Ginger Baker was rock's first superstar drummer and the most influential percussionist of the 1960s.
Ginger Baker was born Peter Edward Baker in Lewisham, South London on 19 August 1939. The nickname "Ginger" was a result of his red hair. As a teen, he trained and competed as a racing cyclist, developing strong leg muscles which later contributed to his skill on the double bass drums. Ginger had always planned on becoming a professional cyclist, until he bought his first drum kit at the age of 15. By his mid-teens, his interests had switched to music, especially percussion.
There were other drummers who were well-known to the public before Gonger Baker, including Ringo Starr (the Beatles) and Tony Meehan (the Shadows), but they were famous primarily for the groups in which they played and for attributes beyond their musicianship. Baker made his name entirely on his playing. Initially as showcased in Cream, but far transcending even that trio's relatively brief existence.
As Ginger had started playing drums he soon became devoted to contemporary jazz, transforming himself into something of a beatnik during the mid- to late '50s. A natural musician, he talked himself into his first professional gig when he was 16 and was on the road that year, working full-time.
Baker's idol during the late '50s was Phil Seaman, a jazz drummer who was probably the best percussion player in England; his own playing tended toward an aggressiveness and articulation that were unusual in juxtaposition with each other.
Baker was keenly interested in modern art and jazz, a rebellious beatnik with an eccentric appearance and artistic flair. Later, he would become interested in sculpture, painting, rally diving and polo. It was his wide range of interests which led Ginger to take up the trumpet in the local Air Training Corp band. Watching the drummer gave Ginger the idea of playing drums himself.
Ginger recalls his first experience on drums: "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'."
After playing for only a few months, Ginger got a job with a local trad jazz band led by Bob Wallis. At the age of 16, he quit his job, left home, and spent a year on the road. After some time, Ginger got fed up with his kit. With his characteristic achiever's attitude, he decided to make his own: "I got this great idea for using Perspex," recalls Ginger. "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 bent the shells and shaped them over a gas stove." Ginger made the kit in 1961 and used it until 1966, when he bought his first Ludwig set. Sadly, it was this home-made set that Jack Bruce would demolish with his upright bass in an on-stage brawl with Baker during the Graham Bond days. Bruce later recalled that the kit sounded spectacular -- like no other kit he'd heard before.
Listening to records, Ginger absorbed the playing of Baby Dodds and Alton Red. Then he discovered Max Roach. Applying Roach's technique, Ginger's wild and unconventional playing got him fired from a few bands, but ultimately it would develop into the rhythmic genius that would astound drummers around the world. Moving on to London's West End, he got another band job: "I got a reading gig, and I couldn't read. I had to learn to read music 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!"
During the early 1960s, Ginger played in many jazz ensembles, striving to become a part of London's modern jazz circuit. His passionate and unconventional style, not to mention his short temper, were considered too disturbing. Says Ginger, "In those days I played like a madman and got emotionally involved with the music. Some people don't like that. They feel they are losing control of the band. A lot of drummers played what they heard on record. I was always playing myself. I had influences, obviously, but when I was playing modern jazz I was always accused of being a rock'n'roller because I need to lay down an off-beat. But then, so did Art Blakey. They didn't like this loud drummer playing off-beats, and getting 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 jazzer."
In 1962, Ginger entered the R&B scene, joining Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated in August of that year, taking over as drummer on the recommendation of Charlie Watts. One night, the late great modern jazz drummer Phil Seamen came to hear Ginger. They later practised and talked together. "Phil heard me play in the All-Niter Club which used to be the Flamingo on Wardour Street," Ginger recalls. "Tubby Hayes (the sax player) 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."
In February 1963, Ginger, Graham Bond, and Jack Bruce left Alexis Korner to form the Graham Bond Organisation. Ginger stayed with Bond until 1966 when he formed Cream. The Bond years were tremendously exciting for Ginger and for the British R&B scene; jazz guitar great John McLaughlin would join the Graham Bond Organisation, then later tenor sax man Dick Heckstall-Smith. During those years, Ginger developed a ferocious approach to drumming which would stun the world during his high-profile days with Cream.
Ginger would add a touch of jazz technique to the rock form, becoming probably the first true jazz-rock fusion drummer. Even today, great musicians hail Ginger as the greatest drummer of the rock genre, though the public at large has given him less credit than he deserves.
Prior to the formation of Cream, Ginger Baker had been a hero of the British jazz/R&B musical scene. Baker had replaced Charlie Watts as the drummer for Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated in August of 1962. In February 1963, he left Alexis with alto saxophonist/organist Graham Bond and bassist Jack Bruce to form the Graham Bond Organisation. (Actually, Bond had handed in Baker's and Bruce's resignations without even telling them!) Dick Heckstall-Smith (tenor sax) joined them a half a year later, replacing guitar player John McLaughlin.
The Organisation put out two classic LPs, The Sound of '65 and There's a Bond Between Us. The Organisation featured an amazing rhythm section, with Jack's extraordinary bass playing (first on double bass, then on his 6-string Fender VI bass guitar), and Ginger on drums, whose unique, daring style broke all the rules. Ginger's approach was one of spectacular assault on the toms and bass drum which was violent, unpredictable, unorthodox, and tremendously exciting.
In January 1970, Baker formed the loosely organized Ginger Baker's Air Force, which recorded two albums. He formed The Baker Gurvitz Army with Adrian and Paul Gurvitz in late 1974, and they made three albums. At the end of the decade, he had such groups as Energy and Ginger Baker's Nutters and played with Hawkwind and Atomic Rooster, before retiring to play polo.
In 1982, he moved to an olive farm in Italy. He also opened his own drum school in Italy. Soon after, famed producer; Bill Laswell, asked Ginger to play on the first self titled “PIL”(Public Image Limited) album with John Lydon of Sex Pistols infame.
Ginger resurfaced at the start of the new decade, living in Italy's Tuscany region, building a successful olive farming business. Together with Bill Laswell, Ginger recorded "Horses and Trees" in 1986, and fused the spiritual side of the third world music that Baker had immersed himself in, with the pure power he was capable of unleashing. Ginger recorded a number of instrumental albums before reuniting with Jack Bruce in 1994.
In 1990 Baker created "Middle Passage", also produced by Laswell. This record ventures further down the road less traveled. Slightly more organic than its predecessor, the disc throbs with a primordial urgency that belies its high-tech origins. In December of 1991, Baker recorded the entirely acoustic "Unseen Rain", with Jonas Hellborg on bass guitar and Jens Johansson on piano. Ginger Baler will always be a powerful force in the current of music influencing musicians and fans alike.
In 1991 Ginger Baker joined Chris Goss who reformed his band Master of Reality, with whom he recorded 1993's "Sunrise on the Sufferbus". The power-trio of Masters of Reality was shortlived and Baker returned to jazz-fusion by the end of the year with the worldbeat styled album,”Going Back Home”. After a hiatus of several years, Master of Reality band leader Goss reunited with bassist Googe in 1997, adding guitarist Brendan McNichol and drummer Victor Indrizzo for a series of live dates that resulted in the album 'How High the Moon: Live at the Viper Room'.
Around 1996 he released 'Falling of the Roof', which he recorded with Charlie Haden and Bill Frisell.
In 1999, Ginger Baker released his solo album 'Coward of the County' on Atlantic Records. The album features his multi-piece band DJQ2O.