I Got A Name: Jim Croce

Prolific singer-songwriter’s life was cut short after his career had just taken off

Advertisements

…If I had a box just for wishes/And dreams that had never come true/The box would be empty/Except for the memory/Of how they were answerd by you…

The above is an excerpt from the lyrics of one of the most beautiful love songs I know, written by a great singer-songwriter whose life was tragically cut short. Time In A Bottle became one of Jim Croce’s biggest hits topping the Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks in January 1974, not even four months after he had died at age 30 in a plane crash.

James Joseph Croce was born on January 10, 1943 in South Philadelphia. His parents James Albert Croce and Flora Mary (Babusci) Croce were both Italian Americans. While Croce git into playing accordion at the age of 5, he did not start taking music seriously until he was a student at Villanova University in the early 1960s. At that time, he began forming bands and playing local gigs at fraternity parties, coffee houses and universities around Philadelphia, performing a broad variety of cover music.

Jim Croce & family
Jim & Ingrid Croce with their son Adrian James

In 1966, Croce self-published his debut album Facets with a $500 cash gift he had received from his parents for his wedding to Ingrid Croce (née Jacobson), an author and singer-songwriter. The two had met in November 1963 and performed as a duo since 1964. Croce’s parents had hoped their son’s record would fail and he would come to realize he should use his eduction to pursue a “respectable” profession. Instead, Croce not only managed to sell all 500 copies of the record that had been pressed but also made a profit of close to $2,500. Here’s Texas Rodeo, the album’s only tune solely credited to Croce. Despite that promising start, true success for Croce was still years away.

In 1968, record producer Tommy West persuaded Croce and his wife to relocate to New York. By that time, they had started writing their own songs. This led to the release of Croce’s second record in September 1969, the duos album Jim & Ingrid Croce. Here’s the lovely Spin, Spin, Spin, which like most songs on the record was co-written by the couple.

The music business in New York City and playing small clubs and college gigs to promote the couple’s album proved to be tough. Disullisioned they returned to Pennsylvania to live on an old farm in the countryside. Since music wasn’t bringing in enough money, Croce took on a variety of odd jobs like driving a truck, contruction work and teaching guitar lessons. Meanwhile, he continued writing songs.

Following the birth of their son Adrian James, Ingrid became a stay-at-home-mother while Jim played concerts to promote his music. The breakthrough came in 1972 after Croce had signed a contract with ABC Records and released his third studio album You Don’t Mess Around With Jim in April that year. The record’s title track came out as a single in July and climbed to no. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100. By comparison, the album’s second single Operator (That’s Not The Way It Feels) “only” made it to no. 17 on the U.S. chart. And then ther is the above mentioned Time In A Bottle, which didn’t appear as a single until after Croce’s death and became his second of two no. 1 hits in the U.S.

In July 1973, Croce’s fourth studio album Life And Times came out. The last record released during his life time included his first Billboard Hot 100 no. 1 hit Bad, Bad Leroy Brown. The great piano-driven boogie woogie tune was inspired by a guy with that name Croce had met during his short time in the National Guard. One evening the guy said he was fed up and went AWOL. When he inexplicably decided to come back at the end of the month to get his paycheck, he was caught and taken away in handcuffs.

On September 20, 1973, during the supporting tour for Life And Times, Croce was planning to fly from Natchitoches, La. after a show there to his next gig in Sherman, Texas. During takeoff, the pilot of a chartered propeller plane clipped a tree at the end of the runway, causing a crash. Croce, pilot Robert N. Elliott; guitarist Maury Muehleisen; comedian George Stevens, manager and booking agent Kenneth D. Cortese, and road manager Dennis Rast were all killed. The next day, the lead single and title track from Croce’s fifth and final studio album I Got A Name was released. Co-written by Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel, the song was one of record’s the few tunes that were not written by Croce.

After Jim’s death, Ingrid Croce among other activities released two solo albums. She also did various things to keep Jim’s legacy alive. In 1985, she started a restaurant in downtown San Diego in the same spot where in 1973 Jim had joked about opening Croce’s Restaurant & Jazz Bar and inviting their friends and fellow artists like James Taylor, Jimmy Buffet, Arlo Guthrie and Bonnie Raitt perform there. After various expansions and opening a second restaurant in the ’80s, Ingrid closed all restaurant operations in 2016. In 1996, she wrote Thyme in a Bottle, an autobiographical cookbook with memories and recipes from Croce’s Restaurant. And in 2004, she published Time in a Bottle, a photographic memoir of Jim’s songs with lyrics and her favorite photos. Jim’s and Ingrid’s son Adrian James “A.J.” Croce also became a singer-songwriter and has released 10 albums since 1993.

A bio on Jim Croce’s website quotes Ingrid: “Jim poured everything he heard and saw into his music. He was like a sponge, soaking up experiences and – sometimes it might take him a while, ‘Roller Derby Queen’ took him two or three years to write. But sooner or later, everything would make it into a song, and people recognized that.”

I’d like to close this post with a nice clip of a 1973 live performance of Operator, showing Croce with Muehleisen. Croce had met the classically trained pianist-guitarist and singer-songwriter from Trenton, N.J. in 1970. Muehleisen became a collaborator in the studio who influenced Croce’s song-writing. For 18 months, they were also frequently together on the road. He was only 24 years at the time of the crash.

Sources: Wikipedia; Jim Croce website; Ingrid Croce website; YouTube

It’s That Time Of The Year Again…Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame Nominations

Class of 2020 encompasses nine first-time nominees, including Pat Benator, T. Rex, Thin Lizzy and The Doobie Brothers

The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame has unveiled the class of 2020 nominees. Inevitably, this will respark the annual debate whether artists who fall outside the rock genre like Whitney Houston, The Notorious B.I.G. or Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan should have been nominated in the first place, or why certain rock bands or artists who have been eligible for many years once again did not make the class. But despite all the Rock Hall’s imperfections, the music nerd in me still gets excited. Following are the artists I dig the most among the nominations.

If you glanced at the subhead of this post, you already know where I’m going with this. Ladies first: Pat Benatar. Having been eligible since 2004, Benatar is one of the great female rock vocalists in my book. According to her bio published on the Rock Hall’s website, Benator is a classically trained mezzo-soprano who quit her job in 1971 to pursue a career in singing. In 1979, she met guitarist Neil Giraldo, and the two formed a long-lasting duo, established their own entertainment company, and are still performing to this day. Here’s Heartbreaker from Benatar’s debut album In The Heat Of The Night, which was released in August 1979. Co-written by Geoff Gill and Cliff Wade, the tune was her breakthrough single, climbing to no. 23 on the Billboard Hot 100. The clip, which is from Benator’s 35th anniversary tour that took place in 2015, also throws in Ring Of Fire by Johnny Cash – fun to watch!

T. Rex, initially called Tyrannosaurus Rex, were formed as a psychedelic folk rock group by singer-songwriter and guitarist Marc Bolan in 1967. In 1970, the band changed their name to T. Rex and began their transition toward glam rock, which first was on full display on their sixth studio album Electric Warrior from September 1971. The band went on to record six more albums until Bolan’s untimely death in a car accident in September 1997, just two weeks prior to his 30th birthday. T. Rex had many members over the years. From the line-up that existed at the time of Bolan’s death, it appears only Herbie Flowers (bass) and Tony Newman (drums) are still alive. Here’s what’s perhaps the band’s best known song, Get It On. Written by Bolan, it appeared on the Electric Warriors album. T. Rex have been eligible for the Rock Hall since 1993.

