Cream

Cream

 Jack Bruce – circa 1969

 “How his naked ears were tortured / By the sirens sweetly singing” – ‘Tales Of Brave Ulysses’ (Eric Clapton, Martin Sharp)

In June 1966 three musicians begin working together on a regular basis.  The venue is the front room of their drummer’s maisonette (a small compact house).  Each of them recently won a poll in a British music paper as, respectively, the best guitarist, bassist and drummer.  In other words, they are the cream of the crop, and so, with no false modesty, they call their new band Cream.

Cream have a relatively brief existence, around eighteen months, from June 1966 to November 1968.  That period produces four albums and seven singles.  It also wins a place in rock history for the trio of Jack Bruce (vocals, bass), Eric Clapton (vocals, guitar) and Ginger Baker (drums, vocals).

Jack Bruce (14 May 1943 – 25 October 2014) is born John Simon Asher Bruce in Bishopbriggs, Lanarkshire, Scotland.  His first musical influences are Scottish folk music, jazz, and the classical music of Bach.  Bruce begins playing acoustic bass with Jim McHarg’s Scotsville Jazzband in the Glasgow dance halls.  At the age of 17, Jack Bruce wins a scholarship to the Royal Scottish Academy Of Music.  Bruce moves to London in 1962 and joins Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated.  In February 1963 he quits and, together with Korner’s drummer, Ginger Baker, joins fellow Blues Incorporated alumnus Graham Bond, an organist and saxophonist of rather fearsome aspect, in The Graham Bond Organisation.  In 1965, Jack Bruce moves on to a short stint in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and spends six months with Manfred Mann before the formation of Cream.

Born in Ripley, Surrey, England on 30 March 1945, Eric Patrick Clapton is abandoned by his biological parents and raised by his grandmother.  While studying stained glass design at Kingston Art College, the 17 year old Clapton buys his first guitar.  His earliest professional band is The Roosters (January – September 1963).  Then comes two weeks in October 1963 with Casey Jones And The Engineers.  From late 1963 to March 1965, the guitarist is part of The Yardbirds.  From spring 1965, Eric Clapton is a featured player in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers.  It is during this time that Clapton meets Jack Bruce.  It is also at this time that Clapton becomes revered for his instrumental prowess, fans painting ‘Clapton is God’ on walls around London.  When he leaves The Bluesbreakers, it is to form Cream.

His bright orange hair earns Peter Baker, born in Lewisham, London, England on 19 August 1939, the nickname ‘Ginger’.  He starts out not as a drummer, but as a trumpet player for the local air cadets.  As a 16 year old, Ginger Baker switches to drums.  Starting with a local group, The Storyville Jazzmen, he earns gigs with notable traditional jazz outfits like Acker Bilk’s Paramount Jazz Band and Terry Lightfoot’s similarly themed combo.  Baker becomes resident drummer at Ronnie Scott’s 100 Club.  It is while playing with The Bert Courtly Band that Baker first meets Jack Bruce, who is on his way to join Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated.  In 1962 Ginger Baker follows Bruce to that group, replacing Charlie Watts (later of The Rolling Stones) on drums.  As previously mentioned, Baker and Bruce then join The Graham Bond Organisation from 1963 to 1965.  During Jack Bruce’s stint with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Ginger Baker sometimes sits in on drums, and it is here that he meets Mayall’s guitarist, Eric Clapton.

In April 1966, when Ginger Baker is guesting with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, he takes Eric Clapton aside and suggests they form a group.  Clapton consents, with the proviso that Jack Bruce be used to complete the line-up, ‘not realising the longstanding animosity between Bruce and Baker’.  However, even before their first gig, the guitarist is said to wonder ‘whether he’d made a mistake’.  In Eric Clapton’s mind, Cream is intended to be a blues trio; “Buddy Guy with a rhythm section,” in his words.

Cream gain a manager in expatriate Australian Robert Stigwood.  The group play their first gig on 31 July 1966 at the Windsor Jazz & Blues Festival.

