Eric Clapton never forgot the very first time he played with Jack Bruce. It was early 1966 and the 22-year-old bassist had just taken over for John McVie in John Mayall's Bluesbreakers. "My life was never the same again," Clapton wrote in the intro to the 2010 book Jack Bruce Composing Himself. "It was not volume, or technique, or virtuosity that defined Jack's presence onstage. It was his obvious desire to make the most out of every musical opportunity.... The music, and the experience of playing it, took me to another dimension."
By the time that he joined the Bluesbreakers, Bruce – who died of liver disease in Suffolk, England on October 25th, at age 71 – was already an extremely accomplished musician. A childhood prodigy who won a scholarship to study cello at Bellahouston Academy in Glasgow, Scotland, Bruce had been a part of the burgeoning London R&B scene since 1962 when he joined Alexis Korner's group Blues Incorporated. He found an immediate musical connection with their drummer, a brash jazz-inspired played named Ginger Baker, but their relationship quickly soured when Bruce switched from upright to electric bass. "That wasn't what Ginger wanted," Bruce said in the 2012 documentary Beware Mr. Baker. "I think that's when the problems [between us] started."
Tensions aside, Baker and Bruce teamed up again not long afterwards in the Graham Bond Organisation. During one show, they got into a vicious fight onstage because Baker felt that Bruce was playing during his drum solo. "He pulled a knife on me," said Bruce. "And said, 'You're fired.' I said, 'You can't fire me. It's the Graham Bond Organisaiton and I'm the founding member.' Poor old Graham, he was well into smack by that point and he didn't care. It was very stupid of Ginger because the band was doing well and I was an important part."
The incident was actually somewhat of a blessing because Bruce soon found himself playing alongside Clapton in the Bluesbreakers, and not long after that he joined Manfred Mann just in time to play on their breakthrough single "Pretty Flamingo." But Bruce soon realized very little money was actually coming his way and life in a pop group rapidly grew stale, so when Eric Clapton called him up about starting a blues rock trio he jumped at the chance – even though it meant once again playing with his old drummer. "He came around and ate humble pie," said Bruce. "Ginger approached Eric about forming a band and Eric said, 'Yeah, but if we do, Jack's gotta be the singer.'"
One of rock's first supergroups, Cream were an instant success. Their debut LP Fresh Cream was a huge hit, and their concerts were absolutely explosive. "The blues was the glue that held them together," says Living Colour's Vernon Reid, who toured widely with Bruce in recent years. "But they're the roots of prog rock and parts of the roots of jazz rock and even metal. They're a band that kind of turned everything sideways for the couple of years they were around."
Bruce was not only Cream's lead singer, but he co-wrote many of their most beloved songs – including "White Room," "I Feel Free" and "Politician" – with English poet Pete Brown. (Eric Clapton wrote "Sunshine of Your Love" with the two of them.) This didn't sit well with Ginger Baker. "Ginger would have been happy if everything had been written by 'The Cream,'" said Bruce. "But I'm glad I didn't do that. It's not right, and it's not truthful."
Writing credit was just one issue that tore Cream apart, though they managed to record four albums and tour extensively during their two-and-a-half year run. "My brother and I took acid and went to see them at the Village Theater early on in their career," says Mountain guitarist Leslie West. "When I heard them open with 'Sunshine of Your Love' I nearly shat myself. They were a really changing of the guard from the Beatles and the Stones to Hendrix and everything that came afterwards."
Cream played their final gig at London's Royal Albert Hall on November 26th, 1968. Clapton immediately formed Blind Faith with Steve Winwood on organ and Ginger Baker on drums, a situation that didn't sit well with Bruce. "Jack was really insulted," says West. "He saw it as a real slap in the face. But you have to remember, this wasn't a band that ever hung out. They went to the airport in separate cars. They weren't friends. They really only communicated musically."
After Cream dissolved, Bruce became a journeyman musician. He recorded solo albums, toured with Mitch Mitchell and cut jazz fusion albums. In 1972, he formed a blues rock trio with Leslie West and Mountain drummer Corky Laing. West, Bruce and Laing played blistering sets full of Mountain and Cream songs to ecstatic audiences during their two-year run. "He played his bass like a lead instrument," says West. "I didn't need a rhythm guitarist when I played with Jack. He was a small guy, but his playing was monstrous. He made his bass bark, and everything he did was so melodic."
Through the 1980s and 1990s he toured heavily, sometimes as part of Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Band. Cream reformed for the 1993 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony, and a couple of years later Bruce and Ginger Baker teamed up once again, this time with guitarist Gary Moore in the trio BBM. Like every Bruce-Baker project, it was volatile and extremely short-lived.
In 2003, Bruce was diagnosed with liver cancer and received a successful liver transplant. Two years later, Cream announced a four-night stand at the Royal Albert Hall, which was followed up by three shows at Madison Square Garden later that year. Yet again, tensions surfaced between Baker and Bruce. "His turned his bass up so loud that he deafened me on the first gig [in New York]," Baker said. "He demonstrated why he got the sack from Graham Bond and why Cream didn't last very long on stage in New York." Bruce, for his part, called Baker a "bitter old man," though he continued to hope for more Cream concerts until shortly before his death.
Bruce spent the last years of his life working with everybody from Robin Trower to John Medeski and Vernon Reid, constantly experimenting and never giving thought to commercial concerns. "He was one of the modern architects of riff-based rock & roll," says Reid. "He combined the worlds of blues, rock and jazz music, and he was at the cutting edge of innovation in those styles. His legacy is one of openness and exploration, and his other legacy is that he was a fucking real person in a world of phonies and shit-talkers."