When Ginger Baker was a teenager, his life was transformed in two lasting ways. While at a party around age 15, he was encouraged to sit down at a drum kit and play; classmates had noticed he would drum on his desktop and thought he’d be good at it. Before long he had given up dreams of being a pilot or a championship bicyclist for a musician’s life. Around the same time, he belatedly read a letter his late father, a bricklayer who had died in World War II, had left for him: “Well, Peter,” it read in part, addressing his son by his birth name, “I want you to grow up as a man able to hold your own ground, to learn how to use your fists, they are your best pals so often.”
Baker — who died at 80 of complications from chronic-obstructive pulmonary disease on October 6th in Kent, England — fulfilled both of those legacies. Starting with Cream, Baker revolutionized rock drumming. Incorporating jazz rhythms, his trademark double-bass drums, and instruments like tympani, he added both a lighter and a heavier touch to everything from Cream classics like “Sunshine of Your Love” to later work with Public Image Ltd. With his 1970 solo album, Ginger Baker’s Air Force, which blended Afrobeat rhythms with big-band jazz and rock balladry, he helped introduce Western fans to the concept of world music. “He was very -inventive,” Ringo Starr tells Rolling Stone. “If you listen to Cream, you can see there’s something else coming through.”
Baker was also one of rock’s biggest, crankiest personalities — a volatile and often aggressive madcap with a wild shrub of red hair (which gave him his nickname) and a penchant for insulting (or brawling with) anyone who annoyed him. In Cream, Eric Clapton felt it was impossible to give Baker any direction musically. “Ginger would simply not accept it,” he said in 1988. “It would be too much of a battle for me to take it on.”
Some in Baker’s family take issue with his curmudgeonly reputation. “Ginger’s ‘wild man’ image and larger-than-life colorful lifestyle should not be given precedence over his lasting musical legacy,” insists his daughter, writer Nettie Baker. “It is without doubt entertaining to muse over bad decision-making, itself the result of childhood trauma, sudden fame, and drug addiction, but it should be remembered that while a handful of those closest to him may have been at the ‘sharp end,’ countless others were inspired and enthralled by his music.”
Baker’s music and his volatility are equal parts of his legacy. “He was always a wild creature to me, and obviously very hard to get along with,” says Rush frontman Geddy Lee, who saw Cream live as a teenager in Canada. “But his rhythms were unbelievable, and very few people realize how musical he was and how much influence he had on Cream songs. He was the archetypal rock drummer.”
Of course, Baker would take issue with that compliment. “Oh, for God’s sake, I’ve never played rock,” he said in 2013. “Cream was two jazz players and a blues guitarist playing improvised music. . . . All that stuff I did on the drums in Cream didn’t come from drugs, either. It was from me. It was jazz.”
Jazz, in fact, offered Baker an exit ramp from a lonely childhood. Peter Edward Baker arrived August 19th, 1939, and the death of his father when Peter was four was just one of many scarring moments during his school years. “People didn’t like me,” he said later. “I suppose I was a strange fish.” His only vivid memories of his father were the times, he wrote, “when he came back on home leave” from the British army.
As a teen, Baker met drummer Phil Seamen, whom Baker would always count among his influences, along with jazz greats like Art Blakey and Max Roach. Seamen furthered his student’s knowledge of jazz and introduced him to African rhythms (and heroin). Baker played in several jazz bands, and later replaced Charlie Watts in Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, where he met bassist Jack Bruce; both left to form another band, the Graham Bond Organisation, before hooking up with Clapton to start Cream in 1966.
One of rock’s first supergroups, Cream crystallized Baker’s sound. “For my dad, the drumming was an integral part of the music, like the backward beat in ‘Sunshine of Your Love,’” says his son Kofi, who was taught (often very sternly) by his father. “He didn’t play the drums as a backbeat; he would complement the music. When I was 15, I said, ‘What about spinning sticks?’ He said, ‘I see you spinning sticks, I’ll fuckin’ brain you — put your energy into what you’re playing, not how you look!’ My dad always said that the showmanship is the music.”
As tight as they could be as a rhythm section, Baker and Bruce fought often — at least once onstage — and Baker’s heroin usage didn’t help. “Well, he’s just crazy!” Clapton told Rolling Stone in 1970. “He’s totally off his nut. If I joined a band of his now, I’d probably go ’round the twist. I really do love him as a guy, but it’s easier for me to love him when I’m not working with him.” For his part, Baker seemed partly relieved when the trio broke up in 1968: “I just couldn’t stand the volume, and the last year of Cream damaged my ears permanently,” he wrote in his memoir, Hellraiser.
Baker’s life only got wilder in the decades that followed. After the collapse of Blind Faith — his band with Clapton, Steve Winwood, and Ric Grech — and the death of his friend Jimi Hendrix, Baker later told Rolling Stone he “had to get the fuck out of London.” In 1971, he drove across the Sahara desert (the trip was also filmed for a doc) and wound up in Nigeria; there, he built a studio and became immersed in the world of polo, buying horses and playing the sport himself from time to time. Into the following decade, he became a gateway into world beat, working with the likes of Fela Kuti and deepening his passion for polyrhythms. Baker was continually drawn back to rock, if only to earn a much-needed paycheck; in the Seventies and Eighties, he played with hard-rock bands like the Baker Gurvitz Army and Hawkwind, but on at least one occasion he also wound up selling drugs as well as taking them.
