“Hello—this is Ginger Baker. I’m calling to say goodbye …” This sounded final and gloomy. Did it mean that the Four Minute warning had been given, or was Ginger, most celebrated rock drummer of the age, about to flee the country?
Mercifully, for those of us without fallout shelters, the latter was true. But the news still came as a shock and mystery. Why was Ginger quitting the country where he had been feted as a legend? A meeting had to be arranged. There literally wasn’t much time. Within a couple of days, Ginger would be on the road heading for a secret destination in Europe, where he intended to shelter from the blows of fate, and hopefully carve out a new career, and a new life.
The past couple of years have seen Ginger’s personal affairs lurch from crisis to crisis. He broke up with his wife, got into a financial mess and saw his prestige as a performer eroded.
Baker is a willful, stubborn man, but is also a trusting friend, and at heart, a kind and surprisingly gentle man. He has been punished for past transgressions, but there seems to be no stopping the consequences of past gambles and failures.
The drummer who created a unique style that revolutionized attitudes to the percussionist in rock ‘n’ roll, came to fame with the Graham Bond Organisation and went on to found Cream in 1966. With Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce, Baker gave the rock musician a status never enjoyed before, and helped produce some of the most exciting and challenging music of the decade.
Peter “Ginger” Baker was born in Lewisham, London in 1939 and later lived in the greener, outer suburb of New Eltham. With his flaming red hair and Irish ancestry, Ginger quickly attained a reputation for wild, eccentric behavior, and artistic flair. From his teenage days, Ginger has always been an achiever—determined to try his hand at anything that combined the satisfaction of art and the thrill of speed. Hence his love of such diverse occupations as sculpture, cycling, rally driving, drumming, painting, and polo.
An early love of jazz, and an innate understanding of rhythm made Ginger appear what people like to call “a natural.” But he studied long and hard at the drums once he realized that playing a kit was something he could do quickly and with relative ease. He has always taken pride in his knowledge of the drum rudiments, something that surprises those who see Ginger as the archtypal “wildman of rock,” almost the prototype for “Animal” in the Muppet Show. He certainly presented a ferocious spectacle on his early tours of America, wearing the fashionably long hair of the late ’60s, flowing over gaunt features, with the inevitable cigarette pasted on his lower lip. He achieved fame during the era of the hard drinking, drug taking rock ‘n’ roll hero. That Ginger has survived those days when many others have died, is a testament to his legendary will power.
But Ginger was much more than a showman. He was, many would agree, one of the first rock drummers to introduce as an integral part of his style, many of the elements of jazz drumming that were either ignored or simply unknown to most young players in the beat groups of the ’60s. It is perhaps difficult now to appreciate the impact Ginger made from 1963 onwards, but certainly in England he opened up whole new vistas for drummers, and brought drumming to the attention of the public at large. At one stage practically every young player in the country was copying the Baker approach. I remember standing next to Keef Hartley, who was John Mayall’s drummer in 1966, at a concert, and him groaning at some luckless group: “Oh no, not another Ginger Baker imitator!”
There were other important and free thinking drummers who emerged in the wake of Baker: Mitch Mitchell with the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Brian Davidson with The Nice, Bobby Elliot with the Hollies and of course Keith Moon with The Who. Each had their own character and mode of attack. But Ginger was the man who showed how it was possible, within the rock format, to create long, interesting and climactic solos. He demonstrated how to sustain a recognizable beat while introducing imaginative fill-ins designed to goad the front line players to maximum effort. His early influences were the great American drummers, Art Blakey, Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones and going further back, Baby Dodds. It was this grounding and understanding of the jazz drumming heritage that gave Ginger a head start over his contemporaries. But he was no mere copyist. He hammered out his own style that was an extension of his personality and sparked by his temperament.
I went to see Ginger often in his early days when his name was being championed by Charlie Watts and Paul McCartney. He was an unforgettable sight, his face contorted, but breaking out into smiles whenever he managed a particularly spellbinding break or coda after the guitarists and keyboard players had set the scene. And for Ginger it was not a slick routine. You got the feeling while watching him that every beat was torn from his body. He occasionally faultered or allowed a mistake to mar his playing. This was not perfection by conveyer belt, and when the successes came, how sweet was the sound of those drums!
