Peter “Ginger” Baker was born on Aug. 19, 1939, in Lewisham, England. At the age 15 he started playing drums, and by the early ’60s he was taking lessons from Phil Seamen, one of England’s most respected jazz musicians.
Soon, he was in his first band, Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, where he met bassist Jack Bruce. Their relationship would prove to be both fruitful and tumultuous.
In 1966, Baker, Bruce and Eric Clapton would form Cream. The trailblazing trio would quickly become one of their generation’s most innovative bands, blending blues influences with hard rock sounds. The group made four albums together – Fresh Cream, Disraeli Gears, Wheels of Fire and Goodbye – but broke up in 1968 due to constant infighting between Baker and Bruce.
Clapton and Baker would again collaborate on their next project, Blind Faith. The supergroup, which also included Steve Winwood and bassist Ric Grech, was short-lived, releasing one album before disbanding.
Baker’s next step was to form Ginger Baker’s Air Force, a change in direction that allowed the drummer to flex his jazz muscles. The initial incarnation of the group lasted until 1971. At this point, Baker again set his sights on a new frontier, African music. The drummer spent several years working with afrobeat superstar Fela Kuti, developing a long-standing passion for African rhythms.
Baker brought this afrobeat influence to Baker Gurvitz Army in the mid-’70s, combining his eclectic percussive sounds with hard rock drones to create a new and distinctive style.
The ’80s and ‘90s found the drummer collaborating with a wide assortment of musicians, including prog-rock group Hawkwind, electronic artist Bill Laswell, hard-rockers Masters of Reality and post-punk band Public Image Ltd.
Cream was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993, an occasion that reunited the band to perform. The trio would later reassemble for a series of reunion shows in 2005, performing at Royal Albert Hall in London and New York’s Madison Square Garden.
They weren’t all happy times for Baker, who was routinely regarded as one of rock’s more curmudgeonly figures. Despite his continuous arguments with Bruce, Baker battled his own demons, including heroin addiction and serious money woes. In 2008, while living in South Africa, the legendary drummer found himself in court, having been conned out of more than $30,000 by a former employee.
Despite the occasional dramas, and his cantankerous personality, Baker, who died after an extended health battle at the age of 80 on October 6, 2019, will be remembered most for his music, a legacy of innovative work influencing endless amounts of future musicians.
Here’s a look back at his life and career through the years: