Ginger Baker was arguably one of the most interesting drummers to play with a rock band. When he joined Cream in 1966 his playing must have been revelatory to Eric Clapton as it was markedly different from Mick Fleetwood and Jim McCarty, Clapton’s former band mates in the Blues Breakers and Yardbirds respectively. Baker’s style not only had jazz influences but sounded very African.
I first heard Mr. Baker when I was ten years old. I must have worn out my older sister’s copy of Fresh Cream. The drumming on N.S.U. hit me like an oncoming train. When I was introduced to Sun Ra later in the 1970’s, by a friend affectionately nicknamed “Batman” and I heard African log drumming, I immediately thought of Ginger Baker.
Baker was no dilettante. He recorded with none other than Fela Kuti. Kuti’s drummer Tony Allen is legendary for his polyrhythms and for being one of the founders of Afrobeat. For Fela and Tony Allen to record with Baker is an acknowledgement of his credibility.
I’m not a big fan of the rock drum solo although I do have a soft spot for In A Gadda Da Vida :). However, before Ginger Baker there was no such thing as a drum solo in rock (excepting Wipe Out). Drum solos were the province of jazz bands. He certainly elevated the role of the drummer in rock music. Ginger paved the way for Keith Moon, Carl Palmer, John Bonham, and many a percussionist afterward in rock music. And, I should say, Baker could pull it off – the most enjoyable part for me of his composition Do What You Like on Blind Faith is the drum solo.
I met Ginger Baker in the mid 1970’s after a concert of the Baker-Gurvitz Army at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, NY. I knew the promoter at the time and was allowed backstage. When I talked to Ginger he asked if i had anything I wanted him to sign. He seemed gracious and quite unlike the contentious figure I had read about. He seemed like someone I would like to hang out with.
Others had brought copies of Ginger Baker’s Air Force album to be autographed. I had nothing. So, I reached into the pocket of my denim jacket and pulled out a box of Marlboro cigarettes. I sheepishly offered it to him and he obliged. By this time Cream was legendary. I had my first rock star autograph.
After the concert I was cruising along the interstate in a convertible. We were all feeling good and having a good time. Without thinking I lit my last cigarette and reflexively tossed the empty pack out of the car. That was the end of my Ginger Baker autograph but not the end of my appreciation for his great talent.
My hope for peace and solace go out to his wife Kudzai, his children, Nettie, Leda and Kofi, and his stepdaughter, Lisa.