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Ginger Baker

+ {Ginger Baker’s Air Force} + {Baker Gurvitz Army}

Probably the most well-known blues and jazz drummers of all time, seasoned journeyman GINGER BAKER has had his fair share of ups and downs as he’s sublimated from one group and/or genre to another; psychedelic blues trio CREAM catapulted the often temperamental sticksman into superstardom, while ethnic jazz-fusion in the mould of his idols Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich took him to a cooler level.
Born Peter Edward Baker, 19th August 1939 in Lewisham, London, the red-headed “Ginger” (as he was nicknamed) abandoned his first instrument, the trumpet, for percussion and drums, as his natural ability set him on the road to musical prosperity. Gaining drumming experience in the late 50s with British trad jazz bands led by Acker Bilk and Terry Lightfoot, Ginger displayed his own unique brand of passion and showmanship.
Inspired by the influx of blues songs from across the Big Pond and the new movers at the core of the scene (ALEXIS KORNER, CYRIL DAVIS, etc.), the sticksman joined up with the aforementioned shakers in the 1962-formed BLUES INCORPORATED. A stamping ground also for Messrs GRAHAM BOND (organ and saxophonist) and JACK BRUCE (bass), the loose unit was minus all three, plus saxman Dick Heckstall-Smith, when the group mutated into the Graham Bond Organization. Unlike leading London R&B combos, The ROLLING STONES and The YARDBIRDS, Bond’s team were unwilling to abandon their jazz’n’jam inclinations and both BAKER and his sparring partner BRUCE eventually bailed out in ‘65; the former sacked the latter in one of their many in-fights.
It was a wonder then that Ginger would allow Jack (who’d played in both JOHN MAYALL’S BLUESBREAKERS and MANFRED MANN) to come on board the newly-founded CREAM, alongside other ex-Bluesbreakers acolyte ERIC CLAPTON. The thundering anchor holding down the band’s psychedelic blues rock, the self-taught BAKER was also a pioneer of the dreaded drum solo; the self-scribed `Toad’, in all its expansive live renditions was a prime example of Ginger’s percussive prowess. After CREAM went off in late ‘68, both Ginger and Eric formed BLIND FAITH (alongside STEVE WINWOOD and bassist Ric Grech), however, the still-born supergroup disbanded after only releasing one eponymous, chart-topping album; as in his CREAM days, Ginger was behind one of rock’s longest tracks at the time, `Do What You Like’.
Late in ‘69, enabling him to perform two turn-of-the-decade concerts at Birmingham Town Hall and London’s Royal Albert Hall (the latter the venue of CREAM’s farewell “goodbye”), the drummer formed GINGER BAKER’S AIR FORCE, a 10-piece ensemble that also comprised a stellar crew suited for the live arena: Graham Bond, Chris Wood, Steve Winwood, Denny Laine, Harold McNair, Rick Grech, vocalist Jeanette Jacobs, African percussionist Remi Kabaka and GB’s jazz-idol Phil Seamen. The eponymous Jimmy Miller-produced double-set, GINGER BAKER’S AIR FORCE (1970) {*7}, took up a Top 40 place on both sides of the Atlantic, the record’s self-indulgence and artistic license to submit lengthy Afro-jazz/R&B and prog-like excursions, while fitting in a version of `Toad’ (cut to 13-minutes here!) and a minor US hit 45 take of DYLAN’s `Man Of Constant Sorrow’.
A sophomore studio album, GINGER BAKER’S AIR FORCE II {*6} followed later in the year, and although both Winwood and Wood were not present, Ginger and Graham (now on vocals and organ) had reined in Grech, Laine, McNair and a raft of others (including singer Aliki Ashman on Ginger’s CREAM song `Sweet Wine’) to serve up another dose of jazz-infused R&B; “POP” STAPLES’`Let Me Ride’ and The DRIFTERS nugget, `I Don’t Want To Go On Without You’ were contrasting covers, while `Toady’ was simply “son of” `Toad’.
In 1971, Ginger moved to Akeja, Nigeria to buy land to build a 16-track studio. There he was augmented by FELA RANSOME-KUTI and African musicians Salt; an album credited to the former (featuring the Africa ’70 with Ginger Baker: `Live!’) was issued by Regal Zonophone in 1972. A subsequent album, STRATAVARIOUS (1972) {*5}, was his sole contribution (two tracks were with bassist Bobby Gass) during this self-exile period.
Losing big bucks and his studio on this African adventure, Ginger eventually hooked up with the Gurvitz brothers and ex-GUN (“Race With The Devil”) alumni, Adrian (vocals/guitar) and Paul (bass), to form the BAKER GURVITZ ARMY; John Mitchell was their almost-forgotten 4th member. The eponymous Top 30 set, BAKER GURVITZ ARMY (1974) {*6}, saw Ginger taking up a team role (with the exception of a solo wig-out via `Memory Lane’), while the post-prog rock record was defined by the MAHAVISHNU-esque `Love Is’ and the accessible mainstream-rock piece, `Help Me’.
