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Ginger Baker Goes Back to the Want Ads : The legendary drummer returns to the scene and is starting up a new band in L.A.

December 25, 1988|DENNIS HUNT

Here's the gist of a startling ad that has been running in the "Session Players" portion of Music Connection magazine's classified section:

GINGER BAKER

Instruments: Drums (all types)

Styles: Rock, African, Jazz, Pop, Blues.

Qualifications: 33 years pro. Acknowledged worldwide as the top drummer.

Credits include Cream and Blind Faith.

Yes, it's that Ginger Baker: the percussion colossus who was a key member in the '60s of the legendary band Cream (with Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce) . . . a man whose power-playing inspired a generation of drummers.

Why would he have to resort to placing an ad to get work?

"It's like I'm a newcomer," said Baker, 49, a droll, affable, candid Englishman. "I'm starting over here."

Baker spent most of the '80s on an olive ranch in a small town in Italy, dabbling in music while finally kicking the heroin habit that contributed to the downfall of his career. After the Baker-Gurvitz Army albums of the mid-'70s he did nothing substantial in the studio for the next decade.

Then producer Bill Laswell talked him into doing some session work on a Public Image Limited album, called "Album," in 1985. That was followed by an obscure solo album on tiny Celluoid Records--"Horses and Trees"--featuring eclectic, percussive instrumentals sprinkled with assorted African influences. Those sessions whetted his appetite for playing live.

Recently, anxious to work again, he moved to the Los Angeles area. Since big-city life doesn't suit him, and also because of his desire to be near his horses, he's been renting a ranch near Palmdale.

On the afternoon of the interview, Baker--wearing a rumpled sport jacket and frantically chain-smoking--was in his agent's West Hollywood office. It was the agent, Baker said sheepishly, who placed that infamous ad: "I wasn't too keen on it. That's not my style. I could do OK without ads."

But that strategy worked. Baker has been able to assemble a band that has played local clubs and is scheduled for a Friday show at the Trancas Restaurant and Music Hall near Malibu. But this unit, he insisted, is just temporary:

"I want to get the feel of playing live again and to let people know I'm back on the scene."

For this talented musician, who's sampled superstardom and basked in the acclaim associated with being the best, scrounging for decent musicians to work with and playing clubs must be humiliating and embarrassing.

But if Baker feels that, he never let on. No amount of prodding would make him say how he really feels about his situation. His attitude was really hard-nosed. His only comment: "What happened to me, that's just life. It's up and down, up and down. I don't get sentimental about it--and I try not to look back."

One of the biggest mistakes you can make with Baker is to call him a rock drummer.

"No, no, no!," he said emphatically. "I'm a jazz drummer. I've always been. Rock is just one thing I've done. I've played blues and African music too. But I've always been a jazz drummer."

Baker, whose real first name is Peter, is a Londoner who actually started out as a trumpet player. But, while immersing himself in the '50s jazz scene, he discovered his real calling. Drumming, he explained while tapping out an impromptu solo on the table, is in his blood.

Baker worked in jazz bands before investigating blues in the early '60s, which eventually led him into rock. In 1966, he formed Cream with Clapton and Bruce. "We wanted a band that would be popular and have No. 1 records," he said. "But still, it wasn't really a rock 'n' roll band. There was tremendous jazz feel in Cream. It was 80% improvisation.

"We weren't into straight rock--none of the real jazz musicians in London were. Jazz musicians thought the Beatles were rather funny. And the Stones--real musicians used to laugh at them. It was simplistic music."

The three musicians, who never really got along well together, finally split up in 1968 after recording five gold albums, including "Disraeli Gears" and "Wheels of Fire," and two classic Top 10 singles, "Sunshine of Your Love" and "White Room."

The band was such an influential force in rock that Cream fans began circulating reunion rumors almost as soon as the group called it quits. After 20 years, the rumors still haven't died down and Baker thinks it is possible that Bruce and Clapton are thinking about working together again. "But no one has spoken to me about this," he said. "I have little contact with them. The last time I saw them was 2 1/2 years ago."

After Cream, Baker's bands were short-lived--and definitely not commercial blockbusters. Blind Faith, with Clapton, lasted only three months in 1969. The next group, Air Force, which included Steve Winwood, lasted just two albums. In the early '70s Baker spent a few years in Nigeria exploring African music before joining the Baker-Gurvitz Army in the mid-'70s. After that one marched into oblivion, Baker grew even more disenchanted with the music scene and dropped out.

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