Ginger Baker was a paradox: a gamechanging rock drummer who insisted that he “never played rock,” a forefather of heavy metal who couldn’t stand the genre, and a Londoner who thoroughly assimilated African drumming styles. That’s why, if you only know him in one context — with barnstorming blues-rock trio Cream, in short-lived supergroup Blind Faith, alongside Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti, or in one of his later jazz combos — you’re missing out on a fuller understanding of the contribution this irascible icon made to his art form.
Baker first found fame in the mid-Sixties, channeling his love of bebop into keyboardist-saxist-singer Graham Bond’s bluesy R&B. In 1966 he formed the foundational power trio Cream with Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce. “We were fucking good — that’s why we called ourselves Cream,” Baker said in the 2012 documentary Beware of Mr. Baker.
After Cream, Baker ventured far beyond rock, a style he’d return to only sporadically. His résumé from the past 50 years features a staggering array of artists, including not just Fela Kuti and former Sex Pistol John Lydon, but avant-garde guitarist Sonny Sharrock, esteemed jazz trumpeter Ron Miles, rock eccentrics Masters of Reality, and Ghanaian percussionist Abass Dodoo, one of his close late-period collaborators. Here are 10 tracks that illustrate his extraordinary range — and still only begin to hint at the depth and breadth of his musical world.
Cream, “Toad” (1966)
Before “Moby Dick,” “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” or Ringo Starr’s feature on “The End,” there was “Toad,” the last track on Cream’s debut, Fresh Cream, and a performance that set a new benchmark for the rock drum solo. Bookended by a brief bluesy riff, the track plays like a catalog of Baker’s strengths, from stylish snare and tom-tom rolls to rapid-fire double-kick barrage and nimble uptempo bebop. The undeniable chops and flair of “Toad” would inspire generations of drummers, but for Cream bandmate Jack Bruce, Baker’s extended solos served a more basic function onstage. He once said he liked them “because I could go off and have a smoke.”
Cream, “Sunshine of Your Love” (1967)
Cream’s signature song is often pointed to as a key heavy-metal precursor. But Baker’s drum part on “Sunshine of Your Love” exemplifies none of the macho bombast that would come to define the next phase of loud, aggressive rock. Instead of adding a forceful backbeat to the song’s iconic Jack Bruce–penned riff, Baker opts for a minimal, laid-back pulse on the toms, a rhythm that caresses rather than pummels. Baker claimed credit for coming up with the part. but engineer Tom Dowd said it was his. “[H]ave you ever seen any American Westerns [that have] the Indian beat, where the downbeat is the beat?'” Dowd recalled asking the band in the studio. “And when [Baker] started playing it that way, all of the parts came together and right away they were elated.”
Cream, “White Room” (1968)
Baker’s signature style is all over his playing on this Jack Bruce classic. He lays down a heavy groove during the verses, spelling out the backbeat with the bass drum, snare drum, and hi-hat, but he throws in little ornaments — quick micro-rolls on the snare, tumbling tom fills — that give the part a loping, intensely funky swagger. His performance here still sounds fresh, but in his later years, Baker wasn’t fond of compliments regarding this or any other Cream track. “Oh God, Cream’s a bloody albatross around my neck,” he said in 2015.
Cream, “Spoonful (Live)” (1968)
Cream shone brightest onstage, where the three virtuosos had room to really dig into their material. Willie Dixon’s blues staple “Spoonful,” made famous by Howlin’ Wolf, was an ideal launchpad for the group, and on this nearly 17-minute version from San Francisco’s Winterland, you can hear Baker guiding the band from a sparse half-time shuffle to an incendiary hard-rock churn and back. Each player shines, but what’s most impressive is their group edgy chemistry, the way they seem to be daring one another to go one step further. “The initial agenda was that Cream was going to be a dada group,” Clapton said in 2012. “We were going to have all these weird things happening on stage and it was going to be experimental and funny and rebellious. But in the end we got such a kick out of just going to the instrumental part and seeing what would happen, that’s what we became known for.”
Blind Faith, “Do What You Like” (1969)
Baker and Clapton carried that exploratory spirit into their next band, Blind Faith, and the 15-minute, Baker-penned finale from their lone, self-titled LP showed how comfortable they were letting the moment guide them. The drummer shapes the tune with a jazzy ride-cymbal pulse that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Sixties Blue Note album, and in the middle, steps out for a solo that combines deft funk with hypnotic tom-tom thunder and proto-thrash-metal athleticism. “When we got out on the road trying to play these big venues expecting heavy rock,” said Blind Faith singer-keyboardist Steve Winwood last year, “Ginger was quite handy to have doing that!”
