Ginger Baker, one of the most brilliant, versatile and turbulent drummers in the history of British music, has died aged 80.
His family had previously made it public that he was critically ill and asked fans to “please keep him in your prayers”. His Facebook page said he “passed away peacefully” on Sunday morning.
Paul McCartney was among those paying tribute, writing on Twitter: “Great drummer, wild and lovely guy … Sad to hear that he died but the memories never will.”
Baker was born in 1939 in Lewisham, south London, and grew up amid the blitz; his father was killed in action in 1943. He began drumming in his mid-teens, remembering in 2009: “I’d never sat behind a kit before, but I sat down – and I could play! One of the musicians turned round and said, ‘Bloody hell, we’ve got a drummer’, and I thought, ‘Bloody hell, I’m a drummer!’”
Early work came with the jazz guitarist Diz Disley – which ended when an 18-year-old Baker set fire to a hotel while on tour in Europe – and with bandleader Terry Lightfoot. He played blues in Blues Incorporated – including guest appearances with an early incarnation of the Rolling Stones – and US R&B with the Graham Bond Organisation, both alongside Jack Bruce on bass guitar.
Despite considerable friction between Baker and Bruce, the pair in 1966 formed Cream with Eric Clapton, who had previously played with the Yardbirds and John Mayall. Cream helped define the psychedelic rock sound of the decade, with Baker bringing both a jazz sensibility – Toad, from debut album Fresh Cream, features one of the first ever drum solos in rock – and a hard-hitting style, using two bass drums, that pointed towards heavy metal.
Cream sold more than 15m records worldwide and had hits including Sunshine of Your Love, Strange Brew and White Room; three of their four albums reached both the US and UK top five.
The band split in 1968, releasing a final album in 1969. A reunion in 2005 ended in animosity, with Baker and Bruce shouting at each other on stage in New York. In 1969, Baker and Clapton formed the short-lived band Blind Faith with Steve Winwood and Ric Grech, and the latter pair joined Baker in his next project, jazz-rock band Ginger Baker’s Air Force.
Baker moved to Nigeria in 1971 and set up the Batakota recording studio in Lagos, which hosted local musicians as well as established stars (McCartney’s band Wings recorded part of Band on the Run there). He performed with Nigerian star Fela Kuti – “he understands the African beat more than any other westerner,” said Kuti’s drummer Tony Allen – and went on to collaborate or perform with a hugely varied array of musicians: Public Image Ltd, Hawkwind, hard rock band Baker Gurvitz Army, and jazz performers Max Roach, Art Blakey and Elvin Jones. In 1994, he formed a jazz trio with Charlie Haden and Bill Frisell.
He had spells living in Italy, California, Colorado and South Africa, and developed a passion for polo. In 2008, when living in South Africa, he was defrauded of more than £30,000 by a bank clerk he had hired as a personal assistant. He also suffered from various health issues, including respiratory illness and osteoarthritis, and underwent open heart surgery in 2016. “God is punishing me for my past wickedness by keeping me alive and in as much pain as he can,” he said in 2009.
That wickedness perhaps included his notorious temper – “I used to be mean – I’d deliberately mess up recording sessions with my temper and go mad at the slightest thing,” he said in 1970. He was married four times – “If a plane went down and there was one survivor, it would be Ginger. The devil takes care of his own,” first wife Elizabeth Ann Baker said in 2009 – and used heroin on and off since the mid-60s: he told the Guardian in 2013 that he relapsed “something like 29 times”.
A documentary, Beware of Mr Baker, was made about his life in 2012. He is survived by his three children, Kofi, Leda and Ginette.