead/front man of a group. "Yeah," he agrees, "The guitar player's out in front and all the chicks hit on him. But I think there's something I proved in working with Jack again, that the magic of Cream came from the rhythm section. To be perfectly frank, we carried Eric and lifted him to heights I don't think he's achieved since. He's improved vocally, but I don't think his guitar playing has gone very far since the Cream thing."
In the more than twenty years since Cream broke up, reunion rumors have persisted. But given the animosity between the three members, it would be unlikely to see such an event. To the surprise of many, Ginger appeared on two tracks of Bruce's 1989 CD, A Question Of Time. The songs, "Obsession" and "Hey Now Princess", showed that the years had not diminished the drive and energy these two were capable of. Bruce subsequently asked Baker to play on his upcoming tour. Ginger declined, knowing that their personalities still clashed, but fate stepped in. "That happened when I was in hospital," he says. "My appendix decided to go bad on me. Jack had asked me before to do the tour and I said no, not under any circumstances. But then, when I was in hospital, I realized I'd have a very heavy bill coming out. So I asked for really good money and they agreed to pay me. It worked out pretty well. Yeah, It Was quite enjoyable."
Even then, a compromise was reached: Baker would not play the first set which featured the bulk of Jack's post-Cream material. "There were a few numbers that Cream did that I loathed and detested," he says. "For instance, "I Feel Free", which Jack tried to get me to play. That sort of thing. That's why I didn't do the first set, because he's got some of those type of numbers in it. I just do not like playing that (sings) 'dum-bap-ditty-bap-dum-bap-ditty-bap' thing. To me it's sort of awful musical—well it's not even musical, just awful. I'm far more into musical types of things."
While the band (also featuring guitarist Blues Saracino and keyboardist Bernie Worrell) blazed its way through such Bruce penned favorites as "White Room', "N.S.U.", and "Politician, this was not a nostalgia show. The music sounded fresh and timeless. "We played them somewhat differently," Ginger says. "I've progressed, I don't play the same as before." The biggest applause of the evening came for Baker's obligatory drum solo, "Toad". He wove his spell with a mixture of jazz and African rhythms, creating a tapestry of time. His polyrhythmic barrage sounded more like an army of tribal drummers than one mere mortal.
The Bruce/Baker reunion tour of 89/90 was a great success and it certainly did show how they were more than just Clapton's backing band. But the years between Cream and that tour had Baker working in a variety of contexts. On the break up of Cream, Baker and Clapton joined forces with Steve Winwood and Rick Grech for the short lived super group, Blind Faith. After one record and one tour, they self destructed in a maze of legal and ego entanglements. From there he formed Ginger Baker's Airforce with Winwood and Grech. This percussion heavy (3-4 drummers: Baker, Phil Seamen, pre-Yes Alan White, and Remi Kabaka) band never caught on with its blues and jazz styling.
With things as they were in the early seventies, Baker relocated to Africa, where he built a recording studio in Nigeria. "It was a gaping hole that money went into and disappeared," he says. "I lost a fortune. But I had a really good time there, so many nice people. I had a wonderful time. Everybody knew me before I went down there, which was an extraordinary thing. I'd gotten a reputation there already, solely from my playing, because I felt very close to [Africa], that's where the time comes from. I did a couple of gigs in Lagos [Nigeria] that were incredibly successful. It's great when you've a totally African audience and you get them on their feet. It was a very rewarding situation."
Given his assimilation of their rhythms since 1960, it's no surprise that Ginger got on well with African musicians. "Like it's only now," he says, "that the African thing, given the last five years, has come around. I was into that before Cream. I've got a lot of African influence in my playing and a lot of the [Graham] Bond and Alexis Korner stuff shows it." Ginger's mentor, Phil Seamen, had introduced him to the world of African drums and polyrhythms in the early 1960s.
After moving back to England in the mid-seventies, he put together the Baker/Gurvitz Army with Paul and Adrian Gurvitz (and later, vocalist Mr. Snips). While having some good moments, they never received the record company support they needed and failed to reach their potential. After three albums, the band broke up and Baker pursued a solo career, releasing a series a jazz and blues influenced recordings.
After losing money on a polo venture, Ginger went into exile in Italy where he took up the role of olive farmer. Save for a few low key gigs with his band Energy and sessions, he remained reclusive and inactive. "When I went to Italy and got into farming," he says, "I would've been quite content to stay and continue farming for the rest of my life if I could've. Then fate sort of took a hand and a lot of things went wrong with my personal life and what have you." A big change came in kicking his long standing heroin habit. Although his drumming made great strides, his drug and alcohol abuse would negate any career progress he made. While his drums sat neglected, the hard and disciplined life of farming seemed to agree with him. "And I thought," he says, "I've got my health problems together, perhaps it's time to go and play."
