But by 1962, jazz was giving way in popularity to rhythm & blues in England. Instead of joining a modern-jazz quintet, Baker replaced a young Charlie Watts in blues pioneer Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated, where he performed alongside keyboardist Graham Bond, saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith and bassist Jack Bruce. One day, a singer named Mick Jagger stopped by to perform with the group. "This effeminate little kid showed up, and I hated him," Baker recalls. "He was a musical moron! Alexis asked me to give Jagger a chance to sing during the interval. But the interval was when I would go and have my fix!" Baker and Bruce picked on the newcomer, throwing in complicated jazz licks to confuse the young Jagger.
Growing tired of playing for little money, Baker says, he "decided to go commercial and play music that appealed to the public." So he, Bruce and Bond formed the Graham Bond Organization, an R&B group that quickly became one of London's most influential bands. "What the Beatles were to the public, the Graham Bond Organization was to musicians," says Brown. Bruce and Baker also became infamous for their onstage feuding: One night, after Baker hit Bruce in the back of the head with a drumstick, a violent fight broke out in the middle of a set. Later, when Bond became too addicted to heroin to lead the band, Baker took over the group and fired Bruce.
By that time, Baker was deep in the grips of his own heroin addiction. One night, his first wife needed to find a jazz club in Brighton where the band was performing. "So I followed the intervals of Ginger's vomit all the way to the club," she recalls. "And I found him."
In 1966, after sitting in with Eric Clapton, Baker proposed that he and the guitarist start a band together. Clapton, who already had a cult following, immediately agreed. But to Baker's dismay, he suggested that Jack Bruce be the third member of the band. Clapton had seen Baker and Bruce play together, and he considered them "a well-oiled machine."
Baker and Bruce put their problems aside to form Cream, and the combination of Clapton's blues riffs and Baker's monstrous beats made them the first supergroup of rock. Cream created a new rock format: a power trio that emphasized instruments over vocals. Over the next two years, Cream sold 15 million albums, with hits like "White Room," "Strange Brew" and "Sunshine of Your Love" opening the door for a generation of heavy-metal and prog-rock excess.
"My brother and I used to listen to those Cream records, trying to emulate them," says Alex Van Halen. "Those musical extravaganzas set the stage for Led Zeppelin and Van Halen." It's not a legacy that Baker is proud of. "People try to say that Cream gave birth to heavy metal," he says. "If that's the case, we should have had an abortion."
But what began as Baker's creation soon turned into something beyond his reach. Cream made Clapton into a rock icon, and Bruce and Brown received the majority of writing credits – and royalty fees – for Cream's music. "Cream was doomed three months after it started," Baker says bitterly. "It was my band, and Jack tried to fire me! I didn't get any of the writing credits. It will piss me off for the rest of my life."
In 1968, Cream performed two farewell concerts at the Royal Albert Hall. The following year, Clapton joined forces with Steve Winwood and Baker and formed the supergroup Blind Faith. "Ginger kind of muscled his way in," recalls Bad Company's Simon Kirke, who toured with the band. "But fair play to Ginger – he's a powerhouse on drums. Still, if a person is disliked, the writing appears on the walls."
Blind Faith lasted less than a year before Clapton – spurred in part by Baker's addiction – quit. "I took one look at his eyes and was sure he was back on it," Clapton wrote in his autobiography. "I felt that I was stepping back into the nightmare that had been part of Cream."
Baker recalls it differently. "My habit had nothing whatsoever to do with the end of Blind Faith!" he insists. "I was straight for most of that period. I only got fucked up at the end of the U.S. tour!" He pauses. "I was an evil person back then," he acknowledges. "I think Eric just wanted to get away from me."
In the end, it was another musician's death that pushed Baker to change his life. "The night Jimi Hendrix died, we were out looking for him," Baker recalls. It was September 1970, and Baker was sitting on the toilet at a London airport hotel, injecting heroin as Sly Stone, in town on tour, watched. Baker also had two bottles of cocaine in his possession, and Mitch Mitchell, Hendrix's drummer, suggested they track Jimi down and get high. Hendrix and Baker had grown close and planned to record together. Mitchell and Baker spent the night searching in vain for Hendrix all over town; then, tired and out of heroin, Baker injected the coke and suffered one of his near-fatal overdoses. While Baker survived the night, Hendrix died choking on his own vomit.
Shattered by the death of his friend and desperate to get clean, Baker left the music scene. "I had to get the fuck out of London," he says. "I had the money and the time, so I went to Africa." In 1971, he set out to drive from London to Nigeria in a Range Rover to immerse himself in African drumming. "I told him there was an ocean and a desert in the way," says Tony Palmer, who filmed the trek for his documentary Ginger Baker in Africa. "And Ginger said, 'Great!' He drove through the desert like he played the drums: He just put his foot down and hoped for the best. He has this 'fuck it, I'm going to do it, nobody can stop me' attitude."
Arriving in Lagos, Nigeria, Baker set up west Africa's first 16-track recording studio and formed a lifelong friendship with Afrobeat star Fela Kuti. Performing with the musical icon for crowds of 150,000, Baker became famous throughout Nigeria as the "Oyinbo" (White) Drummer. "If Ginger wants to play jazz, he plays jazz," says the Nigerian drummer Tony Allen. "If he wants to play rock, he starts Cream. If he wants to play Afrobeat, he moves to Nigeria. Whatever he plays, he brings his own pulse and sound. He understands the African beat more than any other Westerner."
Unlike his revolutionary friend Fela, Baker was invited to join the Lagos Polo Club, where members of Nigeria's military dictatorship held court. The members took bets to see how long the white man could stay on the back of a wild pony. Baker never let go, and he began what would become a deep passion for the sport. "I said, 'Where's the brakes!'" Baker recalls of his first ride. "But that was it. Ten days later, I was playing polo." Off the field, however, Baker continued to get into trouble. Before long he was at war with his business partners, who used their connections in the police force to threaten him at gunpoint. Pushed out of Nigeria, Baker sold his studio for a fraction of what it cost and fled to London.
Flat broke, Baker started delivering drugs to support his habit. Now, instead of playing with Clapton, Baker sold cocaine at the studio where Clapton was recording. "It was not a very pleasant situation," Baker says. "Keith Moon died around then. His manager came up to me and said, 'You've got to help Moony. You're the only person he'll listen to.' But I had my own problems." Estranged from his first wife and behind on his taxes, Baker fled England in 1982 with a 22-year-old girlfriend and settled in central Italy to try his hand at olive farming.
In Tuscany, Baker suffered through terrible crops and another failed marriage until avant-garde music producer Bill Laswell recruited him to play with Johnny Rotten. "He lived on top of this mountain and drove us up there drunk as hell in this old jeep," Laswell remembers. "The farm was a disaster. There was no electricity, and he had this tiny bed he would sleep in with his dogs. It's a miracle that he was still alive." Laswell succeeded in getting Baker into the studio again, eventually recording a pair of experimental albums, Horses & Trees and Middle Passage that merged jazz and world music. But local farmers in Tuscany falsely accused Baker of peddling drugs, and he got into a dispute with the local mafia. Shortly after someone killed one of his dogs, he decided to move to Los Angeles in 1988 and become an actor.
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