Ginger Baker, esteemed as one of the most virtuosic drummers ever to sit behind a kit through his innovative work with English rock bands Cream and the short-lived Blind Faith, died on Sunday. He was 80.
Baker revealed in 2013 that he had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease after a lifetime of smoking. He underwent open-heart surgery in 2016. He also suffered chronic back pain from degenerative osteoarthritis.
Baker formed Cream in 1966 with guitarist Eric Clapton and bassist Jack Bruce. Clapton had emerged as a stellar guitarist during his stint with the Yardbirds, while Baker and Bruce both established their credentials as members of the Graham Bond Organization.
In concert, Cream pushed rock to new extremes of volume and expanded the boundaries of rock song conventions, with each member frequently taking extended solos, live and on record, bringing the music to new pinnacles of technical and creative dexterity. It was not, however, at the expense of chart success: Cream logged a handful of hits in short order, with signature songs including “Sunshine of Your Love,” “White Room,” “Badge,” “I Feel Free” and its hallmark reworking of a Robert Johnson blues number, “Crossroads.”
Peter Edward Baker was born Aug. 19, 1939, in Lewisham, a borough of south London. He grew up in postwar England admiring jazz drummers including countryman Phil Seamen, from whom he took lessons as a teenager — although he described himself as largely self-taught — as well as American drummers such as Max Roach, Art Blakey and Elvin Jones.
Baker injected rhythmic complexity and dizzying flourishes into his playing, pushing his instrument’s role in a rock setting well beyond basic timekeeping, reflecting the expansive mindset of the dawning psychedelic era.
Baker went on to form the supergroup Blind Faith, teaming again with Clapton, as well as bassist Ric Grech from the band Family and organist-singer Steve Winwood from Traffic.
That segued into Ginger Baker’s Air Force, a rock fusion group with which he toured and recorded in the early 1970s, before moving to Lagos, Nigeria, to indulge his fascination with African music, collaborating at one point with Nigerian saxophonist Fela Kuti.
“He understands the African beat more than any other Westerner,” Nigerian drummer Tony Allen once said.