In the late 1960s, three musicians formed the British rock band Cream. While most of you would recognize the band’s guitarist, Eric Clapton, fewer will probably recognize the name of the band’s drummer. This drummer was Ginger Baker, and we advise you not to dismiss him or his legacy. His career is extraordinary and his personal life is astonishing, to the point that his involvement with Cream almost falls by the wayside. If you doubt that last sentence, we suggest you keep reading to find out more!
1. Thanks, Captain Obvious
Let’s get the most obvious fact out of the way first. Yes, he was nicknamed “Ginger” because of his red hair. There’s nothing more to be said about that topic.
2. Teen Beginnings
Baker first began drumming when he was 15 years old. Of course, that’s excluding the times when he presumably battered his plate with his cutlery, as so many of us did when we were toddlers.
3. First Time for Everything
It’s been argued that Baker was involved with the first supergroup in the world of music. This is because Cream was formed by a group of musicians who were already well established and had been successful in other bands (more on Baker’s established career later).
4. Another First!
Speaking of breaking new ground with Cream, Baker also holds a record for releasing the first double album to be registered as platinum-selling.
5. Humble Origins
Peter Edward Baker was born on August 19, 1939, in South London, England. He was the son of Frederick Baker, a bricklayer, and Ruby May, who worked in a tobacco shop.
6. Pedal to the Metal!
Contrary to what a lot of boys probably dream of doing when they grow up, Baker was less interested in being a rock star than being a cyclist. The young Baker was a passionate fan of bike-riding and even learned some mechanical tricks on maintaining one’s bike.
7. Never Mind
Sadly, for Baker, his aspirations of being a cyclist came to an abrupt halt. In Baker’s own words, he got himself involved in an accidental “smash-up” which left his bicycle destroyed. Strapped for cash, Baker was advised by his friend to take up drumming instead. When Baker was persuaded to try out a drum kit at the music store, he found his new passion.
8. Tally Ho!
During his adult life, Baker found a rather bizarre new hobby to keep him occupied: polo. For anyone looking confused, polo is an ancient team sport that’s a mix between croquet and soccer while also being on horseback. As you can imagine, it’s a costly sport to be involved with, and this led to some bad consequences for Baker (more on that later).
9. Alternate Goal
Like so many youths growing up in England, Baker was a fan of football (or soccer, for some of our readers). During his time at Pope Street School, Baker joined the football team and built a reputation for himself as one of their top-tier players. Maybe there’s an alternate timeline where Baker played in the World Cup for England?
10. The Master and the Apprentice
One of Baker’s mentors was Phil Seamen. Seamen was an accomplished English drummer who specialized in jazz music. It was he who made Baker his protégé, and the two of them later worked together when Baker established his own music career. Unfortunately, just like Baker, Seamen’s career and reputation were hampered by chemical dependency.
11. Sporadic Involvement
Baker first established himself as a musician through his association with a rhythm & blues band known as The Graham Bond Organisation. Baker was with the group from 1963 until 1966, when he joined Cream with his GBO-bandmate Jack Bruce. After Cream disbanded (more on that later) Baker returned to the Graham Bond Organisation for two more years before leaving it again.
12. What a Diva
One thing that really got on Baker’s nerves was doing interviews, and he wasn’t afraid to speak his mind. On many occasions, Baker was outright abusive towards interviewers, unconcerned about looking brutish in front of audiences.
13. For Too Brief a Moment
For all of Cream’s success, things didn’t stay peachy for long due to a rift forming between Baker and bassist Jack Bruce. We’ll go into more on that later, but we’ll say for now that the tension became such that Eric Clapton made the decision to break up the band in the spring of 1968, barely two years after they’d first formed. In that brief time, Baker and his bandmates had recorded four albums.
14. Could You Speak Up?
One of the consequences of being a part of Cream, according to Baker himself, was a serious hearing issue. By the end of his life, Baker was virtually deaf.
15. Well, This Didn’t Work Out…
Following the breakup of Cream, Baker followed Eric Clapton into a new supergroup known as Blind Faith. This band formed in 1969 and consisted of Baker, Clapton, Steve Winwood, and Ric Grech. In case you’re wondering how you haven’t heard of such a prestigious band, it’s because Blind Faith proved blinder than they expected.
Although they were met with popularity and enthusiasm, Blind Faith was unprepared for live shows due to a lack of practising with each other. Moreover, several of the band members quickly became restless, Baker among them. The band didn’t even survive the year it was formed.