A lot of Ginger’s strength lay in his feet. Although wirey to the point of being skinny, he had tremendous reserves of energy in his legs, largely the result of frantic cycle racing. When he switched to two bass drums around 1966, his celebrated solo, “Toad,” was given an extra dimension, and he was able to create a torrent of sounds that he could control like an engineer in charge of power ducts. His use of cliff-hanging suspense, long tension building phrases, bebop-style accents, and cymbal rolls all helped open the eyes and ears of rock drummers to the potential of their kit. The rock ‘n’ roll drummer need not be a docile time keeper.
Ginger was also rare among rock drummers in that he did not completely relinquish the use of wire brushes and played them with locomotive drive on the famous Jack Bruce blues “Train Time.” His brushes chuffed and steamed behind the vocals and harmonica with a vigour that had not been heard since the days when Gene Krupa lead off “Running Wild” with the Benny Goodman Quartet.
As is often the case with heavily individual stylists, there were areas of drumming in which Ginger did not excell. He would never have made a sympathetic studio drummer, nor was he regimented or disciplined enough for the “techno-flash” or even the heavy metal bands of the ’70s. His was living, breathing drumming, warts and all, and therein lay his appeal.
The success of Cream brought fame and riches, and Ginger later became the force behind such bands as Blind Faith, Airforce, and the Baker-Gurvitz Army. But by the ’70s, Ginger had been drumming a long time, and yearned to find other ways to express himself and make a living. There was a recording studio in Africa, and then his foray into the competitive world of polo.
But when it came to buying polo ponies, expensive unpredictable beasts to maintain, then Baker over-reached himself. He now admits that he is “a lousy businessman” and in one particularly revealing moment, he added: “I was a bad drunk.” Ginger had seen the warning lights flash and pulled himself back from the brink. “If you’ve got a problem, then drinking just makes it worse. I haven’t had a drink for months now.”
It’s ironic that in all the time I have known Ginger, I have never seen him so together, so rational, and so happy. His drumming too has improved since the days when he was at the height of his popularity with Cream. It is tighter, crisper and much more organized. Ironic because Baker the sober man and improved musician found it difficult to get work at home. Attacks had been mounted on him in the press, and he was being pursued by the inland revenue for monies owed from the early “70s, when he was a big earner and rock superstar.
So sadly, softly and secretly, Ginger Baker slipped out of England on a cold, wet Saturday morning, with all his possessions and his girlfriend packed into a second-hand Land Rover. He drove across to the Continent and has now set up a new home in Italy. The red haired madman who hammered out “Toad” from London to L.A. could not get a record deal in his own country. But Ginger has great resilience. In his youth he fought and kicked the drugs habit that once threatened to destroy him. And he has weathered so many storms he has the wary look of a ship’s captain, waiting for the next blow to break.
When he was offered the chance to sign with an Italian record company and set up a drum school in a small village in the mountains, he leapt at the chance. And I helped him prepare for the trip by driving around all day, picking up the Land Rover from a muddy farm, and collecting other goods and chattels.
“I feel very bitter about the whole scene,” he told me as we drove around town. “These tax demands are a big blow. They say I owe money going back to 1972 which was when I was in Africa. I haven’t any documents from that period to prove I don’t owe them anything, but they are claiming sixty thousand pounds. I’ve also had nasty things said about me in the press.” This happened after an acrimonious scene between him and Roy Harper during a gig at Glastonbury Fayre. Harper complained that Baker’s band was trying to get him off stage so they could play, claimed that Ginger had done this sort of thing to him for years, and incited the crowd against Ginger. A bottle was thrown and cut Ginger’s eye. “It’s the first time anything like that has happened to me in 25 years of playing. I don’t think I’ll ever play in England again.”