Next up: Thin Lizzy, a great band formed in Dublin, Ireland in 1969, who has been eligible for a nomination since 1996. In particular, I dig them for their twin lead guitar harmonies. Until the band’s breakup in September 1983, Thin Lizzy released 12 studio albums. In January 1986, co-founding member, bassist, lead vocalist and principal songwriter Phil Lynott, who had been the group’s de facto leader, passed away from pneumonia and heart failure caused by sepsis. In March 1996, guitarist John Sykes, who had been part of Thin Lizzy’s final line-up, decided to revive the band. While he is no longer part of it, the group remains active to this day. Essentially, they are performing as their own tribute and except for a few live albums have not released any new records. In addition to their great guitar sound, one of the cool things about Thin Lizzy was the band’s interracial aspect – Lynott’s father was from British Guiana. His mom was from Dublin. The Boys Are Back In Town from Jailbreak, Thin Lizzy’s sixth studio album that appeared in March 1976, is a great example of the aforementioned twin lead guitars. On this song, they were played by Brian Robertson and Brian Downey.

As more frequent visitors of the blog know, I’m a fan of The Dobbie Brothers, so I was particularly pleased to see their nomination. The band had been eligible since 1996. What always attracted me to the Dobbies, which were founded in San Jose in 1970, was the combination of rock and their amazing three-part harmony singing. Two of the original vocalists, Tom Johnston (guitars, vocals, harmonica) and Patrick Simmons (guitar, vocals), remain part of the band’s current line-up. John McFee (guitars, pedal steel, violin, harmonica, vocals) has been a part of the group since 1979. I’ve seen the Dobbies twice over the past 20 years, most recently last year, and they still sound phenomenal. While I generally prefer the band’s early phase, here’s a great rocker from their 10th studio album Cycles released in May 1989: The Doctor, a tune co-written by Johnston, Charlie Midnight and Eddie Schwartz. The clip was captured during a concert in April 2017.

The induction ceremony will be held at Public Auditorium in Cleveland, Ohio on May 2, 2020. It will be preceded by induction week with celebratory events and the opening of the 2020 inductee exhibit. Music fans can vote once a day from now on through January 10, 2020 and pick up to five nominees per ballot. The top five artists will comprise a “fans’ ballot” that will be tallied along with the other ballots to choose the 2020 inductees.

Sources: Wikipedia; Rock & Roll Hall of Fame website; YouTube

Phil Ochs, Brilliant Yet Widely Obscure Troubador

What do Robert Allen Zimmerman and Philip David Ochs have in common? Both wrote brilliant protest songs in the ’60s. The difference? Robert changed his name to Bob Dylan and became one of the most famous music artists of our time. Philip chose to perform as Phil Ochs and remained largely obscure outside singer-songwriter circles.

Until recently, I had never heard of Phil Ochs myself. Then I saw somebody ranting on Facebook that Bob Dylan undeservedly gets all the credit for being this brilliant protest singer when the recognition should really go to Ochs. The truth is while both artists at some point were important protest singer-songwriters, none of them invented the genre. According to Wikipedia, the tradition of protest songs in the U.S. long predates the births of Dylan and Ochs – in fact going all the way back to the 18th century.

One of the important forerunners to the 1950s and 1960s protest singer-singwriters were the Hutchinson Family Singers, who starting from 1839 became well known for singing about social issues, such as abolition, war and women’s suffrage. And let’s not forget Woody Guthrie, who was born in 1912 and started learning folk and blues songs during his early teens. Over a 26-year-period as an active music artist, Guthrie wrote hundreds of political, folk and children’s songs. He was a major influence on numerous other songwriters who in addition to Dylan and Ochs included Johnny Cash, Pete Seeger, Harry Chapin, Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp and many other former and contemporary artists.

Hutchinson Family Singers
Hutchinson Family Singers in 1845 painting by an unkown artist

‘I get it,’ you might think, ‘but who the hell is Phil Ochs?’ Sadly, it’s a pretty rough story, and it doesn’t have a Hollywood happy ending.