Together with Mitchell’s replacements Snips (vocals) and Peter Lemer (keyboards), the second-division supergroup were unsure of their place among the funky, American-rock counterparts such as The DOOBIE BROTHERS, ROBIN TROWER and their closest equivalent in Brit-rock terms, WISHBONE ASH. Basically a vehicle for the class and talent of all five musicians (with Ginger taking a rhythmic back-seat), the outfit released a further two efforts, ELYSIAN ENCOUNTER (1975) {*6} and HEARTS ON FIRE (1976) {*5}; the latter without Lemer.
A “Ginger Baker and friends” LP, ELEVEN SIDES OF BAKER (1977) {*3} would sink his once charismatic career even further into the mire, while the following several years or so found Ginger in a musical wilderness of sorts. While he still positioned himself well inside rock circles as a short-stint member of ATOMIC ROOSTER and HAWKWIND, his diversions into other areas (The Nutters, etc.), while his CREAM pals were doing just dandy, led him further into heroin addiction and major tax problems. Not content with laying the groundwork for the world music boom of the 80s, the ever-adventurous BAKER subsequently travelled to southern Italy where he recuperated and ran a drum school in a mountain village; one “Ginger Baker & Band” LP surfaced from his time there: FROM HUMBLE ORANGES (1983) {*4}.
The mid-80s saw him tempted back into the musical slipstream, playing on PUBLIC IMAGE LTD’s “Album” in 1985, while subsequent work alongside leftfield guru/producer, BILL LASWELL, returned the man to the fore; 1986’s HORSES AND TREES {*7} and 1991’s MIDDLE PASSAGE {*7} found the sticksman in superb fusion form. Lovers of his other worldly, dark continent material were not disappointed by his AFRICAN FORCE (1987) {*6} and PALANQUIN’S POLE (1990) {*6} jazz outings. Released only in Sweden and credited with the country’s best free-form jazz instrumentalists, Jens Johansson (piano) and Jonas Hellborg (bass), UNSEEN RAIN (1992) {*5} was another fully-authored work by BAKER.
The veritable grandmaster of rock drummers lent his inspired talents to the criminally underrated retro-rockers, MASTERS OF REALITY, most memorably and amusingly on the “Sunrise On The Sufferbus” (1992) LP track, `T.U.S.A.’, one of his many songwriting collaborations with mainman Chris Goss. Ginge even found himself back in the Top 10 in 1994 with BBM (alongside JACK BRUCE, yes, Jack! and GARY MOORE); the album `Around The Next Dream’ drew inevitable comparisons to CREAM, although “God” was not present.
Everything in threes seemed to work for the drummer, and his GINGER BAKER TRIO was no exception to the rule. Unsurprisingly jazz-fusion, with Messrs Bill Frisell and Charlie Haden at the helm of the enterprise, two sets GOING BACK HOME (1994) {*6} – featuring a rendition of THELONIOUS MONK’s `Straight, No Chaser’ – and FALLING OFF THE ROOF (1996) {*4} had their elements of grandiose. He’d married around this time and took the surname his of wife, becoming Ginger Loucks-Baker in the process. Further jazz-rock activity was delivered through his final solo-esque outing to date; credited with The DJQ20 (with special guest James Carter), COWARD OF THE COUNTY (1999) {*7} was a great showcase for his fresh “Trio” Ron Miles and Artie Moore; it was safe to say there was no Kenny Rogers on board. On the back of a rather dubious and “Royal Albert Hall” live cash-in as part of a re-formed CREAM in 2005, his own LIVE IN LONDON 2009 (2011) {*6} cd/dvd, was rather low-key by comparison.
GINGER BAKER and a tight-knit band of jazz musicians (on sax: Pee Wee Ellis, bass: Alec Dankworth and percussion: Abass Dodoo), WHY? (2014) {*6} delivered new workouts all but a couple of Pee Wee gems, `Ginger Spice’ (with no Geri in sight) and his own tribute to `Cyril Davis’. While many rock music buffs will think this a waste of BAKER’s prowess, it was indeed another chance for the Ginger one (or even the grey-haired one) to switch them onto jazz.
Much of the iconic drummer’s twilight years were spent battling ill-health; moreover the dreaded smoker’s curse, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). Open heart surgery followed by a nasty fall that caused his feet to swell, left him unable to cope properly. Then, in September 2019, his immediate family announced that he was critically ill; sadly, he passed away a month later on 6th October.
© MC Strong 1994-2000/GRD-BG/MCS // rev-up MCS Aug2012-Oct2019

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