Until the mid-1960’s, rock bands tended to be four- and five-piece combos. The Beatles were four vocalists who happened to be four musicians. The Stones were a five-piece, as were the Yardbirds. And yet when former Yardbird Eric Clapton fell in with a jazz drummer named Ginger Baker, the result was Cream.
They needed a bass player. Clapton, to Baker’s horror, recruited Jack Bruce. What Clapton didn’t realize was that Baker and Bruce didn’t like each other. Does anyone wonder why the band only lasted two years?
Still, when Fresh Cream debuted in 1966, rock became intimately acquainted with its most prevalent configuration: The power trio. One guitar, one bass, and a drummer, with one of the band doing vocals. Their arrangements of blues classics such as “Spoonful” and “I’m So Glad.” “Toad,” an original song, established a time-honored trope of the hard rock era: The extended drum solo.
Cream combined the wild abandon of jazz’s bebop era with the raw power of the blues. The result would evolve into heavy metal, hard rock, and even bleed over into punk.
Two songs have always grabbed me. The first is “White Room,” which is the first Cream song I become familiar with. The plaintive wail of Clapton’s guitar and the odd lyrics combined to make a really dark vignette from the psychedelic era. The other was “Badge,” written by Clapton’s friend George Harrison. I first heard it was I was 20, and it really appealed to a wistful, love-starved young man. It’s one of the earliest songs where the bass was more than just extra time-keeping.
Cream couldn’t last, however. Clapton had his own rigid ideas about music, and the Baker-Bruce rift could not be bridged for extended periods. Nonetheless, Baker and Clapton would try again with Steve Winwood in Blind Faith. Blind Faith’s only album was interesting, but by then, Clapton had lost interest in the idea of being in a supergroup. By the end of Blind Faith’s tour, Clapton was essentially gone, spending most of his time with opening act Delaney & Bonnie.
They regrouped again a few years ago. Instead of trying to be the 20-somethings high on speed and too cocky to die that they were originally, they played to their age. Because Cream’s music is so ingrained with Chicago blues, Bruce’s voice actually sounded better at the Madison Square Garden reunion than he did in the sixties. Baker can still drum. And Clapton?
He’d already gone on to become Eric Clapton. But that would not have happened without Cream.