Ochs was born on December 19, 1940 in El Paso, Texas. His dad Jakob “Jack” Ochs was a physician from New York, and his mom Gertrude Finn Ochs hailed from Scotland. The two met there and got married in Edinburgh where Jack was attending medical school at the time. After their wedding, they moved to the U.S. Jack joined the army as a doctor and was sent overseas close to the end of World War II. He returned as a sick man with bipolar disorder and depression.

Jack’s health conditions prevented him from establishing a successful medical practice. Instead, he ended up working at a series of hospitals around the country and frequently moving his family. As a result, Phil Ochs grew up in different places, along with an older sister (Sonia, known as Sonny) and a younger brother (Michael). His father was distant from the family, eventually got hospitalized for depression, and passed away from a brain bleeding in April 1963. Phil’s mother died in March 1994.

Phil Ochs as teen with clarinet
Phil Ochs as a teenager playing the clarinet

During his teenage years, Ochs became a talented clarinet player. Prior to the age of 16, he was principal soloist with the orchestra at the Capital University Conservatory of Music in Columbus, Ohio. Although Ochs had become an accomplished classical instrumentalist, he soon discovered the radio and started listening to the likes of Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash.

Initially, Ochs wanted to become a journalist. Well, he of sort did, combining his interest in writing about politics with music. During his journalism studies at Ohio State University, he met fellow student, activist and future folk singer Jim Glover in the fall of 1960, who introduced him to the music of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and The Weavers, and taught him how to play guitar. It wouldn’t take long before Ochs merged his interest of politics and music and started writing his own songs. He preferred to characterize himself as a topical rather than a protest singer.

Glover and Ochs started performing as a duo called The Singing Socialists and later The Sundowners but broke up before their first professional gig. Glover went to New York, while Ochs started performing professionally at a local fok club in Cleveland. In 1962, he went to the Big Apple as well and soon established himself in the Greenwich Village folk music scence. Ochs described himself as a “singing journalist,” explaining his songs were inspired by stories he saw in Newsweek. By the summer of 1963, he had developed a sufficiently high profile and was invited to perform at the Newport Folk Festival, along the likes of Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul & Mary.

Ochs’ debut album All The News That’s Fit To Sing, an allusion to The New York Times‘ slogan “All the news that’s fit to print,” appeared in 1964. Here is Ballad of William Worthy. The tune tells the story about an American journalist who traveled to Cuba despite the U.S. embargo and was forbidden to return to the U.S. Check out the brilliant lyrics of this tune – safe to assume Ochs’ words didn’t endear him to the Johnson Administration.

In 1965, Ochs’ sophomore album I Ain’t Marching Anymore came out. Here’s the excellent satirical anti-war tune Draft Dodger Rag, which quickly became an anthem of the anti-Vietnam war movement.

After Ochs’ first three albums with Electra Records had gone nowhere commercially speaking, he signed with A&M Records and in October 1967 released his fourth studio record Pleasures Of The Harbor. Unlike his first three folk music-oriented records, the album went beyond folk, featuring elements of classical, rock & roll, Dixieland and even experiental synthesized music. Apparently, the idea was to produce a folk-pop crossover. While the album included great tunes, it’s safe to say it didn’t bring Ochs commercial success. Here is Outside Of A Small Circle Of Friends, which became one of Ochs’ most popular songs. The tune was inspired by the case of a 28-old woman who was stabbed to death in front of her home in Queens, New York, while dozens of her neighbors reportedly ignored her cries for help.

Tape From California is Ochs’ fifth album. Released in July 1968 on A&M Records, it continued his shift away from straight folk-oriented protest songwriting, though he was far from abandoning topical songs. The War Is Over is a tune that was inspired by poet Allen Ginsberg who in 1966 declared the Vietnam war was over. Ochs decided to adopt the idea and organize an anti-war rally in Los Angeles, for which he wrote the song.