He has now signed with CGD Records in Milan and he has formed a new band with young American players Doug Brockie from New Jersey on guitar and vocals and Carl Hill from Chicago on bass. “He’s very good,” says Ginger. “Just like Jack Bruce!”
Helping Ginger out over the past few years has been Roy Ward of Oak Productions, who was managing a hotel in Sussex when he met Ginger while he was a guest. At this time, in 1979, Baker had not played drums for four years, and spent all his time playing polo.
“Roy ‘phoned me up and said, ‘Why don’t you start playing again?’ but it was the last thing I wanted to do. Eventually I started playing again and found that I liked it—still! Polo was a very exacting game and that’s all I thought about. You know, it was sitting on a wooden horse whacking balls about all day long, every day. That’s why I got quite good at it. But I’m very gullible, businesswise, and I got ripped off, dreadfully by this Argentinian, and suddenly I found I’d got no money and no work.” Ginger bought a lot of ponies from Argentina that proved nice animals, but no use for polo. It was back to music, and Baker formed Energy with guitarist John Mizarolli. They went back to the clubs and venues Ginger had left behind a long time ago.
But the band was good, and Ginger in particular, better than he had been for years. He used a smaller kit, trimmed down the length of his solos and showed he had been listening to modern developments by introducing funk and disco licks to his style.
His new line up is called Bakernband—all one word. “I’m trying to run away from Ginger Baker,” he said with astonishing candor. “I’ve got a reputation that causes people to run away before they’ve even listened to it, which is very sad.” He gave a small laugh. For a man with such pride, this was pride-swallowing on an unprecedented scale.
“But I am playing better now than I used to. It’s old age. I now know you can say a lot more with one beat than you can with 24. If you play really fast all the time it doesn’t really mean an awful lot. You can’t hear what’s being played, and only another drummer can really suss out what is being played. I think you can say a lot more with one beat or even silence, than by filling everything up with demi-semi quavers [32nd notes]. Africa was quite an influence on me in that respect, although I didn’t go there deliberately for that. I heard a helluva lot of drums out there, and they had me in tears one night.
“There were twelve drummers playing different times but the beat was the same. Oh, it was frightening. The feeling was always in me before, but having been to Africa I assimilated a lot of it. I speak Yoruba quite well, and it’s very much a percussive language.”
I remembered that in the early days of Ginger’s drumming, he often came up against what he called his “brick walls” when he was trying to establish a particular drum pattern, and had to break out into the next one to complete a cycle. “Well that did happen a few times,” he allowed. “That doesn’t happen now and that’s down to experience. In fact, I’ll have to practice some more because speed wise there is a drummer out in Italy right now who is making me look a bit of a twit, simply because I haven’t practiced. It doesn’t take long for the old rust to come off—just a couple of weeks.
“I have got, as even dear Mr. Buddy Rich will admit, a good rudimentary technique. Something else that’s important are my feet, which have always been an important factor in my playing. Basically I play with my left foot as the time keeper, and I regard that as playing on another drum. That’s why I’ve stopped playing two bass drums, because I like that hi-hat to be there all the time. Wherever I go time wise with the rest of my hands and feet, that keeps time. I play twos, fours or eights on the hihat. One of my favourite things is to play eight beats to the bar on the hi-hat and double beats in twelve-eight time on the other three drums. It really sounds good. So you are playing ‘Chickida, chickida, chickida,’ but the foot is going ‘chick, chick, chick.
Ginger has been playing in much more simple fashion as well, under the onslaught of the disco beat. “A lot of things we play nowadays have a pretty solid bass drum beat and I find that very enjoyable. If you play really straight and then let something nice go, it stands out much more naturally.”
But at heart Ginger has always been a jazz fan and his earliest influences were Max Roach, and Elvin Jones with John Coltrane. “In those days they played all over the drums, all the time. Nobody ever played ‘1-2-3-4.’ It was all ‘ga-dong, bip, bop, blam, ga-dong’—never on the beat. Now it’s come back again to four in the bar on the bass drum.
“Anyway, I love dancing about in a disco. I can really enjoy it. And I really enjoy classical music. Any music that makes you want to move.”
Disco is fine then, but what about all those drummers with different recognizable styles who came up at the same time as Ginger, like Mitch Mitchell and Keith Moon? What has happened to the individual?
“I think the great problem with young drummers today is that most of them don’t know what the rudiments are and it shows. It’s boring—rudiments. But they are absolutely essential. If you can become proficient on an instrument you can express yourself. All those old-fashioned patterns are there for a reason, to help you master your instrument. Once you’ve got them out of the way, you’ve got total mastery. A lot of kids playing rock ‘n’ roll wouldn’t know how to play jazz or blues. There are a lot of good players about, but not that many seem to stand out and make any startling revelations.
“Electronic drums are coming in which are great for disco. They play at the right tempo and just keep going. But there is less character in the playing which is a shame. There are not a lot of drummers you can recognize and say, ‘That’s him!’ There’s nobody like Max Roach, Art Blakey or Elvin Jones around today. All the drummers in rock sound very similar and predictable. They all play the same fill-ins, in the same places! It doesn’t have to be like that.”
Had Ginger tried any electronic drum machines yet? “Not even thought about it. But I did have some fun with Tim Blake in Hawkwind. He is a really good synthesizer player and we’d have some good plays. He’d set a drum thing going on a repeated pattern and I played along with it, and that was really enjoyable. I quite fancy recording with Tim, because we got on well, but he doesn’t know that!”
Would Ginger like to work with a big band like Cream again?
”Oh God yes, I ‘d love to work with Eric again. But I don’t think it’s very likely to happen. I don’t think Eric wants to work with me somehow. Because I make him come out of himself and play, and that’s not what he wants to do at the moment. Jack told me that, a few years ago.
“He told me Eric didn’t want to work with a drummer like me. He wanted someone who would play exactly what Eric wanted. Whereas I will play something that is super good, and then sometimes something that is not so good. But that’s what music is all about.”
Despite his occasional forays into becoming a studio boss, rally driver or polo player, Ginger’s life has been wrapped up in playing drums. And now his 12-year-old son, Kofi, is also playing. He was given Ginger’s old Ludwig drumkit of 1975 vintage, two years ago and is now, according to Ginger, “frightening.” He has studied with Ginger and uses his dad’s tutor book. The old man has insisted that his boy goes through all the rudiments and plays all possible combinations of paradiddles and the like.
Baker Senior has always played Ludwig, except for the earliest days when he built his own kit out of bits and pieces. He has recently taken possession of a mahogany finish Ludwig kit which he says is “the best sounding Ludwig kit I’ve ever had, and I’ve only had three in fifteen years, they stand up so well.”
He also uses Avedis Zildjian cymbals including a 13″ flat top, a 20″ Earth ride, a 15-year-old 22″ riveted and an equally ancient 8″ splash. He rounds this off with a 20″ ride, 15″ hi-hats and 16″ and 18″ crash rides. He uses all Evans oil-filled heads, Ludwig sticks and 20-year-old “bastardised” Fleetfoot bass drum pedals which float on leather straps of his own devising, to give him greater foot mobility. When they break he has to get his roadie to drill holes and make up new ones, as the leather-strapped Fleetfoot has not been produced for years.
Ginger’s approach to the percussive arts over the years has always been an idiosyncratic mixture of orthodoxy, tradition, rule breaking, and experiment. What drew him to drums in the first place?
“God knows! Ha ha! Well, I was a cyclist, and I wrecked my bike. I had been into drums from a listening point of view for quite a time. I used to bang on the table with knives and forks and drive everybody mad. I used to get the kids at school dancing by banging rhythms on the school desk! They kept on at me to sit in with this band. The band wasn’t very keen, but in the end I sat in and played the bollocks off their drummer. And that was the first time I’d sat on a kit. I heard one of the band turn round and say, ‘Christ, we’ve got a drummer.’ And I thought, ‘Hello, this is something I can do.’ I was about fifteen.”
