Influential drummer and co-founder of Cream

Born: August 19 1939;

Died: October 6, 2019

GINGER Baker, who has died aged 80, co-founded the group Cream and was widely considered one of the greatest, and the most influential, drummers of the rock era.

Though Neil Peart (the virtuoso drummer with Rush) declared: “Every rock drummer since [Baker’s work in the 1960s] has been influenced in some way by Ginger – even if they don’t know it”, Baker had contempt for most rock music, particularly heavy metal, the form of hard rock Cream were often credited with creating. Like Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones, Baker’s background was as a jazz drummer; Art Blakey and Elvin Jones were significant influences on his playing.

Also like Watts, Baker spent long periods as a heroin addict. There, however, the similarities ended. Whilst the Rolling Stones drummer was universally well-regarded and noted for his courtesy and old-fashioned manners, Baker was, as even one of his friends conceded, “the most violent, unpredictable and unpleasant person I have ever met”.

He did not mellow with age. When the documentary-maker Jay Bulger concluded several days of filming at Baker’s ranch in Africa and was getting into his car to leave, he foolishly mentioned that he was going to interview other musicians. Incensed, Baker, then in his 70s, smashed his nose in with his walking stick.

In the two years they were together, Cream, which comprised Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Baker, were one of the most influential groups in the history of rock. Though they released only four albums, they sold more than 15 million copies; their third LP, Wheels of Fire (1968) was the first platinum-selling double album ever released. The 16-minute track Toad on their first record, Fresh Cream (1966), featured a five-minute solo by Baker, widely regarded as the first true rock drum solo. The album’s American release also featured the UK hit single I Feel Free.

Baker’s influence rested on his use of two bass drums, his propulsive and frequently aggressive style (he employed the flam, the percussive equivalent of the grace note, where both sticks strike the drum at almost but not quite the same time, to thunderous effect) and, above all, his interaction with Bruce’s bass playing. “It’s time, innit?” was Baker’s usual response to enquiries about his technique. “I’ve got perfect time.”

Bruce frequently made the same claim, yet the pair had a notoriously volatile relationship, each attempting to dominate the group. Bruce attempted to drown out Baker with amplification to the point where Clapton claimed he had once stopped playing during a concert, but neither of his bandmates noticed.

Peter Edward Baker was born at Lewisham, south London, on August 19 1939, a fortnight before the outbreak of the Second World War. His father was a bricklayer and his mother worked in a tobacconist’s; his father Fred (who had the improbable middle name “Formidable”) died in 1943 while fighting with the Royal Corps of Signals.

Ginger, as he was always known, lived up to the stereotypical view of quick-tempered redheads and was an unruly schoolboy, often involved in fights. He claimed that he had always beaten out rhythms on anything to hand, but took up the drums at 15; though he later maintained that he had never practised, but sprang into action fully-formed, he did take a few lessons with Phil Seamen, the leading big-band drummer of the 1950s and ’60s, who had worked with Joe Loss and George Chisholm.

Baker first came to prominence playing a few gigs with Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, and in 1963 joined The Graham Bond Organisation, a band that took a hard, bluesy approach to the British jazz revival of the early 1960s, concentrating on roots, Memphis Blues and R’n’B, rather than trad. It was his first encounter with Bruce, and their frequent fights came to dominate the band.

Even by Baker’s standards, it was a fractious and ill-tempered environment. Bond had drug and alcohol problems (he later substituted Black Magic for heroin, which did not noticeably improve matters). Baker’s disagreements with Bruce often came to blows, and at one stage, threats at knifepoint. Baker managed to force Bruce out of the band, before quitting himself.

While getting a lift in Baker’s car, Eric Clapton asked if he would be interested in forming a new group. Baker was keen, until Clapton insisted that it was conditional on Bruce joining as well, whereupon he almost crashed his Rover.

But Cream came about, with Bruce singing as well as playing bass, and splitting song-writing responsibilities with Baker (lyrics were supplied by the performance poet Pete Brown, Marty Feldman’s cousin). Their debut was followed by Disraeli Gears, recorded in 4 days in New York in 1967; it featured Sunshine of Your Love, one of their most successful tracks, which reached the top five on both sides of the Atlantic.

By the time Wheels of Fire was released, they had already decided to call it a day; Bruce and Baker had begun sabotaging each other’s equipment, and Clapton was fed up with their fights. They announced their split in 1968, but were persuaded to do a few more concerts, including two shows at the Royal Albert Hall that were filmed (and which, Baker thought, did not show the band at its best). A last album, Goodbye, came out in 1969, after their break-up.

Baker and Clapton then worked together in Blind Faith, with Stevie Winwood and the bassist Ric Grech, but they released only one album. After Clapton’s departure, the group continued as Ginger Baker’s Airforce, putting out two eponymous LPs in 1970. Airforce 2 expanded considerably in personnel (though it was sometimes unclear who was actually in the line-up at any given moment) and in style, moving self-consciously towards jazz-rock fusion. Denny Laine, of the Moody Blues and later of Wings, joined on guitar; the horn section included Baker’s old sparring partner Graham Bond.

Baker also brought in a number of other drummers including Seamen and Remi Kabaka and Speedy Aquaye, indicating his growing interest in African drumming. In 2015 Baker reformed the group as Airforce 3 for one concert, and announced a world tour for 2016; it was cancelled after he was diagnosed with serious heart problems.

In 1970, Baker moved to Nigeria, having driven there from Algeria across the Sahara. He founded a studio and began working with African drummers, notably the Afrobeat pioneer and political activist Fela Kuti. At about this time he also succeeded in shaking off his long-standing heroin addiction, though he replaced it with an unlikely, and ruinously expensive, interest in polo.

Attempts to maintain a string of ponies and various ranches were financially catastrophic, while his move into the polo set was almost as deleterious for his relations with the African musicians using his studio, many of whom were politically radical. Baker’s unrivalled gift for personal fallings-out compounded this mix until, by his account, he had to abandon everything, more or less at gunpoint, and flee the country.

Back in England, he fell into cocaine dealing, before moving to Italy with his 22-year-old girlfriend, ostensibly to start an olive oil business. It did not go well, with the local mafia accusing him of selling drugs there, too. After his dog was killed, he decided to head for Los Angeles, to try his hand at acting.

In between these peregrinations, he released three albums with the Gurvitz brothers Paul and Adrian (as the Baker Gurvitz Army) and then had brief stints with the psychedelic rock group Hawkwind and the post-punk Public Image Ltd, fronted by John Lydon. The acting was never very successful, and by the mid 1990s, Baker had settled in Colorado, where he was again trying to combine ranching with polo.

Around the turn of the century, he gave that up as a bad lot and moved to South Africa to live on a ranch in Tulbagh. A short-lived financial boost came when Cream reunited for four concerts at the Royal Albert Hall and Madison Square Gardens in 2005. Baker published an autobiography, Hellraiser in 2009.

In later years he suffered from poor health, with a degenerative spine condition and chronic emphesyma, neither of which curtailed his capacity for smoking, drinking, swearing and falling out with people.

By his first wife, Liz, he had two daughters and a son, Kofi, a drummer who occasionally played with and frequently fell out with his father. Ginger Baker was married four times, latterly to Kudzai Machokoto, a Zimbabwean 42 years his junior.