In October, Cream release their first single, ‘Wrapping Paper’ (UK no. 34).  Whatever anyone had been expecting, it wasn’t this.  An oddball sing-a-long, like a 1920s barbershop quartet, accompanied by piano trills, it is something Cream never again attempts.  However, it is co-written by Jack Bruce and Pete Brown, the most prolific songwriting contributors to Cream’s output.  Pete Brown is a veteran of the British underground arts community, promoting poetry readings and jazz gigs.  It seems safe to suggest he writes the bulk of the lyrics while Jack Bruce composes the music.

After that false start, In December Cream try again with ‘I Feel Free’ (UK no. 11).  Although this starts with some free form vocalisation, there is then a sound like a jet engine backfiring and Cream launch forward.  Although, as Clapton envisioned, they are essentially blues-based, Cream turn up the volume beyond their role models.  To some, this is even considered the birth of heavy metal.  It is loud and the musicians live up to their pedigree, Clapton’s solo on ‘I Feel Free’ sounding like an over-inflated balloon.  It’s exciting and different, yet very much of the times.

Also in December comes the debut album, ‘Fresh Cream’ (1966) (UK no. 6, US no. 39).  The record is produced by their manager, Robert Stigwood, even though he’d never produced a record before.  As well as the two singles, ‘Fresh Cream’ includes a Jack Bruce solo composition inexplicably titled ‘N.S.U.’: “Riding in my car / Smoking my cigar / The only time I’m happy / Is when I play my guitar.”  The almost stately ‘Sweet Wine’ is co-written by Ginger Baker and Janet Godfrey.  However, perhaps the key to the album is the clutch of blues songs re-interpreted by the young Englishmen.  Muddy Waters’ ‘Rollin’ and Tumblin’’, Skip James’ ‘I’m So Glad’, Robert Johnson’s ‘Four Until Late’ and a Willie Dixon tune made famous by Howlin’ Wolf, ‘Spoonful’, all get the treatment.  They come closest to embodying the idea of Cream as a blues trio.

Always with an eye to the United States, Cream begin their first American tour on 25 March 1967.  Despite some teething problems, Cream soon start to find an audience.  In their live show, they often stretch out the numbers, particularly the blues standards, showing off their individual musical dexterity.

Cream record their second album in New York City, working with producer Felix Pappalardi and engineer Tom Dowd, the duo who will serve in those roles for the rest of Cream’s brief career.  The sessions are, by necessity, confined to three and a half days in May 1967.  Proceedings are called to a halt by the arrival of a chauffeur to take the musicians to the airport for the flight back to the U.K.  Released in July, the first single from the forthcoming album is ‘Strange Brew’ (UK no. 17, AUS no. 21).  The song is a restructured version of an earlier recording, ‘Lawdy Mama’.  The writing team for ‘Strange Brew’ is Clapton, Pappalardi and Gail Collins.  It’s a strangely slinky piece, a departure from earlier efforts.  On the B-side is ‘Tales Of Brave Ulysses’, co-written by Clapton and artist, Martin Sharp.  This musically illustrated slice of Greek mythology includes Clapton’s first use of the wah-wah pedal, a distorted pseudo-voice for the guitar.  The full album, ‘Disraeli Gears’ (1967) (UK no. 5, US no. 4, AUS no. 1) lands in November.  Martin Sharp contributes the psychedelic drawing for the album cover.  This disc ranks as Cream’s best album and ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’ (UK no. 25, US no. 5, AUS no. 22) is their best single.  Composed by Bruce, Brown and Clapton, the bassist and guitarist trade vocals through the verses and unite for the chorus:  “ [JB] It’s getting near dawn / When lights close their tired eyes / [EC] I’ll soon be with you my love / Give you my dawn surprise / [JB] I’ll be with you darling soon / I’ll be with you when the stars start falling / I’ve been waiting so long / [both] to be where I’m going / In the sunshine of your love.”  All these sentiments tie in nicely with the psychedelic, summer of love, flower children vibe of the time.  Mind you, since this is Cream, it is delivered with sledgehammer instrumental force.  Apparently, the song nearly doesn’t make the record because, during the recording sessions, it just isn’t working.  Then engineer Tom Dowd suggests Ginger Baker try a Native American tribal beat and, with that alteration, everything clicks into place.  The bizarre psychedelic sparkle is maintained in Bruce and Brown’s ‘SWLABR’…which are the initials for ‘She Walks Like A Bearded Rainbow’.  Of course they are!  Actually, the lyrics just say “but the rainbow has a beard.”  Jack Bruce also turns in the mournful ‘We’re Going Wrong’.