His first kit he describes as “a bit alarming.” It was a toy one which he bought for three pounds. Then he got a gig with the Storyville Jazz Men and bought a secondhand kit. Trad jazz was the hip music of the day, and Ginger did a good job playing in that style, eventually moving on to play with Terry Lightfoot who ran one of the big-name bands.
“Then I got fed up with my kit and got this great idea for using Perspex. It was like wood to work on, but it was smooth, and it would save painting the inside of the drum shell with gloss paint. So I used Vic O’Brien fittings, bent the shells over the gas stove [Ginger began to laugh at the memory], cut ’em all out, pieced them together and I used that kit for five years. I made it in 1961 and used it up until 1966 which was when I got my first Ludwig kit.”
He used his home-made kit on the classic Graham Bond LPs There’s A Bond Between Us and Sound of ’65 which have never been reissued. Did he have his own style and sound on a kit together, right from the start?
“The way I play—I know now, more than ever—is something I was born with, because my little boy sounds like me. The whole approach—the way you hit the drum—is achieved by listening to the sounds you make.
“I could always play. When I joined the Storyville Jazz Band I told them I’d been playing for three years. In fact I had only been playing for three months. It was no problem. Then the guys got me onto listening to Baby Dodds’ records, and I fell in love with what he was playing. That’s why I found the African thing so easy to understand, because Baby Dodds was the link between Western military techniques and African drummers. He was THE man, who first successfully married the two. He was the first jazz drummer. I’ve still got an old Leedy snare drum I bought off Alton Red, who was Kid Dry’s drummer. I still use it. Baby Dodds was responsible for Krupa. He learned everything off Baby Dodds. ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’ and all that was all Baby Dodds, and not played so well. I used to like Zutty Singleton as well. They all used a lot of wood blocks and rims but that was the way they played in those days.”
Ginger went on to listening to modern jazz records by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and the drummer on many of the sessions was the man he describes as king, Max Roach. “Max, still today, is amazing. I’ve never met him, but he’s the one person I really want to meet. He’s the Guv’nor. But when I started playing, Trad was the thing, and it was the easiest thing to play, and probably the best music to start off with. But things started to go awry when I started to play things other than four in the bar, which was why I left Terry Lightfoot. I was getting into Max Roach and Big Sid Catlett. ‘Ching, ching, ching, BOOM!’ And as soon as that happened Terry nearly swallowed his clarinet. He’d say, ‘I want four in the bar on the bass drum, nothing else!’ So I think I told him to get lost. Then I was with Bob Wallis and Diz Disley, and I did a tour with Sister Rosetta Tharpe.”
After this early experience, Ginger decided to get down to some study and not just rely on natural talent. He practiced rudiments eight or nine hours a day, every day he could. And he went up to London’s Archer Street, then the musicians’ haunt, to try and get dance band gigs. He wanted to be a professional musician. “I got a reading gig, and I couldn’t read.
“I had to learn to read in a fortnight, to get the gig. It took me a week to find out what a repeat sign meant. I couldn’t figure out why I was getting to the end of a part and the band was still playing! But then I was able to read enough to get through. Before that I was using my ears and faking my way through the gig. It was in an Irish dance club. We played a little bit of Irish dance music and the rest of it was big band jazz—Stan Kenton and Shorty Rogers style. The alto player in the band showed me how to do arranging and advised me to get books on basic harmony. The first arrangement I did was on ‘Surrey With The Fringe On Top.’ Stupid tune, but a great kick to hear the band playing my parts. Oh yeah, I can transpose anything. But a lot of people who aren’t musicians don’t realize I can do these things. Oh yes, I’ve studied it all very carefully.”
As far as Ginger was concerned then, modern jazz was the ultimate music and the goal he was aiming at. He worked at Ronnie Scott’s club, and also joined the Johnny Burch Octet which he still says is the best jazz band he ever played with. But then the r&b boom came along, and many of the jazz musicians began to move on to playing with the electric musicians. This fusion sparked by Alexis Korner, Graham Bond, Jack Bruce and Ginger, led to such bands as the Graham Bond Organisation and eventually Cream, where jazz and blues roots were given the commercial appeal of pop music. From playing in small jazz cellars, Jack, Eric and Ginger were suddenly catapulted to international stardom.