16. Silver Lining
Before you write off Baker’s time with Blind Faith as a failure, however, it’s worth noting that the one album that Blind Faith produced was a massive success on both sides of the Atlantic. It managed to sell more than half a million records!
17. Less Than Mediocre Resume
In between all his musical ventures, Baker also tried to pursue an acting career, though this met very little success. His only acting credits consist of the 1964 film Gonks Go Beat (playing a character known only as “The Drummer”) and an appearance in the 1990 series Nasty Boys (playing a character called “Ginger”).
18. Try, Try Again
Following the dissolution of Blind Faith, Baker gathered most of his former bandmates (excluding Eric Clapton) and formed his own supergroup known as Ginger Baker’s Air Force. Sadly, the band fared little better than Blind Faith, producing just two albums and dissolving in 1971.
19. Trying Again
In the mid-2010s, Baker made news by announcing that he was interested in making a third album under the name “Ginger Baker’s Air Force.” Baker formed a new lineup with himself at the head. However, the tour was canceled after one show due to Baker’s health concerns.
20. Violent Subject Matter
In 2012, the documentary film Beware of Mr. Baker was released to highly positive acclaim. The film delved into Baker’s life, never shying away from his abrasive personality. One anecdote about the film’s production involved its director, Jay Bulger, getting into a confrontation with Baker. Things came to a head when Baker broke Bulger’s nose and hit him over the head with a cane!
21. In the Upper Echelon
In case Baker’s name and legacy are unfamiliar to you, keep in mind that Baker’s drumming style has been routinely praised by music critics and music historians. His drumming has inspired the music of such bands as Led Zeppelin, Slayer, the Police, Rush, and Van Halen. Given the various genres we just covered with those aforementioned bands, that should speak volumes about how important of an influence Baker has been.
22. We’re Back (Briefly)
In 2005, Baker reunited with Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce to perform a reunion tour. As you can imagine, the shows were highly popular and sold so well that the group was given offers to continue touring as a reunited Cream. However, the tension between Baker and Bruce once again resulted in Clapton deciding that he had better things to do.
23. Big Spender
Such was the success of his reunion tour with Cream that Baker allegedly made $5 million for his troubles. However, according to Baker’s son, Baker was deeply irresponsible with that cash, spending it all on his polo hobby instead of something more lasting.
24. Sounds Like a Restraining Order
One popular music group that Baker never liked was none other than the Rolling Stones. In fact, Baker had such a negative opinion of the Stones’ music that he once stated, “I won’t go within 10 miles of a Rolling Stones gig.”
25. We Can Have Different Views, Right?
In an incident of great irony, Baker hated the Rolling Stones’ music, but he was on really good terms with the Stones themselves, especially their drummer Charlie Watts. While this friendship didn’t persuade Baker to be more generous towards their artistry, he did clarify that Charlie was the best musician amongst the Rolling Stones “by a country mile.”
26. Going with the Flow
According to Baker himself, he relied on improvisation to get him through live shows, and almost never practiced beforehand. This resulted in songs that often lasted 20 minutes!
27. You’ve Got a Friend in Me
Baker spent a significant part of his life living in Lagos, Nigeria. Not only did he establish a recording studio in that city (Batakota Studio), but he also befriended a then-unknown Fela Kuti. In case that name is unfamiliar, Fela became a primary musician within the Afrobeat genre, recognized worldwide for his vast musical talents as a composer and multi-instrumentalist.
28. Picked Up, Then Discarded
In 1973, no less a figure than Paul McCartney traveled to Baker’s studio in Lagos, along with his band Wings. They recorded the song “Picasso’s Last Words,” with Baker himself using a tin filled with gravel as an improvised percussion instrument. However, much to Baker’s fury, McCartney and Wings didn’t stick around to record the rest of their album.
They snubbed Baker to work at another recording studio in Lagos, this one owned by the music corporation EMI. Turns out Lagos was something of a recording town in those days!
29. Quite the Oeuvre
As a member of Cream, Baker’s music has appeared in over 100 different films, TV shows, and video games. In the case of the former, the films include (but are certainly not limited to): Bobby, Snowpiercer, School of Rock, Joker, and several of Martin Scorsese’s films!
30. Stop Chasing that Dragon!
Throughout his adult life, Baker struggled with an addiction to heroin (much like his Cream co-star, Eric Clapton). As Baker himself admitted, he began using the drug during the 1960s while performing across London. He would have moments of sobriety whenever he toured abroad, but he continually relapsed. Baker was only able to put his heroin use behind him for good in 1981.
He moved to a small village in Italy where he farmed olives (because Italy has way too many wineries as it is).
