RIP, you mean SOB (Superman Of Beats); pictured left, with Eric Clapton in Cream circa 1968
RIP, you mean SOB (Superman Of Beats); pictured left, with Eric Clapton in Cream circa 1968 Michael Ochs Archives / Getty

Considered one of the world's greatest drummers by many knowledgeable people, Ginger Baker died on October 6 of complications from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He was 80. The British musician was best known for his stint with the power trio Cream, who rocketed to worldwide fame during their tumultuous 1966-1968 run with brash updates of American blues classics ("I'm So Glad," "Rollin' and Tumblin'," "Spoonful," etc.) and flamboyant, hook-laden psych-rock ("Sunshine of Your Love," "Tales of Brave Ulysses," "I Feel Free," "Strange Brew," "Badge," "White Room," etc.).

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Despite the fame—if not riches—rock brought Baker, he often scorned the genre and considered even the most renowned drummers in the field—Keith Moon, John Bonham, Charlie Watts, Mitch Mitchell et al.—far, far beneath him. Baker's initial musical inspirations were jazzmen such as Art Blakey and Max Roach, and then the percussion-heavy African music that his fellow English drummer Phil Seaman introduced to him. Those foundational discoveries would later help Baker find his way into Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti's orbit, and he recorded a phenomenal live record in 1971 with Fela's Africa 70 ensemble. The two titans also collaborated on Baker's great 1972 LP, Stratavarious.

Baker may have harbored a disdain for rock, but he ended up playing a lot of it in his own superlative groups (Baker Gurvitz Army, Ginger Baker's Airforce) and with heavies such as Blind Faith, Hawkwind, Atomic Rooster, PiL, and Masters of Reality. To whichever unit he was contributing, Baker bestowed an impeccable combination of athletic dexterity and nuanced power.

Baker's 1986 album, Horses and Trees, is an overlooked gem produced by the well-connected funk/dub/jazz magus Bill Laswell. Baker rose to the occasion among elite talents such as Bernie Worrell, Nicky Skopelitis, Naná Vasconcelos, Foday Musa Suso, and Aïyb Dieng. Among these esteemed instrumentalists, Baker seemed liberated to unleash his polyrhythmic inventiveness within a polymorphous, "world-music" context. Middle Passage—a 1990 full-length on Laswell's Axiom label—followed in a similar vein and proved that Baker had lost none of his beat sorcery in his 50s.

While his musical skills were undeniably world-class, Baker was not a pleasant fellow, as the excellent Jay Bulger documentary Beware of Mr. Baker vividly demonstrates. A cantankerous junkie and a morose chain-smoker, he married four times and was allegedly an inattentive father who became mired in financial difficulties due to poor business decisions. He moved often, and if the film is to be believed, he left a legacy of emotional turmoil among those closest to him. Baker even bashed the film's director in the nose with his cane—on camera!

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No less a drumming eminence than Rush's Neil Peart once enthused about Baker to the London Independent: “His playing was revolutionary—extrovert, primal and inventive. He set the bar for what rock drumming could be. I certainly emulated Ginger’s approaches to rhythm—his hard, flat, percussive sound was very innovative. Everyone who came after built on that foundation. Every rock drummer since has been influenced in some way by Ginger, even if they don’t know it.”

I don't know if it's possible for someone of Ginger Baker's terminally curmudgeonly demeanor to rest in peace, but I hope he finds it, eventually.








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