Ginger agrees that in those days he “played like a madman and got emotionally involved in the music.” It didn’t al ways endear him to fellow musicians. “Some people don’t like that. They start coming out of themselves and start playing something, or else they feel they are losing control of the band. A lot of drummers just played what they heard on records. Whoever was the in drummer of the day, they learned to play just like that. I was always playing myself. I had influences. Phil Seamen was one of them, obviously. We were both into African time—where the beat’s at, and where it changes. Phil heard me play in the All-Nighter Club, which used to be The Flamingo on Wardour Street. Tubby Hayes had apparently been in there and heard me and ran over to Ronnie Scott’s Club and told Phil to come down and hear me. When I got off stage I was suddenly confronted by my hero.
“Without studying paradiddles I wouldn’t have been able to do big drum solos. It’s funny, when I was playing mod ern jazz I was always accused of being a rock ‘n’ roller because I needed to lay down an off-beat. But then, so did Art Blakey. But they didn’t like this—loud drummer playing off-beats, and getting all the audience clapping their hands, and dancing about. That was most uncalled for. You were supposed to sit up and listen and drink your drink. But I never considered myself a rock’n’roller. I was always a jaz zer, and always will be. Cream was a jazz band. That’s what it was. It was eighty percent improvised music. If that’s rock ‘n’ roll then great, I like it. And it was what the people wanted. We were all on the same wavelength at that time.
“I don’t think my approach to drum solos has altered since Cream. I like to follow a theme, which may change, but I need to know roughly where I’m going, and up it and down it along the way. I try to be in control of the situation!” Ginger laughed once more, which was the nearest to admitting, in all the twenty years I’ve known him, for the first time that things might occasionally go awry. “Philly Joe Jones met me once and he’d heard one of my solos—on TV—and he said, ‘Yeah man, you are telling a story there,’ which was really nice of him.”
Did Ginger ever listen to the solo he did with Cream on Wheels Of Fire? “Very seldom—but the two guys I’ve got in the band now are total Cream freaks. So when we are driving along in the bus they keep slipping Cream things into the tape player. I was driving over the Alps in the snow and ‘Passing The Time’ came on and I thought it was beautiful. With the snow and scenery and the music—it was moving.”
A lot of people thought that Cream could have done so much more, in terms of material, arranging and better produced albums. How did he answer this charge? “Yes, but it had reached an impasse. No way could it continue. There was this problem with me and Jack which had continued on from the Bond days really. I just can’t get on with him. It was a terrible thing, really, a tragedy.
“I don’t think they used the best drum solo on Wheels Of Fire as it happens. There is always something seems to happen to recording machines when you play well. I recently played the best drum solo I’ve played for six years. It all flowed and I knew straight away it was going to be good. It was bloody perfect, and the idiot recording it forgot to change the tape be fore the number, so there’s a gap when he was changing over. You can’t splice it together; it doesn’t join up. I wanted it for my own personal satisfaction because I’ve not put any solos out on record for a long time. Maybe I’ll put a drum solo on the next record I do.”
Ginger told me not so long ago that he was cutting down on the length of time he allowed for a solo, so as not to be accused by rock critics of being boring. “Yeah, but when the crowd gets behind you and starts shouting, you get into it, and of course it goes on a bit. But you get this terrible fear of people starting to complain about ‘boring drum solos’ so I try to keep ’em shorter. Okay, so there might be a bit in the middle where it gets repetitive, but that can lead to somewhere quite fantastic. I can see ahead, but I’m not planning ahead. It’s like driving on headlights—you can see the road ahead, and just keep on going. You must try and catch all the green lights! But sometimes a red light can be good for you. I remember playing at the Royal Albert Hall. I was busting for a piss in the middle of my solo, so I put my sticks down— bang—and said, “Excuse me folks, I’m just going for a piss,” and I walked off and left the band. When I came back everybody stood up and applauded; I got more applause for the piss than the solo.”