Ginger Baker was nothing short of a virtuoso. A brilliant rhythmic pioneer, his style was a mesh of jazz, African and world music, finished with a garnish of hard rock for good measure. His heydey is often thought of as the 1960s and ’70s, where he inspired droves of young people to learn the mysterious and complicated ways of the drum kit. Referred to as “rock’s first superstar drummer” by Adam Budofski, Baker was undoubtedly a master of unparalleled skill.
Born Peter Edward Baker, Lewisham, London in 1939, surprisingly, our extroverted master of rhythm took his iconic stage name from his thick, bright red locks. In the early ’60s, he initially gained his first taste of fame as a member of Blues Incorporated and then the Graham Bond Organisation, featuring in both outfits alongside perennial “frenemy” Jack Bruce on bass. This convergence of Baker and Bruce was to have career-defining effects.
In 1966, Baker and Bruce joined the guitarist du jour Eric Clapton to form the fleeting but highly influential rock trio, Cream. The band would last only two years until 1968 as all three members were volatile characters; their relationship is best regarded as somewhat of a Hadron Collider. Baker and Bruce’s relationship was so tumultuous that it had been signified by many as the key reason why Cream ended.
Regardless, Baker would continue on his trailblazing journey of discovery. He worked with Clapton in supergroup Blind Faith for a time, and in 1969 he formed Ginger Baker’s Air Force, a jazz-rock fusion troupe that was a conduit to express his visceral talent. Following his interest in traditional African music’s dynamic use of rhythms, Baker spent parts of the ’70s living and recording in Lagos, Nigeria. It was during this deeply educational period that he came in contact with one of rhythm’s original pioneers, Fela Kuti. The Nigerian multi-instrumentalist is widely credited with bringing the concept of the polyrhythm to Western audiences, without whom the likes of Talking Heads and Brian Eno would not be the same.
Up until his death in 2019, Baker continued to be a prolific drummer, lending his hallowed hands to a wide range of acts. These include Gary Moore, Masters of Reality, Public Image Ltd and Hawkwind. It is a testament to his skill that he was fortunate to play with some of the most iconic musicians of all time across his six-decade spanning career.
Memorable for his eccentric lifestyle, Baker’s playing was a stark reflection of his personality. Expressive and visceral, it encompassed style and showmanship. He is also credited with pioneering the double kick drumming style that would become a hallmark of heavy metal in the years to come. Our favourite drummer’s favourite drummer, legends such as John Bonham, Neil Peart, Nick Mason and Stewart Copeland all list him as a major inspiration behind their unique styles.
Perhaps the most defining feature of Baker as a drummer was the extended drum solos he would perform, particularly in Cream. The most famous example of this is on the 1966 instrumental ‘Toad’, where he took the concept of a drum solo from jazz and popularised it within rock music.
Whilst ‘Toad’ is his most famous drum solo, one would posit that his best ever drum solo came during a 1969 show with Blind Faith in Gothenburg, Sweden. During the performance with the supergroup, eleven minutes in, Baker unleashed his raw talent.
He slowly drew the audience in by plodding through a traditional four-to-the-floor rhythm before adding in ghost notes and turning it into a hypnotic, brilliant beat. Showing off his signature double bass drum, and use jazz-inspired rhythms, throughout this dizzying eight-minute solo, Baker covers every inch of the kit. He gradually ramps up the tempo, culminating in a thrilling crescendo. He is met with glorious applause before the band jump back into their set, keyboards and all.
Listen to the fantastic recording below.