In 2008, Baker was caught up in legal trouble when a bank clerk named Lindiwe Noko was charged with defrauding the musician of more than $60,000. According to Noko, she became Baker’s lover and got the money as a gift, while Baker maintained that she had been hired as an assistant and had uncovered private information to begin siphoning money out of Baker’s account.
Noko was ultimately convicted and sentenced to three years of community service, though the light sentence utterly disgusted Baker.
32. His Sun Has Set
After spending over a week in a hospital, Baker died on October 6, 2019, at the age of 80.
33. The Best and Worst Places to Get Clean
According to Baker himself, he found the most success in quitting drugs whenever he went to Africa. Living there helped clear his head and keep him clean of drugs. By contrast, he had nothing but disdain for rehabilitation centers. He dismissed them as existing purely to “to make money and take advantage.”
34. Fallen Father
Baker’s father, Frederick, was drafted into the British forces to participate in the Second World War. He joined the Royal Corps of Signals, reaching the rank of lance corporal. Sadly, Frederick was one of the many casualties of the Dodecanese campaign. This was a military operation attempting to take the Dodecanese Islands in the Aegean Sea, which were held by Italian forces against the Allies.
35. Bye, Dad
Due to Baker’s age at the time of his father’s death, he had very little recollection of the man. In the documentary made about him, Baker reflected that he had waved his father goodbye following his drafting into the military, but never saw him again after that. Excuse us while we find out who’s cutting onions around here…
36. I Guess Cream wasn’t Popular in Tuscany…
You might be wondering why Baker quit the olive oil business while living in Tuscany. Unfortunately for Baker, his time living there was made more difficult when local farmers accused him of selling drugs within his community. We have no idea whether that’s true or not, but we’re currently wondering if accusations of drug-dealing is the rural Italian equivalent of telling a rock star to get off their lawn.
37. An Offer I Couldn’t Refuse
Unfortunately, being accused of drug dealing was the least of Baker’s concerns while he was living in Italy. It turns out that life sometimes descends into stereotypes, because Baker’s entering the olive oil business was staunchly opposed by the Italian mafia. In case you think we’re exaggerating, one of Baker’s dogs died under “mysterious circumstances” during this time.
This was more than enough for Baker, and he hightailed it out of Italy for the United States.
38. Great Drummer, Terrible Father?
We’ve already mentioned Baker’s ill temper and his volatile disposition, and we’re sorry to say that this kind of behavior and attitude tends to drive people away. Such was the case with Baker’s son, Kofi. In 2018, Kofi spoke to Rolling Stone about how he is estranged from his father, citing a family history of him either being abusive or absent from his life.
Due to Baker’s inconsistent financial security and lack of fiscal responsibility, Kofi spent a significant part of his youth living at the poverty line. It speaks volumes that for many years, the only positive trait that Kofi Baker could associate with his father was his incredible drumming skills. However, the two of them made amends as Ginger neared the end of his life, and they were on good terms with each other when he passed away.
39. The Apple Didn’t Fall Far
Despite Baker having estranged himself from his son, it’s rather bizarre just how much of Kofi’s career is still in his father’s shadow. Not only did he become a drummer, like Baker himself, but Kofi is also currently part of a Cream tribute band which includes Eric Clapton’s nephew and Jack Bruce’s son!
40. Husband and Father
Baker was married four times in his life, having three children with his first wife, Elizabeth Ann “Liz” Finch.
41. What a Mess…
Near the end of his life, Baker’s domestic life was riddled with bitter conflict, even as he was diagnosed with his own health concerns. The main issue was between his daughter, Nettie, and his fourth wife, Kudzai. 21 years younger than Nettie (and 42 years younger than her husband), Kudzai was accused of abusing her husband. She, in turn, accused Nettie of abusing her and treating her like a servant rather than a stepmother.
Baker, as you can imagine, denied that he’d ever been abused by his wife, saying that Nettie was making trouble because she falsely believed that she’d been left out of his will.
42. I Don’t Stab in the Back! I Stab in the Front!
As we’ve hinted at before, Baker had a truly volatile relationship with his Cream bandmate, Jack Bruce. Such was Baker’s temper that he once attacked Bruce with a knife! Bizarrely, of all the places where this vicious confrontation might have occurred, it took place at a concert where Graham Bond Organization was performing. That means they were already at each other’s throats before Cream was even formed!
What’s worse is that the feud lasted the rest of their lives. Even when Bruce called Baker to inform Baker that he was dying, Bruce took that as an opportunity to insult Baker one last time.