We lost drummer Ginger Baker on Sunday October 6 at the age of 80. The former member of Cream and Blind Faith had been in failing health for some time but played late into his life until 2016 when he was diagnosed with serious heart issues. Baker reunited famously with Cream at the Royal Albert Hall in London and Madison Square Garden in 2005, the CD/DVD of the former shows being one of the best reunions of a classic rock powerhouse group that you’re ever likely to experience.
The last time I saw Ginger Baker in Boston, he toured with his own outfit called Jazz Confusion, playing the Wilbur Theater on June 29, 2014. The band was very much a pure jazz ensemble, and after being helped onto his drum stand and handed his sticks, Baker proceeded to ably demonstrate his love of the traditional American musical form. Our initial apprehensions disappeared as the legendary British musician eased smoothly into the syncopated rhythms as natural to him as breathing. It was as if a great grey bird had struggled during its ungainly and awkward takeoff run across the lake to finally lift from the water with wings elegantly catching the wind and neck craned towards a beautiful sunset. We’ll miss the old codger and his mastery of the world’s rhythms, but the music will always remain alive.
I encountered Ginger Baker on October 26, 1990 when he was playing in the band Masters of Reality while I worked at WBCN. The group was part of a benefit showcase the radio station was presenting at the Boston Garden that night with several other bands and emceed by Noel Redding of the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Eddie Money. I wrote about the encounter in my 2013 book “RADIO FREE BOSTON: THE RISE AND FALL OF WBCN.” It’s a humorous classic rock moment worth repeating, so I’ll drag it out one more time – my contribution to an Irish wake for the man.
OCTOBER 26, 1990 BOSTON
“There was a great deal of interest in Masters of Reality, a formerly unknown upstate New York band that Ginger Baker, the legendary English drummer of Cream, had joined. I was supposed to help out ‘BCN’s production of the show by hustling emcees on and off stage, but then [I was] told there was no one available to pick Masters of Reality up at [the] airport.I drove the Chevy Lumina (the same, lame, rear-wheel drive van that got stuck at all our ski events) down the [Boston] Garden’s long back ramp and over to the airport.
After a short wait at the curb, the scruffy rock group tumbled out of the terminal and jammed noisily into the back of the van, Ginger Baker claiming the seat directly behind mine. While pulling out onto the access road, I could see the drummer’s toothy wreck of a smile as he fixed my face in the rearview and said something completely unrecognizable in a mutated Cockney. I found myself wondering why this iconic musician hadn’t taken some of the considerable royalties he must have made from “Wheels of Fire” back in ’68 and repaired the few choppers left in his mouth.
Perhaps Baker read my mind, because he started to mess with me. As we raced through the Sumner Tunnel, with the cement wall flashing past to the right, and cars whizzing by just to the left, the drummer reached forward and put his hands directly in front of my eyes! ‘Ahhhhh! What are you doing?!You trying to kill us?’ I screamed.
‘Ha, ha, ha,’ he guffawed in return, like some demented Sasquatch, and then yanked his gigantic paws away after a few seconds. In a morbidly perverse way, the only thing I could think about as we popped out of the tunnel and flashed past the North End to the Garden was how I could have made ‘Random Notes’ in ‘Rolling Stone.’ With my luck, though, the story would have been ironically titled ‘DJ Perishes as Rock Legend Survives Fiery Crash.’”
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