Phil Ochs’ final studio album came out in February 1970. Weirdly, it was called Greatest Hits, even though it was not a compilation but a collection of 10 new tracks. Most of the record was produced by Van Dyke Parks, who previously had appeared on Tape From California, contributing piano and keyboards to the title track. Greatest Hits featured an impressive array of guest artists, including Clarence White and Gene Parsons, both from The Byrds; Ry Cooder; Jim Glover; and members of Elvis Presley’s backing band, among others. The album cover was an homage to Elvis, showing Ochs in a gold lamé suit reminiscent of the outfit Elvis wore for the cover of his 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong greatest hits compilation. Here is Jim Dean Of Indiana, a tune about the actor James Dean, who like Elvis was one of Ochs’ idols.

Greatest Hits was Ochs’ final attempt to connect with average Americans, who he was convinced weren’t listening to topical songs. Disillusioned by key events of 1968, including the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the police riot in Chicago around the Democratic National Convention and the election of Richard Nixon, Ochs felt he needed to be “part Elvis Presley and part Che Guevara,” as Wikipedia puts it. Ochs supported the album with a tour, performing in the Elivs-like suit and being backed by a rock band, singing his own songs, along with tunes by Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley and Merle Haggard. But his fans weren’t sure what to make of the “new Phil Ochs.”

Pretty much from there, things went downhill for Ochs. He developed writer’s block and slipped into depression and alcoholism. He did not release any additional records. On April 9, 1976, Ochs committed suicide by hanging himself in the home of his sister Sonny. He was only 35 years old.

I’d like to conclude this post with a few quotes I found on Life of a Rebel, a blog dedicated to Ochs. “As a lyricist, there was nobody like Phil before and there has not been anybody since,” said fellow folk singer Dave Van Ronk. “He had a touch that was so distinctive that it just could not be anybody else. He had been a journalism student before he became a singer, and he would never sacrifice what he felt to be the truth for a good line.” In a note to Ochs in 1963, Pete Seeger wrote, “I wish I had one tenth your talent as a songwriter.” And what did the mighty Bob Dylan tell Broadside magazine in 1964? “I just can’t keep up with Phil. And he’s getting better and better and better.”

Sources: Wikipedia; Life of a Rebel; YouTube

Clips & Pix: The Who/All This Music Will Fade

Recently, I came across the above great new tune by The Who, a single from their upcoming new album ingeniously titled WHO. Set for release on December 6, it is their 12th studio record and their first with new material in 13 years since Endless Wire from October 2006.

As frequent visitors of the blog know, I dig ’60s rock from England, and The Who are among my favorite bands. I just find it amazing Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend are still recording new music, not to mention touring. Daltrey’s voice continues to sound great, and Townshend still knows how to write catchy tunes and windmill like a mad man.

According to The Who’s website, All This Music Will Fade debuted on October 3rd on the  BBC Radio 2 Breakfast Show. Townshend describes the track as ‘A song which is dedicated to every artist who has ever been accused of ripping off someone else’s song. Seriously? Our musical palette is limited enough in the 21st Century without some dork claiming to have invented a common chord scheme’.

Fair enough. But then don’t do the Led Zeppelin thing to take and not acknowledge. Don’t get me wrong, I love Zep. I just think it’s silly to take somebody else’s work and pretend you didn’t know!

The Who_WHO

As for WHO, Messrs. Daltrey and Townshend are joined by formidable musicians. The line-up includes their long-time drummer Zak Starkey, son of Ringo Starr, and bassist extraordinaire Pino Palladino. There are also contributions from Simon Townshend, Pete’s younger brother, as well as Benmont Tench, drummers Carla Azar and Joey Waronker, bass player Gus Seyffert and guitarist Gordon Giltrap.

“I think we’ve made our best album since Quadrophenia in 1973,” Daltrey confidently stated. “Pete hasn’t lost it, he’s still a fabulous songwriter, and he’s still got that cutting edge.”

There is also already a second song out, Ball And Chain, which I like as well. Both are available on YouTube and music streaming platforms. I certainly look forward to hearing the remainder of the album.

