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Members included Ginger Baker (drums; born Peter Baker, August 19, 1939, in Lewisham, England), Jack Bruce (bass, vocals; born May 14, 1943, in Lanarkshire, Scotland), and Eric Clapton (guitar; born March 30, 1945, in Ripley, England; son of Patricia Clapp; married Patti Boyd Harrison, March 27, 1979 [divorced, 1988]; children: [with Lori Del Santo] Conor [deceased]; attended Kingston College of Art).
Cream, for better or worse, brought instrumental virtuosity to rock and roll. Rolling Stone once referred to them as "rock's first true supergroup." The first real power trio, Cream reestablished the link between rock and the blues, and their freewheeling improvisations took them into territory that was once the province of jazz musicians. By breaking the strictures of pop song forms and making instrumental solos the heart of their sound, they paved the way for Led Zeppelin and heavy metal bands that followed.
Though Cream found its greatest popularity in the United States, all three members had strong individual reputations in England before they decided to join forces. Jack Bruce was a classically trained cellist who took up jazz bass in his teens. He eventually earned a scholarship to the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and began playing in a dance band to support himself. The academy, however, disapproved of its students playing jazz. "They found out," Bruce told Musician correspondent Jim Macnie, "and said 'you either stop, or leave college.' So I left college."
In the early 1960s Bruce played in a series of traditional jazz, rhythm and blues, and jump blues groups. In 1965, while playing a recording session, he borrowed an electric bass. He recalled to Dan Hedges of Guitar Player, "[I] found that I ... could get a completely different kind of thing out of it."
By that time Bruce was working with Ginger Baker in the Graham Bond Organisation, a group that also included fusion guitarist John McLaughin. Baker also came from a jazz background and was particularly influenced by the avant-garde work of Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane. He had played in the house band at Ronnie Scott's, London's premier jazz club, and in Alexis Korner's Blues, Inc., the band that gave birth to the British blues revival, before leaving to pursue a more progressive direction with Bond.
Guitarist Eric Clapton became a star with the Yardbirds, a band that won a following in England for their extended blues jams on stage and their exotic Eastern-tinged pop experimentation in the studio. Feeling that they had sold out by abandoning the blues for pop music, Clapton quit the band immediately after they recorded their first hit single. He then played in John Mayall's Bluesbreakers but left the group shortly after Bruce joined it.
In 1966 Baker, Bruce, and Clapton were all at loose ends in their careers. Baker and Bruce had been playing throughout London as a jazz rhythm section, but, as Bruce recalled it to Macnie, "We'd had a kind of falling out. [Baker] thought my bass playing was getting too busy.... I was trying to make the bass stand up there with the other instruments. Ginger didn't agree with that. But when he went to Eric and said, 'Let's form a band,' Eric said, 'Yeah, but you've got to have Jack in it; he's the singer.' So we went by Ginger's little suburban pad and set up in his living room. And it was obvious from the start that there was a magical thing happening."
The trio may have had magic, but they lacked material; rehearsals consisted mainly of blues jams. Bruce, the most experienced songwriter in the band, wrote a light pop tune for their first single, "Wrapping Paper." It was the opposite of what everyone expected from three jazz/blues virtuosos, and it flopped. Cream's next record, however, another Bruce composition, "I Feel Free," made the British charts and set the band on their way to acclaim.
Cream didn't really hit their stride until they toured the United States in 1967. Though their first album, Fresh Cream, had only moderate sales in America, they had a considerable word-of-mouth reputation among music fans in the growing "underground" scene. American fans seemed more receptive to experimental music, and it was during Cream's stint at San Francisco's Fillmore West in 1967, Bruce told MacNie, that the band "got into the more improvised thing.... The audience began shouting 'Just play!' We were getting a bit bored just doing the tunes, actually, and were quite happy to open up."
The new improvisational direction thrilled audiences, and Cream quickly became one of the hottest bands in rock. Time praised their "exultant technical mastery that surpasses anything yet heard in rock;" Newsweek noted "a new freedom of self-expression that, if not a step toward jazz, is running on a parallel course." The first American tour was followed in short order by a new album, Disraeli Gears, and a hit single, "Sunshine of Your Love."
Cream's success as a recording band, however, only underscored the disparity between their live work and their efforts in the studio. They seemed almost to be two bands, and the critical response fell roughly into two camps: those who considered Cream's live shows a harbinger of a new freedom in rock, but found their recorded output to suffer from mediocre songwriting, undistinguished vocals, and poor production; and those who judged the studio recordings interesting, if inconsistent, and felt the extended onstage jamming was merely self-indulgent. Clapton himself was ambivalent, commenting in Rolling Stone in 1967, "That's where I want to be at: where I just don't ever have to play anything but improvisation." But in 1988 he told David Fricke in the same magazine, "Maybe we should not have been allowed that much luxury. We probably started burning out at that point. We were just going for the moon every time we played, instead of confining it and economizing."
