Supergroups are often a much more succulent and flavoursome proposition in one’s imagination than they are in reality. The simple reason for that is the magnificence of Cream. They set the bar unreachably high and made it look easy for individual talents to come together to create a sum larger than themselves.
Cream are frequently labelled as the first-ever supergroup, and to a degree, they were, but that’s not why they got together. The trio all found themselves in a state of flux before forming the band. The members enjoyed varying degrees of success in other projects, but it was never their own, and the time had finally come for Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce to seek a new challenge.
There was no divine plan by Clapton to form a band exclusively with other musicians who’d been in successful groups before. Understandably, his friends were people like him who were also highly reputable musicians and lived a congruent lifestyle to the guitarist.
The scene was a small place, and everybody knew each other. Baker and Bruce previously played together in The Graham Bond Organisation, but their relationship was fractured from the start. Clapton’s role in Cream was split between playing the guitar and mediating the tension between his bandmates.
Bruce had already quit The Graham Bond Organisation in 1965 and struggled to cope with Bond, as his drug problems spiralled out of control. After he quit the group, Bruce wasn’t short of offers, and he was the most in-demand bassist in Britain.
He firstly enjoyed a brief spell with John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers, where he started playing with Clapton. Their relationship flourished during this short time, but Bruce never actually recorded anything with the group as he soon quit to join Manfred Mann.
Bruce received criticism from Mayall, who felt let down by him and accused him of falling for the lure of commercial success. Throughout his time with Mann, Bruce still played with Clapton in Powerhouse, who recorded three tracks in 1966 but never played live.
Powerhouse were the prerequisite to Cream, the fleeting project confirmed the duo’s immense chemistry, and they were destined to continue working together. Surprisingly, it was a car journey that Clapton had with Baker that led to their final formation.
Baker was still trundling along with Graham Bond in 1966; meanwhile, Clapton had grown frustrated with his role in The Bluesbreakers, and the two men had a shared epiphany that it didn’t have to be this way. If they formed a new group, they were free to be their own bosses and not answer to an elected leader.
“I had always liked Ginger,” he once 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.”
Just a few weeks later, they’d play their first show, and their journey got underway in earnest, with their pioneering blend of jazz and the blues quickly hooking itself into people’s eardrums.
Their individual reputations, of course, played some role in the hype around Cream when they formed. However, it only gets you so far. People were intrigued by the trio to start with, but once they got a dollop of Cream, they developed a taste for spoonfuls more.
It’s remarkable to think they managed to have such a long-lasting impact despite being active for less than two years. Cream achieved more in that limited time frame than most bands do in their entire careers and influenced a new generation of bands.
Were they the first-ever supergroup? Yes, and no. Undisputably they were all highly respected musicians in the London scene before they came together, but they only evolved into superstars after the collective genius they showed in Cream.