Influential rock drummer Ginger Baker dies at age 80

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Monday, October 7, 2019

Baker in 1997
Image: Doctordawg.
Performing with Cream, 1968
Image: VARA.
Hollywood Rock Walk of Fame
Image: Margaret Heath.

Yesterday morning, English drummer Ginger Baker died in a hospital at the age of 80. The news came from the Twitter account in his name and was independently confirmed by Associated Press with his daughter Nettie Baker. On September 25, it was reported Baker was hospitalized in critical condition. Baker was widely known as the drummer and co-founder of the rock band Cream, an early supergroup.

Baker, a life-long smoker and former heroin addict, suffered from health problems for years. The list of ailments included hearing loss, osteoarthritis, emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, as well as heart problems for which he had surgery in 2016. Although known to have lived his latter years in South Africa, his daughter said he died in Britain without elaborating.

Ginger Baker was born Peter Edward Baker in Lewisham, London, in 1939. His father was killed in combat in 1943 during World War II. Baker — who was reportedly nicknamed Ginger due to his red hair — began playing drums in his teens. In a story he sometimes told, he had a habit of tapping on school desks. When an opportunity arose at a party, his classmates encouraged him to sit down at a drum set. "I'd never sat behind a kit before, but I sat down — and I could play! One of the musicians turned round and said, 'Bloody hell, we've got a drummer', and I thought, 'Bloody hell, I'm a drummer' ", he recalled in a 2009 retelling of the story to the The Independent.

Baker began his career as a drummer in jazz bands. He played with Acker Bilk and Terry Lightfoot. In 1962, when fellow drummer Charlie Watts was leaving Blues Incorporated for The Rolling Stones, Watts recommended Baker to be his replacement. Later, Baker found early success with rhythm and blues band The Graham Bond Organisation where he met bassist Jack Bruce.

In 1966, Baker, Bruce and singer/guitarist Eric Clapton, who was known from The Yardbirds, formed Cream. The rock trio was a massive success, selling tens of millions of records, including the first ever platinum certified album Wheels of Fire. Cream recorded four albums, then in 1968 disbanded with Baker and Bruce having developed a volatile relationship. Clapton and Baker were subsequently in another supergroup Blind Faith with Steve Winwood and Ric Grech. Blind Faith recorded only one studio album but notably played before a crowd of a hundred thousand at a free concert in London's Hyde Park.

In the 1970s, Baker moved to Nigeria where he established a studio and began playing polo. Here he collaborated with Fela Kuti and worked on Wings's album Band on the Run with Paul McCartney of The Beatles fame. Later, he recorded with John Lydon's Public Image Ltd.

Cream was inducted in 1993 into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The band reunited in 2005 for several London and New York concerts. Afterwards he moved to South Africa, and still lived there when the 2012 documentary Beware of Mr. Baker was filmed. Baker's last recording was 2014's Why? solo album. Baker retired from live performances in 2016 due to his ill health.

Paul McCartney wrote on Twitter, "Ginger Baker, great drummer, wild and lovely guy. We worked together on the 'Band on the Run' album in his ARC Studio, Lagos, Nigeria. Sad to hear that he died but the memories never will."

"A very sad loss, and my condolences to his family and friends. A loss also for his contribution to music. He was well-grounded in jazz from very early on," wrote Steve Winwood in a statement. "Beneath his somewhat abrasive exterior, there was a very sensitive human being with a heart of gold. He’ll be missed."

Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones also reacted on Twitter, "Sad news hearing that Ginger Baker has died, I remember playing with him very early on in Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated. He was a fiery but extremely talented and innovative drummer."


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