Cream may have only been together for just over two years, but what Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce managed to achieve in that short time will live on forever in the annals of music history. The initial hype from the moment of their incarnation was unprecedented as the trio was immediately dubbed as the first ‘supergroup’. Considering their positions within the rock world at the time, there can be no doubt that’s exactly what they were.
The three now-iconic figures all originated from session musician backgrounds with Clapton garnering an immense reputation for his tremendous time playing with The Yardbirds and John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers. Baker and Bruce, meanwhile, had played together in the Graham Bonds Organisation.
Their decision to form a new group had come after each member became fed up with performing what they were told to play and, instead, wanted to start their own band, make their own songs, and chart their own course around the world. As with all such seemingly unattainable bands, their origination is rooted in reality.
Clapton once recalled how one car journey led to their formation: “I had always liked Ginger,” he explained. “Ginger had come to see me play with the Bluesbreakers. After the gig, he drove me back to London in his Rover. I was very impressed with his car and driving. He was telling me that he wanted to start a band, and I had been thinking about it too.
“When Ginger invited me to join, I asked him who else was in the band,” Clapton later told Uncut. “He said, ‘I don’t know yet.’ So, I suggested Jack. He said, ‘No, what did you have to go and mention him for?’ I said, ‘Because I just played with him and he’s a great bass player and you guys played together with Graham Bond and Alexis, so I thought you’d be pleased.’ And he said, ‘No, we don’t get on very well at all.’ So, I withdrew at that point. Then I said I would only go in with Ginger if he would go in with Jack. So he had to say OK.”
Their first show was only a matter of weeks after their formation and came when manager Robert Stigwood secured a booking at Manchester’s Twisted Wheel on July 29th, 1966. On that Friday night, few minds were wondering about the first few steps of a new rock band as the biggest football match in England’s history was about to take place. In fact, not even the band were excited about playing their first gig.
In truth, they didn’t really know too much about it. Joe Tex pulled out of his engagement at the famous soul club in Manchester and left an opening for the band to arrive. The trio climbed into their Austin Westminster and headed north. “It was just called Cream. It wasn’t advertised,” Bruce later remembered. “Somebody had pulled out of the gig, and we just took the gig up as a practice the day before doing the Windsor Jazz Festival. That was our first official concert.”
Ben Palmer was the man behind the wheel for that evening, and remembered driving into the venue’s new Whitworth Street location with the hottest trio around: “I parked the car at the back of the club and Eric, Jack and Ginger went in,” Palmer remembered. “I went off to the nearest pub. I thought I’d give them an hour and pop back to see how they sounded. I went back an hour later and all the amplifiers were still in the car.
“Ginger said: ‘You’ve been gone a long time. Is it all ready?’ I asked him what he was on about. I said I’d not been long, just for a drink. ‘But you’re the bloody roadie,’ screamed Ginger. ‘You’re supposed to set up our gear!’ I told him I hadn’t a clue how to do it. I expected a fiver in my pocket for driving them, and ‘see you next week.’”
The group were likely met with a somewhat disagreeable audience given the venue’s position as the ultimate Northern Soul night in Manchester. However, they would soon turn them around and deliver a blistering set full of promise and potential.
The gig was a warm-up for a remarkable show that Stigwood had somehow snagged for them two days later at the National Jazz and Blues Festival—a location where they would be taking to the stage after The Who. Given their newly acquired band status, this was a big opportunity, and they needed to be road-ready.
Stigwood had sent out a press release alerting the industry to Cream, a note which had captured the attention of the festival bookers immediately. He magically sold the band as: “The first is last, and the last is first, but the first, the second and the last are Cream,” he said. “They will be called Cream.”
Despite only playing one show, Cream was thrown into the limelight at one of Britain’s biggest music festivals in front of a whopping 15,000 people in attendance who had no idea about what they were about to witness. It’s safe to say that the nerves were aplenty before they took to the stage: “It’s funny to think of now, but we were all so nervous,” he wrote in Clapton: The Autobiography.
“We were an unknown band topping the bill, closing the last night’s session. After playing mostly in clubs, we were now performing outside to 15,000 people. We had a tiny amount of equipment, and being only a trio, we didn’t seem to have any power. It all sounded so small, especially playing after the group then known as the world’s loudest rock band, the Who.”
If any band were worthy of being thrown into the deep end, then it was this well-travelled trio of session musicians. These incredible festival slots would later become the norm for them over the next couple of years — where they managed to surpass Stigwood’s vast hype.