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Ginger Baker

The Drum Thing

 

The Peter Edward Baker Story

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Born on Saturday August 19 1939 in Lewisham, Sth London. Peter grew up in the neighboring suburb of New Eltham. His primary interest as a teenager was competitive cycling, but music wasn't far behind. The first instrument was a trumpet in the local Air Training Corp band. However he was always driving his mother mad by incessant playing of rhythms on the kitchen table using his eating tools.

At age 15 he wrecked his bike and had to make a choice - he bought a new racing bike but could only afford a "toy" drum kit. He pestered a local band to try him out, they gave in and at the end one of the members announced to the rest "Christ, we've got a drummer." He got a part time job and upgraded from the 3 kit to a 12 one. At age 16 he auditioned for 'The Storyville Jazz Men', got the job, left home and went on the road. The stretching of three months drumming experience into three years clearly was accepted as he sounded like he had! He also bought a 2nd hand professional drum kit.

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The leader of the band was Bob Wallis who provided Ginger with the listening experience of the great jazz records of the 1920's. On these Ginger heard his beloved Baby Dobbs playing with Louis Armstrong. "I fell in love with what he was playing. Baby Dodds was the link between western military drum techniques and African drummers. He was the man who first successfully married the two. He was the first jazz drummer."

The Trad Jazz field was big in Britain and Ginger went on to play with the best - Acker Bilk and Terry Lightfoot. Ginger was always an individual - Green suits for example. And he was always absorbing as he had now begun to play in the bebop style of Max Roach …"He was the Guv'nor." When Lightfoot directed Ginger to play "four to the bar on the bass drum, nothing else!". Ginger's typical "You can stick your band up your arse" left him unemployed.

After a period of taking any gig he could get, including in Europe, he returned home. The house next door was vacant so in he moved and once again drove his mother mad by practicing 8-9 hours a day. He jammed in London's West End where, in 1960, he met the next great influence - Phil Seaman. Phil was England's master be-bop drummer who was also heavily influenced by African drumming. The darker side was his notorious heroin addiction and alchohol consumption*.  Ginger gained great drumming knowledge and similar habits.

Ginger got another job that required sight-reading and once again he faked it. Eventually he taught himself to fully read and also develop arranging skills.

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Unfortunately Ginger had problems holding his drum seat. It was not only his temperament that cost him jobs but also his 'no prisoners' approach to drumming. "In those days I played like a madman and get emotionally involved in the music …I was always accused of being a rock'n'roller … They didn't like this loud drummer playing the offbeats." Eventually he got tired of being told to quiet down and in 1962 moved to the amplified blues of Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated, replacing Charlie Watts. In this band were the legendary Cyril Davies, his old band mate Dick Heckstall-Smith and a new one - Jack Bruce.

A refrigerator salesman named Graham Bond soon joined them (initially on saxophone but moving to organ). One of their side bands was the highly regarded Johnny Birch Octet including Dick Heckstall-Smith. In addition Ginger, Jack and Dick would often jam as a trio. One night in 1963 Graham (on Hammond organ), Jack and Ginger played a well-received gig. Soon after Graham resigned from Alexis' band, for all of them - Jack didn't know why Alexis was pissed off that night!

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The Graham Bond Organisation was one of the legendary UK R&B bands of the early-mid '60's. Unfortunately the recorded output never matched their live reputation. Their influence was extensive especially with the more keyboards oriented bands of Brian Auger, Nice, Yes etc. The original band included John McLaughlin on guitar but he …"was a whinger…so I told him to piss off." He was replaced by the more amenable Dick Heckstall-Smith. Tensions in the band were pretty high at times as a result of Graham's downward spiral of addiction, Ginger's own legendary consumption coupled with the Jack Bruce temperament. Dick still vividly recollects the on stage brawls between Ginger and Jack (drums sticks bounced off Jacks head, Jack demolishing the drums with his bass etc). Ultimately Ginger ejected Jack after threatening some severe violence, even though he had fired him some months before. The Organisation continued as a trio which improved Ginger's income to support his family: Liz, his wife and daughter Nettie with another on the way.

By early 1966 - Ginger was looking for a new path to success ie make more money. In 1964 he had jammed with Eric Clapton and was struck with the raw power of his young talent. In March ’66 he went down to Oxford to see the Bluebreakers, he sat in and after a short discussion, Eric agreed he'd like to join his band. There was one stipulation, Jack had to be the bass player. After some hesitation, Ginger agreed, ate humble pie and invited Jack on board.

The Drum Thing

* A Phil Seaman anecdote:

"West Side Story" opened in London in 1958 and it required a jazz drummer, not a classicaly trained percussionist who couldn't swing.   Problem was that the jazz drummer had to be a very good reader.  There was one drummer who could do it - Phil Seaman.  Despite the heroin and alcohol, the producers eventually hired him. 

Phil had a habit, half-effected, half-genuine of appearing to doze when he wasn't playing.  The conductor learn't to ignore it as Phil never missed a beat.  However one matinee the stand-in conductor panicked, fearing Phil had dropped off.  He gestured frantically to the bass player to wake him.  A sudden prod of the bow startled Seaman, who stood up and fell backwards over his drum stool into the Chinese Gong, resulting in a theatre filling reverberation that stopped the show. 

Seaman stood up, cleared his throat, and announced "Ladies and gentlemen, dinner is served."  The management promptly sacked him.

(Thanks to Mick Hamer for this story from his fascinating article on the swing beat "All that Jazz" in New Scientist, 23/30 Dec 2000)

Graeme Pattingale, 1999
Updated Jan 28, 2001, Graeme Pattingale, 2001

Principal Sources: John Platt, "Disraeli Gears", Chris Welch, "Cream: Strange Brew", Chip Stern and various Ginger Baker interviews.