A major factor in Ginger's return has been bassist/producer Bill Laswell. He coaxed the reclusive Baker to New York to play on P.I.L.'s Album release. This landmark recording also featured the talents of guitarist Steve Vai and drummer Tony Williams. While in the studio, Laswell had Baker put down a series of drum tracks that Ginger thought were a part of the Public Image project. Later, Laswell had the resulting tracks layered with ethnic percussion, guitars, bass, and keyboards to become Ginger's own Horses And Trees CD. Despite not playing much in the previous few years, both of these recordings showed Baker to be in fine form.
With his music back on track, Baker sold his farm and moved to California in the fall of 1988. Since then, he has jumped full time into his drumming, including a rare clinic tour for Ludwig drums in late 1989. "1 did an experimental one in March of '89 in Denver," he says. "It was really very successful, so Bill Ludwig asked me if I'd do a tour. I quite enjoyed it, so I agreed." The resulting clinics were a unique opportunity to witness Baker's distinctive drumming style up close.
He's been associated with Ludwig for his whole career. While most players have the latest in gear, Ginger still uses his mid-seventies mahogany finish double bass kit. "I've got the old type sizes. The kit I was playing on the East coast, well it's not even mine. It's one that Ludwig keeps for me. When I do any work or recording on the east side [of the country], I use that one." He's also a faithful Zildjian user, playing on the same ride and hi-hats he had in Cream. "Well that's Zildjian for you," he says. "It sounds better as it gets older. I've had them since 1966. Cymbals like that, you can't replace them. I got that ride to replace an old "K" that the bell cracked on. My son's still got it. He started using it and I went mad, so I got him a deal with Zildjian so he wouldn't. That was an old 22" Turkish "K" with rivets. It was about 30 years old when I bought it and I played it for eight years before it cracked. It took me all day at the Zildjian factory to find the Avedis one to replace it."
Most recently, he toured with the hard rock/blues group, Masters Of Reality. Songs like "Kill The King" and "John Brown" were the perfect vehicle for Baker, as his drumming propelled the band along like a speeding train. The gentle acoustic song, "Valentine", showed his finesse, as he used brushes to great effect. Ginger's own song, "Alamout", featured an astounding drum solo. He again demonstrated his mastery of time as he played various polyrhythmic figures over a four beat pulse.
The subject of time is something Ginger feels very strongly about. "Most drummers haven't really got much time," he says. "The time thing is where people think I play so fast. It's where you put the beats. A beat put in the right place can sound like three. But it has to be absolute perfectly in time, otherwise it just sounds awful. There ain't many who play like me. My son, Kofi, he's playing amazingly. I helped him with his playing, I opened all the doors for him, and it was a pleasure to teach someone who was as quick as he was. I'm pleased he's got it and that he's doing it all on his own.
"There's a lot of kids that get this big thing because they're the kid of somebody famous. Kofi's doing it solely on word of mouth. I was at the Frankfurt Fair (music trade show) a few years ago and one of the Zildjian people said to me, 'Man, have you heard your son play? He's amazing!' It's great to get feedback from people in the business on how well he's playing."
Besides the Bruce and Masters Of Reality tours, he's been involved in a variety of projects since coming back. One of the more interesting, was an experimental project with the Strassburg Theater. "We performed a play by Sam Shepard," he says. "It was just an actor, an actress, a very small theater, and the drums for the music. I accompanied the whole play. Now when you're doing that, there's no microphones involved, totally acoustic. I ended up playing a lot of brushes."
He recently released another solo CD, Middle Passage. Bill Laswell was again at the helm, creating a similar world-beat feeling as the previous Horses And Trees CD. "The same sort of thing," he says, "but much more drum influenced, much better drumming on it. I went in and did the drum tracks and Bill and the others added on to this. There's six tracks, and from a musical standpoint, it's one of the best things I've done. I had some words I wanted to put on it, but it was a budget thing and we couldn't afford any more time."
Words have always been a part of his life and he has recited his poetry on several recordings in the past. Words figure prominently in his future too. "I'm thinking of getting a thing together," he says, "the tentative name is The Jazz And Poetry Society. It will include my son, because I need to be free to recite a lot of my poetry to music. Do you remember "Pressed Rat And Warthog" (from Cream's Wheels Of Fire), or "Mad Jack" and "Time" (both by Baker/Gurvitz Army)? So I'm sort of feeling to continue that. There's some things I did with (ex-Mahavishnu bassist) Jonas Hellborg before I came over here. One of them's called "Halibut", which is a very true and amusing story. It's an audience response, they sort of have to, at the end of every line is "Halibut". We get the audience going which is really quite fun. There's another amusing tale that happened called "French Customs". Again, with really good musical things behind it, but it's not really rap. It's quite different, but similar in away. So I'm hoping to get this—I think I might call it Music and Poetry, because Jazz and Poetry, it might put some people off."
No nostalgia trips for Baker, he's firmly committed to moving ahead. "It's something I feel," he says, "Like this is now, we're in the '90s. I feel that music has gotten very stagnated and it's really quite sad. People have to relive the '60s and the '60s music. I'm looking ahead, as always. I'm playing better than I've ever played, which is good you know."
© 1991 Michael Bettine
Safe travels Mr. Baker, and thanks for everything!