Sources: The Who website; YouTube

From Russia With Love And Rock & Roll

We are an explosive movement of the rock warriors from Russia, and we are melting our socks off with our Army of Rock!

Quite likely that for you Russia is just a cold country full of bears and vodka, and maybe you even heard that every Russian knows how to play balalyka. So, here we are to tell you a bit about our Army of Rock that performs live the world’s greatest rock hits. And, yeah, we do have a balalyka indeed, a really big one!

The above is an excerpt from the Facebook page of Rock-n-Mob, an “orchestra of more than 100 musicians” from Russia, including drummers, guitarists, bassists, keyboarders and vocalists. Established in 2016, Rock-n-Mob was inspired by Rockin’ 1000, a group from the Italian town of Cesena, which brought together 1,000 musicians in July 2015 to play simultaneously and in the process collect enough money to convince the Foo Fighters to perform a concert in that city close to the Adriatic Sea. The band accepted and did a 3-hour show on November 3, 2015, which was dedicated to Rockin’ 1000, as well as all the donors and volunteers involved in the July 2015 concert. Kudos to the Fighters!

Rocknmob2
And you perhaps thought balalykas can’t rock!

I just love that story, even in case it’s a bit embellished. It just goes to show once again the potential power of music to bridge continents and even different political systems. Russia may be run by a dictator and crook who suppresses freedom of expression and won’t hesitate to intervene in foreign elections to manipulate outcomes. But that’s very different from the Russian people, many of whom have the same dreams and aspirations than we do in the West – and love rock music!

Even when rock was considered to be subversive and therefore officially forbidden under the Communist regime in the former Soviet Union, rock was alive and kicking there. Fans found creative ways to listen to The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and other Western bands they dug.

Listen up, all you crooked dictators, whereever you may be, your days are counted and rock & roll will outlive you! With that being said, let’s get to some music from Rock-n-Mob! All of the following tunes were performed in Moscow. Let’s kick it off with a rendition of Michael Jackson’s Beat It, which happened last September. Written by Jackson, the great tune appeared on Thriller, his sixth studio album from November 1982, which to this day remains the word’s top-selling record with 47.3 million units sold.

Next up: Livin’ On A Prayer by Bon Jovi, performed in May this year. I know some rock fans cringe when they hear the name of this artist and band. I’ve said it before and I say it again. I think these guys have written some great songs, which nicely combine rock with pop elements. Livin’ On A Prayer, one of my favorite Bon Jovi tunes, is from their third studio album Slippery When Wet, which was released in August 1986. Like most tracks on the record, it was co-written by frontman Jon Bon Jovi, guitarist Richie Sambora and collaborator, American producer and songwriter Desmond Child.

And since this post is about celebrating rock & roll, I thought why not throw in anthem I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll, which is best known by Joan Jett & the Blackhearts. This performance was captured in July 2017. The tune was co-written in 1975 by Alan Merrill and Jake Hooker, who recorded it with English American rock band Arrows. Jett first learned about the tune in 1976 and initially recorded a version with Steve Jones and Paul Cook, two members of Sex Pistols. She subsequently re-recorded the tune with the Blackhearts in 1981, making it the title track of the band’s second studio album that came out in November that year – and scoring a no. 1 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100.

There are many other rock songs Rock-n-Mob have performed. Obviously, I can’t cover all of them. I’d like to leave you with one more track from August 2016, which I feel is a great motto for this remarkable group: The Show Must Go On by Queen. Credited to all members of the English rock band, the song appeared on Queen’s 14th studio album Innuendo from February 1991. This was the final record released during the lifetime of  Freddie Mercury, who had been diagnosed with AIDS in the spring of 1987 and passed away nine months after the album’s release from AIDS-derived bronchopneumonia.

Rockin’ 1000 seems to continue being active. And apparently, the concept of these massive rock orchestras of the people is catching on elsewhere. The other day on Facebook, I saw a group from The Netherlands called De Grootste Band Van Nederland playing a great version of Neil Young’s Rockin’ In The Free World. This gives me hope. Rock may no longer be mainstream and selling many albums, but it sure as heck ain’t dead.