On their third album, Wheels of Fire, Cream tried to have the best of both worlds, recording one disc in the studio and one live at the Fillmore. Rolling Stone correspondent Jann Wenner dismissed the studio half of the project: "Cream is good at a number of things; unfortunately songwriting and recording are not among them." Wenner went on to praise the live portion of Wheels of Fire, observing, "This is the kind of thing that people who have seen Cream perform walk away raving about and it's good to at last have it on a record." Even so, the studio disc featured "White Room," one of Cream's biggest hits, and the live sides included what Phil Hardy described in The Faber Companion to 20th Century Popular Music as "the excesses of 'Train Time' and 'Toad"s seventeen minutes of drumming."
By the time Wheels of Fire began to climb the charts, relationships among the members of Cream had soured. Musical disagreements, personality clashes, and egos--Bruce and Baker resented the fact that the public saw Cream as Clapton's band, even though Bruce was the chief singer and songwriter and Baker's drumming was a vital component of the sound--had created such tension that the three often stayed in separate hotels when on tour. In August of 1968 Clapton announced that Cream had lost its musical direction and were disbanding. They played their last concert on November 26 at the Royal Albert Hall in London, where a more enthusiastic audience then they had ever before found in their homeland shouted "God save the Cream!" as the trio left the stage.
Clapton and Baker stayed together for a year in the short-lived band Blind Faith, while Bruce went on to a successful, though lower profile, solo career, playing jazz with the Tony Williams Lifetime and Mose Allison and more blues-rock with West, Bruce, and Laing and BLT, as well as making a series of innovative solo albums. Baker eventually built a recording studio in Nigeria and recorded with Fela Kuti and other African musicians. He also formed the jazz-rock bands Ginger Baker's Air Force and the Baker-Gurvitz Army. In 1989 Baker rejoined Bruce for an album, A Question of Time, and a brief tour. Clapton went on to form Derek and the Dominos and to build a career as one of rock's senior superstars.
Short as its ascendancy was, Cream permanently changed the nature of rock and roll. Clapton defined the role of the guitar hero; Bruce brought the bass out of the shadows of the rhythm section, revealing its possibilities as a melodic instrument; and Baker introduced new levels of rhythmic complexity to rock percussion. Nineteen years after Cream's farewell, Rolling Stone characterized the group as "essentially a jazz trio playing blues changes with rock muscle. Clapton, Bruce and Baker were liberating rock bands once and for all from the constraints of the Top Forty pop song."
by Tim Connor
Band formed by Baker in 1966; toured Europe and U.S., 1967-68; released debut album, Fresh Cream, Atco, 1967; disbanded, 1968.
Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1993.
- Selective Works
- Fresh Cream Atco, 1967, reissued, DCC Classics, 1992.
- Disraeli Gears Atco, 1967, reissued, MFSL, 1992.
- Wheels of Fire Atco, 1968, reissued, DCC Classics, 1992.
- Goodbye Atco, 1969.
- The Best of Cream Atco, 1969.
- Live Cream Atco, 1970.
- Live Cream, Volume II Atco, 1972.
- Heavy Cream Polydor, 1973.
- The Best of Cream Live Polydor, 1975.
- Early Cream Springboard, 1978.
- Strange Brew: The Very Best of Cream Polydor, 1983.
- Solo releases by Jack Bruce; on Polydor Records, except where noted Songs for a Tailor 1969.
- Things We Like 1970.
- Harmony Row 1971.
- Out of the Storm 1974.
- How's Tricks 1977.
- I've Always Wanted to Do This Epic, 1980.
- A Question of Time Epic, 1989.
- Will Power 1989.
- Solo releases by Ginger Baker Ginger Baker's Air Force Polydor, 1970.
- Horses and Trees Celluloid, 1986.
- Middle Passage Axiom, 1990.
- Solo releases by Eric Clapton; on Polydor Records, except where noted Backless reissued, 1986.
- No Reason to Cry reissued, 1987.
- E. C. Was Here reissued, 1987.
- Rainbow Concert reissued, 1987.
- There's One in Every Crowd reissued, 1987.
- August Warner Bros., 1987.
- Time Pieces/Best of E. C. 1988.
- Time Pieces II/Live in the Seventies 1988.
- 24 Nights Reprise, 1991.
- Unplugged Duck, 1992.
- Behind the Sun Warner Bros.
- Journeyman Reprise.
- Money & Cigarettes Warner Bros.
- Eric Clapton.
- 461 Ocean Boulevard.
- Just One Night.
- Another Ticket.
May 2, 2005: After 37 years, Cream reunited for a concert at the Royal Albert Hall. Source: CNN.com, www.cnn.com/2005/SHOWBIZ/Music/05/03/cream.reunion.concert/index.html, May 3, 2005.
- Hardy, Phil, The Faber Companion to Twentieth-Century Popular Music, Faber and Faber, 1990.
- The Rolling Stone Interviews, edited by Jann Wenner, Straight Arrow, 1971.
- Periodicals Down Beat, March 1990; November 1990.
- Guitar Player, June 1968; August 1975.
- Musician, January 1988.
- Newsweek, March 18, 1968.
- Rolling Stone, November 9, 1967; January 12, 1968; July 20, 1968; April 5, 1969; June 4, 1987; August 23, 1988; October 17, 1991; February 4, 1993.
- Time, October 27, 1967.
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