Ginger Baker, Cream's Pioneering Drummer, Dead at 80 | Revolver

Ginger Baker, Cream's Pioneering Drummer, Dead at 80

Influential musician redefined role of drums in rock, laid foundation for heavy metal
ginger-baker-getty.jpg, Colin Fuller / Getty
Ginger Baker, December 31, 1975
photograph by Colin Fuller / Getty

Ginger Baker, the founding drummer of influential rock trio Cream, died on Sunday October 6th after an extended hospital stay in southeastern England for an undisclosed illness. He was 80.

The news was confirmed via the drummer's Facebook page: "We are very sad to say that Ginger has passed away peacefully this morning. Thank you to everyone for your kind words to us all over the past weeks."

"Dad passed away peacefully," his daughter Nettie Baker told CNN. "He was in no pain and had recently been able to see and speak to his children, close family and special friends." Nettie Baker also said her father had been suffering "from many long term conditions," including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. 

Baker was born on August 19th, 1939, in London. He learned to play drums at 16 and soon after began regularly gigging in the Soho jazz scene. In the early Sixties he played with Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated and Graham Bond Organization, where he honed his progressive, aggressive and polyrhythmic approach to drumming. In 1966, he joined forces with Eric Clapton and bassist Jack Bruce in Cream, whose hits included "Sunshine of Your Love" and "White Room," and influenced many hard-rock and metal bands that followed in the Seventies. Baker and Cream were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1993, and the band received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 2006.

Over his career the drummer also worked with Blind Faith, Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti, Paul McCartney, Hawkwind, Public Image LTD, Masters of Reality and more.

Baker was also a notoriously outspoken character (as you can see below in the trailer for the fascinating 2012 documentary Beware of Mr. Baker), who was open about his life and struggles with addiction (which he detailed in his 2009 autobiography Hellraiser). He was also known to give caustic interviews — especially when it came to being associated with heavy music.

"I've seen where Cream is sort of held responsible for the birth of heavy metal," told Forbes in 2015. "Well, I would definitely go for aborting [laughs]. I loathe and detest heavy metal. I think it is an abortion. A lot of these guys come up and say, 'Man, you were my influence, the way you thrashed the drums.' They don't seem to understand I was thrashing in order to hear what I was playing. It was anger, not enjoyment – and painful. I suffered on stage because of that [high amplifier] volume crap. I didn't like it then, and like it even less now."

"I'm a jazz drummer," Baker told The Telegraph in 2013. "You have to swing. There are hardly any rock drummers I know who can do that."

Despite his objections to being associated with heavy music, Baker was widely praised by rock musicians. Rush's Neil Peart once told Rolling Stone that Baker's "playing was revolutionary — extrovert, primal, and inventive," and "every rock drummer since has been influenced in some way by Ginger — even if they don't know it."

On social media, musicians remembered the drummer. "Thank you Ginger Baker," tweeted Slipknot drummer Jay Weinberg.

"Very sad day in the Drum world as we say goodbye to one of rock's greatest pioneers: Ginger Baker," wrote Mike Portnoy. "In the 60's, there were a few drummers that came onto the scene playing "lead drums". Ginger Baker was one of them taking rock drumming to a whole new level of expression."

"Ginger Baker, great drummer, wild and lovely guy," Paul McCartney said on Twitter. "We worked together on the 'Band on the Run' album in his ARC Studio, Lagos, Nigeria. Sad to hear that he died but the memories never will."

"Farewell to one of the most innovative drummers in rock, strong influence of Afrobeat & jazz (friend of Fela Kuti & Elvin Jones respectively) & one of rock's biggest "characters" (admittedly difficult persona) RIP," wrote Testament's Alex Skolnick.

"So much freedom in his playing," posted Red Hot Chili Peppers' bassist Flea. "What a wildman. Rhythms we've hear all our lives he plucked them out of the sky. Rest In Peace Ginger Baker."