Ginger Baker’s Air Force, “Aiko Biaye” (1970)
After Cream and Blind Faith, Baker burrowed deeper into his singular blend of influences, and the first album by his group Air Force — a raw, celebratory set touching on African music, raucous funk, and driving psychedelic rock — plays like an extended glimpse into his musical mind. “Aiko Biaye” is a brilliant slice of avant-garde party music. Co-written by one of the band’s fellow drummers, Ghana-born Remi Kabaka, and Osibasa leader Teddy Osei, it features a hypnotic 12/8 vamp, wild saxophone blasts, celebratory chanting, and an extended breakdown where Baker duets with one of the band’s vocalists and shows just how adept he was at laying down trancelike grooves that seemed to tap into a source far more ancient than rock.
Fela Kuti and the Africa 70, “Let’s Start” (1971)
“He understands the African beat more than any other Westerner,” legendary Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen told Rolling Stone’s Jay Bulger of Baker in 2009. Baker’s uncanny grasp of Afrobeat’s core pulse — which trades the crisp drive of American funk for a more sinuous, intensely syncopated glide — is on full display on this 1971 live track, recorded in the early Seventies when the drummer set up a studio in Lagos. Baker’s deep well of experience with extended jams served him well here: The strutting groove he lays down on “Let’s Start” sounds like it could go on forever.
Baker Gurvitz Army, “Love Is” (1974)
After Baker’s original Air Force run, he teamed up with brothers Adrian and Paul Gurvitz, formerly of London hard-rock group the Gun, to form Baker Gurvitz Army, who had a busy and dramatic sound to match their larger-than-life name. If you’ve ever longed to hear what Ginger Baker would sound like playing prog rock, the Army’s first two albums are essential listening. It’s hard to pick a highlight from these fascinating, vastly underrated LPs — don’t miss Baker’s stunning, cowbell-fueled intro to “People” from 1975’s Elysian Encounter — but “Love Is,” an instrumental from the band’s 1974 self-titled debut, sums up the group’s distinctive blend of grittiness and theatricality, matching the drummer’s intensely slippery groove with a barrage of soaring synth-strings. Despite the lofty sonics, Baker is fully in his element here, pounding out tastily syncopated tom-tom flurries in response to Adrian’s acrobatic shred. As with many of Baker’s collaborations, the rapport was mostly musical. “He’s very difficult,” Adrian said with a laugh when asked about the drummer in 2016.
Public Image Ltd, “Ease” (1986)
The context might be a surprise — a mid-Eighties effort by the erstwhile Johnny Rotten’s futuristic postpunk outfit — but once those drums kick in, with a blunt yet deep-in-the-pocket fill segueing into an swaggery shuffle, there’s no question who’s behind the kit. Baker’s unflappable performance perfectly complements the track’s arty, enveloping sound. “[Lydon] had put a band together in California of some kids. And I had sort of decided to make a heavy group, so I invited Tony Williams, Ginger Baker, Steve Vai and all these people came,” recalled Album producer Bill Laswell, who also produced a series of compelling Baker solo albums around the same time (check out the sprawling desert blues of “Time Be Time” for a taste). “We fired John’s band and there were many nights of really harsh arguing in bars. When the smoke cleared, we made sort of a classic record, an unusual record for the time.”
Ginger Baker Trio, “Rambler” (1994)
Baker proudly shouted out his jazz influences throughout his life, but he was well into his fifties by the time he put out an album in the style under his own name. He picked the perfect collaborators: guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Charlie Haden, two master improvisers who shared Baker’s love for earthy textures and spontaneous flow. The strongest pieces on Going Back Home, like the charmingly folksy Frisell-penned “Rambler” — powered by Baker’s sublimely unhurried shuffle — capture a unique intergenre aesthetic, neither rock, nor jazz, nor Americana but informed by a strong grasp of each. It’s hard to imagine another drummer sounding so relaxed in this nebulous in-between zone. He’d spend the rest of his life regularly returning to jazz (most recently on 2014’s mellow but potent Why?), putting a singular stamp on the genre that set him on his musical path. “You could find 100 drummers to play the same tune, and Ginger would find something different to do with it,” Frisell told Rolling Stone of working with the drummer.