Rock’s greatest drummer has left the planet

The Fresno I grew up in during the middle to late 1960s was a market city, meaning if a musical act did well in Fresno, it probably would do well nationally. As a result, many of the biggest new acts on the radio came to town to weigh the kid’s support. (Come on, we got the Stones in 1965 and Janis Joplin and Big Brother — twice!) Conversely, Fresno youngsters generally responded well to acts that had proven themselves in the national market, too. So it was with Cream, — guitarist Eric Clapton, bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker.

The power trio appeared at a sold out Selland Arena show in Fresno on Wednesday, March 13, 1968, less than a week before Clapton and members of Buffalo Springfield were arrested during a pot bust brought on by a thunderous jam session at Steven Stills’ house in Topanga Canyon (thanks to a neighbor’s noise complaint).

Cashing in on the success of Disraeli Gears (released November 1967 featuring the singles “Sunshine of Your Love” and “Strange Brew,”) Cream barnstormed America that year and arrived in Fresno after seven shows in 10 days at the fabled Fillmore and Winterland ballrooms in San Francisco (some of those performances were captured on Live Cream Volume II) and a Memorial Auditorium gig in Sacramento with the Grateful Dead.

Cream. Clapton, of course, is Clapton. I don’t believe he is God as some English kids proclaimed. I tend to agree with Rolling Stone’s assessment that called him “a master of the blues cliché.” Sure, he’s a marvelously talented and fabulously entertaining guitarist, but except for bringing the blues into a heavier rock and roll context, he’s not really an innovator, as was, say Jimi Hendrix.

While I believe Jack Cassidy of Jefferson Airplane is the best bassist I ever saw in terms of driving a band hard and holding its drug-dunked members together at the same time, the late Jack Bruce has to be the greatest bassist I ever saw in terms of musical prowess and ability. He effortlessly soared from one end of his instrument to the other with a fluidity, ease and feel I’ve never seen since.

And then, of course, the fiery, drummer, Ginger Baker, who died Oct. 6, stood tall as the third leg of the trio. Baker and Bruce laid down a rhythm section for Clapton that was stronger and harder than anyone back then could even imagine.

Now Baker always claimed Cream played jazz because of all its improvisation, but he’s wrong. Cream was a blues and rock band that improvised a lot for sure, but they weren’t close to jazz by any stretch. Sorry.

Still, Baker’s contributions to Cream were stunning and sublime. He offered unusual rhythms, interesting beats and meters few rock drummers can duplicate or adequately imitate. (Check out the patterns on “Sunshine of Your Love,” “Tales of Brave Ulysses” or “White Room,” for example.)

To tell you the truth, I’ve never been much into drum solos, but I witnessed the Baker showcase “Toad” in the flesh when the crazed redhead banged, bashed and stomped every bit of hardware in his kit to a resounding cheer that probably still resonates in the upper reaches of Selland Arena somehow. Seeing the man perform that 10- or 15-minute solo in person was nothing short of breathtaking. I’ll never forget.

I especially enjoyed the Cream reunion DVD from 2005 when these 60-somethings reunited for a few concerts. As old men they had lost the tongue-chewing speedy wire and psychedelic excesses of their youthful performances, traded their Marshall stacks for smaller gear and, in my opinion, played better than they did back in day when they topped the rock star heap. I found it refreshing and rejuvenating to see them revisit their 40-year-old catalog and improve upon it. Stunning.

So, you can have Bonham and Moon or Weinberg and Copeland and maybe even Ringo and Keltner if you like, but to me no rock drummer anywhere compares with Baker’s irreverent, improbable and completely unique thrash.

Yep. The greatest and the best has come and gone. May he finally rest in peace.