Cream: Strange Brew
GW What do you remember about Cream’s first American tour?
BAKER We were playing mostly at colleges for what seemed like extremely small money—only about three thousand bucks a gig. The first place we ever played was Murray the K’s “Music in the Fifth Dimension” show in New York, and it was a fiasco. Murray was an influential New York DJ who put together these huge package shows that would feature dozens of bands. They wanted us to play three numbers and thought it would only take three minutes!
There were supposed to be four shows a night, and on the first night there was only time for three. The Who were also on the bill, and the show ran over by something like 80 minutes. Murray the K was freaking out. After the second show, he came to our dressing room to try to get us to cut down our set. I was lying under the table, having consumed a bottle of Baccardi. Murray saw me and said, “How’s he gonna play?” I told him not to worry about me.
BRUCE It was very bizarre. The complete show by all the artists was only supposed to last two hours. We had been given three songs and were buried at the bottom of the bill. After the first show, we were cut back to “I’m So Glad.” Then they wanted us to cut the length of that! Meanwhile, the spot for the Jackie the K Dancers, led by Murray’s wife, seemed to get longer and longer. It was so wild that Murray the K had security guards to keep us in the building. That was our introduction to New York and the United States.
GW What do you recall about engineering Cream’s second album, Disraeli Gears?
TOM DOWD I got a call from [Atlantic Records label chief] Ahmet Ertegun late one afternoon, asking me to record a group that Robert Stigwood had sent over from England. Ahmet told me to get whatever I could out of them before their visas expired. When I arrived at the studio the next morning, the roadies were loading in these double stacks of Marshall cabinets and double-bass drums, and I thought, What the hell is this? I hadn’t known anything about them except the fact that they were a three-piece and that two of the three could sing lead.
GW In addition to Tom, Felix Pappalardi, the late bassist and songwriter, made significant contributions to the group’s sound. How did Felix get involved?
BAKER That came about during Disraeli Gears. We had no real game plan for making the album. The first thing we cut was the traditional blues “Hey Lawdy Mama,” and Felix was at the session as a guest of Ahmet Ertegun. At the end of the session, he asked if he could take a copy of the tape away to write some words for it. He came back the next day with “Strange Brew.” Felix got Eric to sing the lead because he had done so for “Hey Lawdy Mama.” All of this didn’t go down so well with Jack, because he considered himself to be the lead vocalist.
Anyway, Eric and I were both very impressed with Felix. We had some discussions with Ahmet and Tom Dowd and afterward got Felix to come in and produce the album. He got very involved musically. Ahmet was also at the studio almost every day. I was also extremely impressed with Tom Dowd, who was an absolutely amazing engineer. Actually, he wasn’t just an engineer—it was like having another musician around.
DOWD Felix usually sat out in the studio while I was recording in the control room—especially during playbacks. He would point out certain things to each band member where he felt improvements could be made. There was a lot of dialog between Felix and the three of them. Some of it was specific to the session, but it also included exposing them to the styles of different artists and sounds.
GW How did “Sunshine of Your Love” develop?
BRUCE Pete Brown and I had been working all night, trying to write stuff, and we hadn’t got anywhere. I picked up my double bass and played the riff. Pete looked out the window, saw that the sun was coming up, and wrote, “It’s getting near dawn/And lights closed their tired eyes…”
BROWN Eric added the hook. Funny enough, I never liked it, although it makes a lot of sense, musically. I didn’t like the title, “Sunshine of Your Love.” I suppose, though, that it hit the mark with so many people because it was such a broad idea. In the long run, thank you, Eric! But in the short term, I must admit I was pretty miserable about it.
BRUCE I knew “Sunshine of Your Love” was going to go over well because both Booker T. Jones [keyboard player of Booker T. & the MGs] and Otis Redding heard it and told me it was going to be a smash. Their opinions really meant a lot to me.
GW Where did Cream’s tradition of long, extended individual solos first take root?
BRUCE When we started out, a typical rock band set lasted only 45 minutes. When we got to the Fillmore West, in San Francisco, the audience wanted us to stretch out. I remember them shouting, “Just play!” That’s exactly when we started to play longer. It became a kind of trademark for us, which, in a way, was a mixed blessing. It was very difficult to do every time we played, and it took its toll. I used to think of it like the Who smashing their instruments: it’s expensive to have to do that night after night. For us to have to do very long improvisations every night was expensive on our brains!
GW The Wheels of Fire sessions in June 1968 were really productive and yielded a number of classic Cream songs. How did “White Room” evolve?
BRUCE I had written words to the song—almost scat words— which started off about cycling through France. I had a definite idea about the feeling I wanted the song to have, and Pete came up with a set of lyrics. Together, we rewrote and rewrote until we had something we were both very happy with.
BROWN My draft of “White Room” started its life as an eight-page poem. Because I had had some spurious journalistic training at college, I was able to pare my eight-page poem to a single page of lyrics.
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