Sources: Wikipedia; Rock-n-Mob Facebook; Rockin’ 1000; YouTube

Clips & Pix: Carole King/It’s Too Late

When I saw that clip, I didn’t have to think twice about posting it: Carole King performing It’s Too Late on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. King was backed by the show’s excellent house band The Roots. Live music really doesn’t get much better!

Written by her (music) and Toni Stern (lyrics), the beautiful tune appeared on the  Tapestry album, a timeless gem and a record that after more than 40 years when I listened to it for the first time remains one of my all-time favorites.

King who turned 77 years old in February looks and sounds fantastic. Her appearance on Jimmy Fallon occured ahead of her performance at Global Citizen Festival 2019 in New York City’s Central Park on September 28. Frankly, that event had completely escaped my attention. I had all been focused on Rock the Farm, a great annual music tribute festival and fundraising event for after drug rehab programs, which also happened on September 28 and which I previously covered here.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

Beware Of Mr. Baker

In memoriam of a drumming giant with a 60-year-plus career

When I saw the name of Ginger Baker pop up in a CNN news alert on my phone yesterday morning, I immediately knew what had happened. Just a few days ago, I had spotted a story on Facebook, reporting Baker was in the hospital and critically ill. The legendary drummer passed away on October 6 at age 80.

Baker was a pretty wild character. His constant fights with Jack Bruce while they played together in The Graham Bond Organisation and lateron in “supergroup” Cream have widely been reported. Once he even pulled a knife on Bruce – yikes! Baker’s volatile behavior is also impressively captured in the fascinating 2012 American documentary Beware of Mr. BakerAt some point, he hits film maker Jay Bulger in the nose with his walking stick – a terrifying thought, especially coming from a drummer.

So, yes, Baker wasn’t exactly a saint. But I don’t feel it’s my place to judge. Plus, let’s be honest here: The same can be said about some other music artists, including one of my biggest heroes of all time, John Lennon. He certainly was a less than perfect husband to his first wife Cynthia Powell and father to Julian, his son from that marriage. Still, the fact Lennon’s behavior fell short doesn’t change my admiration for him as an artist. The same is true for Ginger Baker.

Ginger Baker 2

There are already many obituaries out there, and undoubtedly, there will be many more. I don’t want to add yet another such piece. If you feel like reading an obituary for Baker, you can do so here at Rolling Stone, for example. Instead, I’d like to commemorate Baker with some of his music. And there is quite a lot over a career that spanned more than 60 years.

Less than two years after Baker had started picking up the drums at age 16, he was initially playing Dixieland on London’s Soho jazz scene. He was also influenced by bebop and artists like Max Roach, Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie. In fact, during a 2013 interview with jazz.fm91 he said, “Oh, for God’s sake, I’ve never played rock.” He also insisted Cream was a jazz band. “Cream was two jazz players and a blues guitarist playing improvised music. We never played the same thing two nights running…It was jazz.” Oh, well, I guess it all depends on how you define jazz. In any case, at the end of the day, who cares what you call it when you’re talking about Cream, one of the greatest bands of the 60s.

In 1962, following Charlie Watts’ departure to The Rolling Stones, 23-year-old Baker joined Blues Incorporated. The English blues band was led by guitarist Alexis Korner, who is often called “a founding father of British blues.” It is also there where Baker first met Jack Bruce. Here’s a great 1962 instrumental called Up-Town, which in addition to Korner (guitar), Bruce (bass) and Baker (drums) also featured Cyril Davies (harmonica), Dick Heckstall-Smith (tenor saxophone) and Johnny Parker (piano).

