Ginger Baker, who died Sunday at the age of 80, was an architect of rock drumming, spilling across tom-toms with both power and nuance. His work in the 1960s with the bands Cream and Blind Faith made him a defining figure of many basic rock band concepts: the “power trio,” the “supergroup,” the “drum solo,” “jamming,” “double-kick drumming” and — much to his trademark chagrin — an early thruway for “heavy metal.”
Baker was influenced by combustible, hyperkinetic jazz drummers like Art Blakey, Max Roach and Elvin Jones, along with the complex polyrhythms of Central Africa, shown to him by the British jazz drummer Phil Seamen. His playing was, in turn, heavy yet subtle, and Baker was quick to point out the differences between his work and the similarly influential bash of the Who’s Keith Moon and Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham.
Over a career that lasted more than 50 years, Baker found his pummeling sound leading or accompanying various strains of hard rock, jazz and Afrobeat. Here are 15 songs that show his influence and range.
The Graham Bond Organisation, ‘Oh Baby’ (1965)
The bassist Jack Bruce approached the man he recalled as “the loudest drummer I’ve ever heard” during Baker’s jazz days. Bruce and Baker soon became bandmates in Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated and the explosive, virtuosic beat group the Graham Bond Organisation. The centerpiece of its 1965 debut LP, “The Sound of 65,” has Baker pounding out a tom-heavy drum solo somewhere between Gene Krupa and the Bo Diddley beat.
Cream, ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ (1967)
On Cream’s first American hit, Baker provides a unique anchor to Jack Bruce’s iconic riff: Baker’s “backward” drum beat focuses on the first and third beats instead of the familiar, R&B-indebted backbeat. He provides masterful, melodic counterpoint in the open spots in the chorus. Closing with a heroic heavy metal dugga-dugga-dugga-dugga, “Sunshine of Your Love” was likely the first hit rock song to feature a single drummer hammering away on two bass drums.
Cream, ‘White Room’ (1968)
Baker — who also plays timpani — said he was the one who suggested the majestic “5/4 bolero” that opens this enduring hit.
Cream, ‘Toad’ (1968)
“Toad,” the closer from Cream’s 1966 debut LP, “Fresh Cream,” was one of rock music’s most game-defining drum solos, helping move the entire form from the steady-tempo breaks of songs like “Wipeout” to long, fanciful, exploratory, occasionally indulgent improvisation. This live version from the 1968 album “Wheels of Fire” features a 13-minute showcase of Baker’s double-kick-drum octopus thwap, errant spills of jazz and crowd-pleasing tumbles.
Blind Faith, ‘Do What You Like’ (1969)
The lone album from this storied rock supergroup — Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, the bassist Rick Grech and Baker — closes with another drum solo. On this 15-minute Brubeck-gone-blues-rock excursion in 5/4, the band trades solos, peaking with Baker gloriously building from restraint to fury.
Ginger Baker’s Air Force, ‘Let Me Ride’ (1970)
Baker’s short-lived Air Force band let him lead a rock big band of sorts, an ensemble that existed at the intersection of jazz, rock, prog, African music and more. This track from its second album takes the Staples Singers’ reinvention of a classic spiritual and explodes it into lush funk-soul with Baker playing huge fills in the breaks.
Ginger Baker’s Air Force and Elvin Jones, ‘Do What You Like’ (1971)
For true drum geeks only. Cocky young upstart Baker and his hero, the jazz legend Elvin Jones, had a brief war of words. A drum battle held during a show in London on Feb. 1, 1971, would not conclusively decide who was better behind the kit. However, it was an armistice of sorts: After more than 30 minutes of drum chaos, the pair shared an embrace.
Fela Ransome-Kuti and the Africa ’70 With Ginger Baker, ‘Ye Ye De Smell’ (1971)
Compelled by his curiosity about African music, Baker famously left England to go to the birthplace of rhythm. Stricken by Afrobeat (and ignoring the advice of the Nigerian embassy), Baker traveled to Lagos and was eventually partying and playing with Fela Kuti, a mutual admirer. Around the eight-minute mark of this intimate live track — recorded before a handful of people in Abbey Road Studios — Baker trades licks with the Afrobeat architect Tony Allen in a chattering, propulsive, throbbing percussion conversation. “The whole session was truly electric,” Baker wrote in his autobiography, “Hellraiser,” “and we were all convinced that Afrobeat was going to be a really big scene.”
Baker Gurvitz Army, ‘Memory Lane’ (1974)
In the years since Cream helped invent hard rock, it only got harder. Most of “Memory Lane,” from the first LP Baker made with the brothers Paul and Adrian Gurvitz, has no shortage of high-volume, high-velocity drum spills, but his mid-track drum solo is dynamic and musical instead of purely flamboyant.
Hawkwind, ‘Space Chase’ (1980)
Baker was briefly the drummer for the legendary space-rock band Hawkwind, playing on its 10th album, “Levitation.” He powers the cinematic instrumental “Space Chase” with a flurry of toms.
Public Image Ltd., ‘Fishing’ (1985)
For Public Image Ltd.’s fifth album, the producer Bill Laswell hired a master of bubbling fills and jazz curlicues to instead play mostly stiff, merciless post-punk beats for the vocalist John Lydon to soar over. Tracks like “Fishing” are a great example of Baker’s sheer, simple power behind the kit.
Ginger Baker, Sonny Sharrock, Peter Brötzmann, Nicky Skopelitis, Jan Kazda, ‘Dishy Billy’ (1989)
This collaboration featuring Peter Brötzmann and Sonny Sharrock — two ’60s free-jazz legends reborn in the middle of the violent ’80s “punk jazz” wave — was a perfect, if not obvious, use of Baker’s particular skill set, mixing monster chops with monolithic volume. The “No Material” album, a recording of a 1987 gig in Switzerland, features four free-form blasts. A drummer renowned for his muscle sounds downright modest compared to Brötzmann’s corrosive sax and Sharrock’s abrasive guitar, but Baker’s hard-hitting detonations keep this improv grounded on Earth.
Masters of Reality, ‘She Got Me (When She Got Her Dress On)’ (1992)
Part of the “Palm Valley” scene that ultimately spawned Queens of the Stone Age, Masters of Reality recruited Baker for their second LP in 1992, “Sunrise on the Sufferbus.” The band produced a minor hit with the boogie-rock locomotive “She Got Me (When She Got Her Dress On).” “When he joined my band he was 53 years old and at the time I think I was 30,” said the Masters leader Chris Goss. “He didn’t want to do meet and greets on a radio station before opening for Alice in Chains or Soundgarden.”
Ginger Baker Trio, ‘Ramblin’’ (1994)
Most of the drumming Baker did in his final 25 years was dedicated to jazz. On the first album by the Ginger Baker Trio — a collaboration with the shimmering guitarist Bill Frissell and the bassist Charlie Haden — Baker plays free jazz with the power of a rock drummer, bursting like cannon fire on this Ornette Coleman cover.
Ginger Baker, ‘Why?’ (2014)
The onetime James Brown saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis takes the solo while Baker and the Ghanaian drummer Abass Nii Dodoo create a deep rhythmic interplay on this track from his final solo album.