Cream: Strange Brew
Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker gave birth to the power trio, redefined rock improv- isation and sold millions of albums. For all their success, nothing could stop the Cream from curdling.
The year was 1968, and guitarist Eric Clapton, bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker were sitting on top of the world. Or so it seemed. In three short years, their band, Cream, had recorded a slew of brilliant hit singles, sold an astonishing 15 million records and redefined the role of the instrumentalist in rock. Their concerts, which usually sold out immediately, had become legendary for the trio’s ferocious virtuosity and wild, blues-based improvisations that exploded with a jazzy sense of adventure.
But all was not well in Cream. The problem, it was whispered, was ego. And as the individual musicians’ reputations grew and heads swelled, their amp rigs ballooned accordingly.
“Cream’s last year was extremely painful for me,” recalls Baker. “When we started in 1966, Eric and Jack had one Marshall each. Then it became a stack, then a double stack and finally a triple stack. By 1968, I was just the poor bastard stuck in the middle of these incredible noise-making things. It was ridiculous.
“I used to get back to the hotel and my ears were roaring. That final year damaged my hearing. The incredible volume was one of the things that destroyed the band. Playing loud had nothing to do with music. There was, in fact, one gig where Eric and I stopped playing for two choruses. Jack didn’t even know. Standing in front of his triple stack of Marshalls, he was making so much noise he couldn’t tell.”
But while the band came to a crashing halt after three volatile years, it’s nearly impossible to exaggerate the importance of Cream. They were rock’s first power trio: they gave birth to the notion of the “rock virtuoso,” laid the foundation for heavy metal, and inspired several generations of bands, from Black Sabbath to Van Halen to Smashing Pumpkins. And while they are best remembered for their sophisticated instrumental work, Cream also recorded some remarkable pop singles, including “Sunshine of Your Love,” “White Room” and “Badge.”
Cream came together in mid 1966 when Baker left the respected British rhythm-and-blues ensemble Graham Bond Organization, Bruce (formerly of Graham Bond) left Manfred Mann, and Eric Clapton, already a legend in Britain, left John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers.
The group’s formation was set in motion by Baker, who reached out to Clapton and won him over with his grand vision of “becoming the biggest pop group in the world.”
“I had always liked Ginger,” explained Clapton. “Ginger had come to see me play with John Mayall. After the gig, he drove me back to London in his Rover. I was very impressed with his car and his driving. He was telling me that he wanted to start a band, and I had been thinking about it too. It was a sort of coincidence— synchronicity, really. We were thinking the same thing at the same time.”
Clapton agreed to join Baker’s new group, but he unwittingly threw a wrench into the drummer’s plans. Clapton made a special request that Jack Bruce be recruited as the group’s bassist. Clapton had briefly played with Bruce at the tail end of his tenure with John Mayall and came away impressed by the bassist’s skill. Unbeknownst to Clapton, Baker and Bruce were like oil and water. The relationship had proven to be so turbulent that Bruce, uncomfortable with Baker, had left the Graham Bond Organization even as their fortunes were rising.
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