In the mid-Eighties, producer Bill Laswell helped rescue Baker from near-obscurity by featuring him on Public Image Ltd.’s Album. When John Lydon mentioned (possibly in jest) that he wanted Baker on a PiL record, Laswell went in search of the drummer, eventually finding him in a small mountain home near Tuscany. “He was kind of retired,” says Laswell. “He didn’t have a telephone or electricity. He had this huge truck he would drive down on the road with no guardrail or fence. It was terrifying, but he always made it.” Laswell brought Baker to New York, where he added what Laswell calls “that shuffling tomtom” beat to the album. Lydon called Baker “a monster-raging-crazy-loony” he could relate to and also “loved” him.
That experience seemed to revitalize Baker, at least artistically, and he went on to make Afrobeat-inspired albums like 1990’s Middle Passage. In the late Eighties, he moved to L.A. in part to pursue acting. According to Laswell, Baker had given up heroin but was still dealing with cocaine addiction and at one point even placed an ad in a local paper looking for drumming work.
In 1993, Cream reunited onstage during their induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. That same year, Baker moved to Colorado, settling into a ranch and founding the Mile High Polo Club (fellow iconoclast Hunter S. Thompson was a board member). Immigration troubles led Baker to leave the States, and he eventually moved to South Africa.
In 2005, Cream finally got together for full reunion concerts in New York and London, but by the last show, Baker and Bruce were feuding. The reunion replenished Baker’s bank account, but according to Kofi, the funds only went so far. “After the reunion, they made all that money and he blew it again, the same way he blew it the first time,” says Kofi. “Buying polo horses and starting a club in South Africa and not making any money, which is exactly what he did with Cream in the first place. After Cream and Blind Faith, he wasn’t making any money and he was just spending, so he did exactly the same thing again.”
By the late 2000s, the abuse Baker had inflicted on himself over the decades began to wear him down. Writer Jay Bulger visited him for a 2009 Rolling Stone profile [“The Devil and Ginger Baker,” RS 1085] and found him crankier than ever — but also frail. “He was taking all types of morphine and his back was messed up,” says Bulger. “He was just not in good shape.”
In 2011, he returned to London — partly, Kofi says, because of England’s national health care system — along with his fourth wife, Kudzai Machokoto, a nurse from Zimbabwe. A year later came the release of the documentary Beware of Mr. Baker, directed by Bulger and based in part on his Rolling Stone piece. While making the movie, Baker got so angry with Bulger that he broke Bulger’s nose with a cane, all of it caught on camera. On the night of the film’s European premiere, Baker -insisted on smoking in the theater’s green room — which so incensed the organizers that they almost canceled the screening. The premiere proceeded only after Bulger convinced Baker to go out for dinner. “He screamed at me for hours, and I got totally wasted just sitting there taking abuse,” says Bulger.
In 2013, Baker told Rolling Stone he was coping with degenerative osteoarthritis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He continued to work, releasing an excellent jazz album, Why?, in 2014 and partaking in a rock fantasy camp in Los Angeles the following year. But in 2016, he canceled a tour over “serious heart problems” and underwent open-heart surgery later that year. When he toured Japan with a jazz band, he would have to pause between songs to catch his breath.
In later years, Baker seemed to have mellowed — somewhat. Beneath the gruff exterior lay what Winwood calls “a very sensitive human being with a heart of gold.” Once he finally watched Beware of Mr. Baker, the drummer emailed Bulger to tell him how much he disliked it and that Bulger was a “disgusting excuse for a human being.” But later that same day, he changed his tune and wrote back: “I guess I jumped the gun here. . . . actually film has been incredibly well received so I should say well done.”
About two weeks before he died, Baker was admitted to a Kent hospital. Hospital staff told Kofi that vital organs were shutting down, and Clapton came to visit. The guitarist had long been supportive of Baker, even reportedly helping him pay his rent. As Clapton told RS in 1991, “It’s a bit like a marriage that you walked away from. Something about these people gets under your skin, and they’re part of your life.”
On September 30th, Kofi Baker visited his father. The two had been estranged for years; in a 2018 interview with Rolling Stone, Kofi admitted, “He’s not in my life. He’s not in my thoughts. The only time I think about him is when people bring him up.” By the time Kofi saw his dad in the hospital, the elder Baker could barely talk and was mostly nibbling on biscuits and drinking tea. “It was hard seeing my dad like that — he was always such a fiery guy,” says Kofi. “He couldn’t talk back to me. It was me talking and him listening.”
During his visit, Kofi mentioned his tribute band, the Cream Experience, which also includes Bruce’s son Malcolm. He told his dad they’d just learned “Blue Condition,” from Disraeli Gears. “I said, ‘Dad, I’m carrying on and taking everything you taught me and keeping it going as long as I can,’ ” says Kofi. “I’m used to my dad blowing me off, but he was just a different person. His eyes lit up and he laughed. It was just amazing.”