As early as February 1968, rumours circulate that Cream are planning to split.  ‘The sparks that had given Cream their mercurial quality and inspiration are now destroying the group as their increasingly fractured personalities clash under the suffocating conditions of endless touring.’

Another winningly eccentric single, ‘Anyone For Tennis’ (UK no. 40, US no. 64) is released in May 1968.  Not included on Cream’s next album, this song is given away to the soundtrack of ‘The Savage Seven’ movie.  Written by Eric Clapton and Martin Sharp, this piece of whimsy is all acoustic guitar, bongos, flute and violin.  “You can tell that all they’re saying underneath the pretty lies / Is ‘anyone for tennis, wouldn’t that be nice?’” croons Clapton.

On 10 July 1968, only weeks before the release of their next album in August, Eric Clapton announces the break-up of the group due to “a loss of direction.”

Cream’s third album, ‘Wheels Of Fire’ (1968) (UK no. 3, US no. 1, AUS no. 1) is assembled over roughly a year from mid-1967 to mid-1968.  Work begins at IBC Studios in London and is polished at Atlantic Studios in New York with Felix Pappalardi and Tom Dowd.  Martin Sharp contributes another illustration for the album sleeve.  ‘Wheels Of Fire’ is a double album.  The first disc consists of nine songs recorded in the studio, while the second disc is a live recording from March 1968 of Cream at the Fillmore and Wonderland venues in San Francisco.

Jack Bruce and Pete Brown write the single, ‘White Room’ (UK no. 28, US no. 6, AUS no. 11).  After a dramatic intro, the band locks into a solid groove about an assignation in a “White room / With black curtains.”  In another song, Bruce and Brown’s ‘Politician’ invites us into his “big black car / I want to show you what my politics are.”  They also offer ‘Deserted Cities Of The Heart’, another fantastical landscape.

Ginger Baker teams with avant-garde jazz musician Mike Taylor for the bell-ringing ‘Those Were The Days’ (sung by Jack Bruce) and the spoken word ‘Pressed Rat And Warthog’.  Over a background of medieval horns, Baker intones a trippy sort of ‘Alice In Wonderland’ account of how the title duo sells “atonal apples and amplified heat / Pressed Rat’s collection of dog legs and feet.”

For his part, Eric Clapton sticks to the original game-plan by bringing in covers of blues songs.  There is Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘Sitting On Top Of The World’ and Albert King’s ‘Born Under A Bad Sign’ (though the latter is written by Booker T. Jones [of Booker T And The MG’s] and William Bell).  Best of all is Robert Johnson’s ‘Crossroads’ (US no. 28) (from the live disc).  This is one of Clapton’s most astonishing pieces of guitarwork.  Legend has it that Johnson bargained his soul to the devil at the crossroads in exchange for his prowess on the guitar.  In recreating the song, Clapton plays as though he has struck the same unholy bargain.  A seventeen minute version of ‘Spoonful’ is also on the live disc as is Ginger Baker’s sixteen minute drum solo, ‘Toad’.

As can be seen, on ‘Wheels Of Fire’ Cream are increasingly separate in their goals.  Despite Clapton’s earlier pronouncement that the group is finished, Robert Stigwood convinces the trio to undertake a farewell tour.  They are also persuaded to return to London’s IBC recording studio.  More information on those sessions will follow in a moment.

