Rumour has it that when Jack Bruce was on his deathbed, the bassist made a special phone call to his ex-Cream bandmate, Ginger Baker. Baker, who was living on a ranch in South Africa by his time, picked up the phone to the sound of Bruce’s heavy, tired breaths. “I’m dying, Ginger, fuck you,” he said and promptly hung up. Whether or not that story is true or not doesn’t really matter because it perfectly captures the bitterness between the two musicians.
The pair were notoriously ill-matched for a life on the road, coming to blows on a near-incessant basis while touring with Cream. Indeed, the tension between Bruce and Baker continued well into their old age. When rumours started to spread about a possible Cream reunion, for example, Bruce was asked if there was any substance to the hear-say, to which he replied: “We had plans, until Ginger turned into a c*nt.”
For some, the beef within the band was one of the key ingredients to their success, with each member pushing their virtuosity to greater and greater lengths, resulting in a fiery, technically flawless sound designed to put each other in their places rather than impress the punters. But it’s possible that the fuel also played a hand in Cream’s premature demise in 1968.
Part of Baker and Bruce’s rivalry was founded on the belief that each of them was trying to outshine the other, a trend that started when the two of them were performing as part of the lineup for the Graham Bond Organisation. “Jack’s personality was Jekyll and Hyde,” Baker said in an interview with Jim Clash. “If you said the wrong thing, he would suddenly turn on you. One day during my drum solo, Jack began playing a bass thing with me. I was really getting off on it, phrasing with him on the bass drum. Suddenly he turned around and said, ‘You’re playing too f*cking loud.’ The result was that I nearly killed him. A bouncer had to pull me off.”
This incident sparked a sibling-esque rivalry between Bruce and Baker which saw them sabotage each other’s instrument before performances. The tension between the two musicians came to a head went they began fighting each other on stage. Baker fired Bruce from the band, but the bassist continued showing up to rehearsals.
“He took it upon himself to fire me from Graham Bond, although he wasn’t the band leader,” Bruce recalled. “He said I was playing ‘too busy.’ I think I was just finding myself and a style very much influenced by James Jamerson. I was interested in trying to take the bass guitar out of the rhythm section. I was also influenced by jazz: Scott LaFaro, Charlie Mingus. So yeah, I probably was playing a lot of notes. He [Baker] didn’t quite agree with that.” Bruce failed to take the hint, so to really hammer the point home, Baker pulled a knife on Bruce as he approached the stage one night. Bruce, seeing the blade glinting under the stage lighting, turned and walked away.
But, for Bruce, the feud was down to more than just competitive musicianship. “Let’s be honest…Ginger was a junkie,” Bruce said. “When I first met him, he was a registered heroin addict [in England]. That was the situation in this country in ’63, ’64, very healthy and civilized because there was no black market for drugs. But Ginger did fall off the wagon when we had early success doing Top Of The Pops. He had this thing some people have – he was scared of success. He would do something just at the wrong moment, like OD in the dressing room.”
Baker’s chaotic personality didn’t fade with age. Until his death, he continued to resent Bruce — as his apparent phone call in 2014 clarified. That being said, however, Baker did end up attending Bruce’s funeral, and even performed at a tribute concert held in his honour. However, he departed the stage halfway through a rendition of ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’ with a sour look on his face. Clearly, time doesn’t heal all wounds – and nor does death.