Strange Brew: Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker and Tom Dowd Recall the Rise (and Curdling) of Cream
Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker gave birth to the power trio, redefined rock improvisation 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.
So eager was Baker to form a partnership with Clapton that, despite his misgivings, he agreed to have Bruce come aboard. Clapton, still unaware of the tension between his new bandmates, witnessed its volatile nature at the new group’s first get–together.
“We had our first talk-through rehearsal at Ginger’s house in Neesden,” remembered Clapton. “Those two had an argument right away. Jack had done an interview and let the cat out of the bag about the band. Ginger was upset about that, and the [argument] went along the lines of, ‘There you go, you’ve done it again!’
“I thought, Wait, there’s something going back here that I’m not aware of. The ‘you’ve done it again’ implied that this was sort of a pattern that existed before I knew either of them.”
Dubbed the Cream by Eric Clapton, with a nod to their much-heralded reputations as soloists, the group accepted an invitation to perform at the July 1966 Windsor Jazz & Blues Festival. Barely a month old and with precious few original songs to their credit, Cream performed spirited blues reworkings that thrilled the large crowd and earned them a warm reception.
The group expanded its budding European following on the strength of the singles “Wrapping Paper” and “I Feel Free,” and Fresh Cream, its impressive 1966 debut album.
In America, Cream took longer to take hold. Despite the enduring popularity of songs such as “White Room” and “Crossroads,” the group was hardly an overnight sensation. It arrived with little fanfare, and Fresh Cream struggled to find an audience. There was no Ed Sullivan Show, no Monterey Pop Festival—just hard work and a grinding tour itinerary filled with small club and college dates.
With the release of 1967’s Disraeli Gears, however, the group’s popularity exploded. Aided initially by “underground” FM radio airplay, Cream received an enormous boost when AM Top 40 radio, which had shunned the group as too hard and psychedelic, jumped on the bandwagon. That acceptance and exposure helped make “Sunshine of Your Love,” the group’s signature song, the largest selling single in the history of Atlantic Records up to that time.
Cream’s adventurous music directly reflected the incredible confidence each member had in his own abilities. The group successfully blended a variety of influences spanning Delta blues, avant-garde poetry and psychedelic pop while forging a unique sound and style. Heartened by their success, Cream followed Disraeli Gears in grand fashion with the lavish, 1968 double album Wheels of Fire. While Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention had previously established the viability of double records for rock artists, Cream’s ambitious marriage of freewheeling studio recordings and raw live performances shot to the top of the charts.
On the surface, Cream was one hot and happy band. Unfortunately, despite their staggering success, they routinely teetered on the edge of destruction. The clashes between Baker and Bruce worsened and soon ensnared Clapton. By the time Goodbye, their fourth album, was issued in 1969, the group had, in November 1968, already celebrated its farewell via a filmed finale at London’s Royal Albert Hall. Cream were finished, and neither Baker, Bruce nor Clapton could summon the energy to resolve their differences.
As Clapton told Guitar World in 1994, “It was very intense; it actually seems like we were together for four or five years, but in fact it was very short. My overall feeling about it now is that it was a glorious mistake. I had a completely different idea of what it would be before I started it, and it ended up being a wonderful thing, but nothing like it was meant to be.
“It was meant to be a blues trio. I just didn’t have the assertiveness to take control. Jack and Ginger were the powerful, dominant personalities in the band; they sort of ran the show and I just played. In the end, I just went with the flow and I enjoyed it greatly, but it wasn’t anything like I expected at all.”
In 1997, around the time of the Complete Cream four-CD box set release, Guitar World caught up with Bruce and Baker, who had apparently resolved their longstanding differences to the point where they could discuss Cream and their friend Eric Clapton. Joining them were Cream lyricist Pete Brown and producer/engineer Tom Dowd.
GUITAR WORLD: Whose idea was it to form Cream?
JACK BRUCE Forming Cream was absolutely Ginger’s idea. He asked Eric to join, and then Eric suggested that they get me to sing and play bass. I had only sung one or two numbers with Graham Bond, but Eric could see that there was some potential there. Ginger then had to come and ask me—which I thoroughly enjoyed!
Ginger, when did you become convinced of Cream’s potential?
GINGER BAKER I knew we had something special from the very first time we played together. We got together at my little maisonette on Braymore Avenue, in back of which was a park where all the local kids used to play. It was summer and, as we played anyway, the kids congregated on this little hill behind my place were boogying. They really enjoyed the music. It was total magic immediately. We were three people made to play with each other.