In 1963, Baker joined The Graham Bond Organisation, where he again played with Bruce, as well as other former Blues Incorporated members Graham Bond (vocals, keyboards, alto-saxophone) and Heckstall-Smith (tenor & soprano saxophone). Guitarist John McLaughlin rounded out the line-up of this jazz and R&B group. Here is Camels & Elephants, a tune featuring a Baker drum solo reminiscent of Toad, except it’s much shorter! 🙂

While Baker made a name for himself in The Graham Bond Organisation, it was his affiliation with next band that cemented his status as a legendary drummer: Cream. Most of the band’s orginal songs were written by Bruce and Eric Clapton. Between the two, they typically also handled vocals. But here is one Cream tune that not only was soley written by Baker but also sung by him: Blue Condition. The song appeared on their second studio album Disraeli Gears from May 1967.

Following the break-up of Cream and Baker’s participation in the short-lived Blind Faith, he founded jazz rock fusion group Ginger Baker’s Air Force. Apart from Baker, the supergroup’s initial formidable lineup included Steve Winwood (organ, vocals), Ric Grech (violin, bass), Jeanette Jacobs (vocals), Denny Laine (guitar, vocals), Chris Wood (tenor saxophone, flute), Graham Bond (alto saxophone), Harold McNair (tenor saxophone), Remi Kabaka (percussion), Alan White (drums) and jazz drummer Phil Seamen with whom Baker had taken lessons in the early ’60s. Here is Do What You Like, a tune Baker originally had written for Blind Faith, featuring Steve Winwood on lead vocals. It appeared on Air Force’s eponymous debut from March 1970, a live recording of a show at the Royal Albert Hall from January 15, 1970.

Just like Baker’s other music ventures, Air Force was short-lived, lasting only for a couple of years. In November 1971, he decided to move to Lagos, Nigeria where he set up a recording studio. It operated through the ’70s. One of the albums produced there was Band On The Run by Paul McCartney and Wings. In addition to putting out various solo albums during that time, Baker worked with Nigerian multi-instrumentalist and composer Fela Kuti, a pioneer of the Afrobeat music genre. One of these albums, Stratavarious, appeared in 1972 and included a track written by Kuti called Tiwa (It’s Our Own).

In 1974, Baker teamed up with brothers Adrian Gurvitz (guitar, vocals) and Paul Gurvitz (bass, vocals) to form Baker Gurvitz Army. Here is the title track and a Baker composition from the band’s third and last album Hearts On Fire, which was released in 1976.

After the demise of his recording studio in Nigeria, Baker relocated to Italy in the early 1980s. In 1987, he released African Force, a jazz fusion album. Here’s the opener Brain Damage, which was co-written by Baker and Jan Kazda.

In 1993, Baker teamed up with Bruce (amazing how often these two guys kept reuniting, despite all their bad past fights) and guitarist Gary Moore to form BBM (Bruce, Baker, Moore). Predictably, the power trio didn’t last long either, but they managed to release one album, Around The Next Dream. Here is Why Does Love (Have To Go Wrong?), which is credited to all three musicians.

The last track I’d like to highlight is from Baker’s final studio album Why?, another jazz  record that appeared in May 2014. It was his first solo record in 16 years. Here is Cyril Davis written by Baker. Other musicians on the album included Pee Wee Ellis (saxophone), Alec Dankworth (bass) and Abass Dodoo (percussion).

This post would be incomplete without a few thoughts from other music artists. Mick Jagger called Baker “a fiery but extremely talented drummer.” Recalling his work on the Band On The Run album in Baker’s studio in Nigeria, Paul McCartney characterized him as a “great drummer, wild and lovely guy.” Steven Van Zandt noted “Baker was one of the greatest drummers of all time” and recommended the album Disraeli Gears to those unfamiliar with him.

There were also some heartfelt words from Baker’s son Kofi Baker, the drummer in Cream tribute band Music Of Cream: “The other day, I had a beautiful visit with my dad…we talked about memories and music and he’s happy I’m keeping his legacy alive. Our relationship was mended and he was in a pieceful place.”

Sources: Wikipedia; CNN; Rolling Stone; Jazz.fm91; YouTube