Cream’s farewell tour begins in Oakland, California on 5 October 1968.  During their show at Madison Square Garden in New York on 2 November, a platinum disc is presented, representing over two million in sales for ‘Wheels Of Fire’.  Returning to their native England, Cream bows out on 26 November in a show at London’s Royal Albert Hall.  “God Save The Cream,” chants the crowd.  This concert is filmed for Tony Palmer’s documentary ‘Goodbye Cream’.  The film opens on 20 February 1969 in Baltimore ‘to small crowds and very negative critical response because of poor sound quality and incomprehensibly “arty” editing’.  A week later, in New York, the documentary is described as ‘a real bomb’.

The three new tracks Cream recorded before the tour are added to three other songs recorded live and it is all released in March as an album with a similar title to the documentary, ‘Goodbye’ (1969) (UK no. 1, US no. 2).  One of the new recordings, ‘Badge’ (UK no. 18, US no. 60, AUS no. 38) is released as a single.  The song is sung by Eric Clapton who co-writes the piece with George Harrison of The Beatles.  Harrison also plays rhythm guitar on the song, but is credited as L’Angelo Mysterioso for contractual reasons.  The title comes from Clapton misreading Harrison’s notation of ‘bridge’ on the music sheet and thinking ‘badge’ is the intended name of the song.  Of course the title has nothing to do with the lyrics which are little rhymes about “our kid” (a Liverpudlian expression for a young friend, doubtlessly from the Liverpool-born Harrison), “a girl who looks just like you” and “the swans that they live in the park.”  This may not sound promising, but it is actually quite a likeable effort.

Eric Clapton’s disenchantment with Cream stems from ‘animosity within’ the group, ‘the long solos that are now obligatory rather than organic’ and that what ‘was meant to be a blues trio’ became ‘a jazz-rock group’.

Cream reunites briefly in January 1993 when they are inducted into The Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall Of Fame in the United States.

Jack Bruce dies from liver disease on 25 October 2014.

Cream overshadowed the rest of the careers of Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker.  Though Eric Clapton is more famous, it is possible to argue that his best work was with Cream.  Unlike virtually every other group of musicians with whom he worked, Bruce and Baker were not intimidated by Clapton’s legend.  Partly, that’s because he was not so famous when they met, partly it is due to their own sizable egos, and partly it is because all three of them were very skilled musicians.  They did not kowtow to the guitarist, but instead challenged him musically on stage and on record and this provoked Clapton to work harder.  This mutual ability was, after all, why the band was called Cream – and Cream always rises to the top.  ‘Cream were a highly influential band; they set the pattern for the “power trio” format, later endlessly copied by generally lesser talents’.  ‘Cream were a blues-rock supergroup trio whose immense volume and lengthy instrumental jams set the agenda for much late 1960s rock’.

Sources:

  1. ‘Friday On My Mind’ by Ed Nimmervoll (Five Mile Press, 2004) p. 69, 72
  2. ‘The Illustrated New Musical Express Encyclopedia Of Rock’ by Nick Logan, Bob Woffinden (Salamander Books, 1978) p. 18, 44
  3. ‘The Illustrated Rock Handbook’ edited by Roxanne Streeter, Ray Bonds (Salamander Books, 1983) p. 16, 33, 51
  4. ‘The Rolling Stone Rock Almanac’ by the Editors of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (Papermac, 1984) p. 118, 128, 146, 149, 150, 155
  5. ‘The Best Of Cream’ – Sleeve notes by Hugh Fielder (Polygram International Music, 1995) p. 4, 7, 9, 11
  6. ‘Rock Stars’ by Timothy White (Columbus Books, 1984) p. 177
  7. ‘The History Of Rock’ by Mark Paytress (Parragon Books, 2011) p. 100
  8. wikipedia.org as at 18 December 2012, 26 October 2014

Song lyrics copyright Warner/Chappell Music with the exception of ‘Badge’ (Warner/Chappell Music/Copyright Control)

Last revised 26 October 2014

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