In the early 1960’s, Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker were well-established London musicians who were known for their great proficiency. By 1966, they had known and/or played with each other a number of times and greatly respected each other’s abilities.
When drummer Baker asked Clapton to form a new band with him, Clapton agreed on the condition that Jack Bruce be the bassist. This was disturbing to Ginger as he and Bruce had played together in Bond’s group and for some reason, couldn’t stand each other. At one point, Baker even pulled a knife on Bruce. (Rumor has it that just before he passed away, Bruce called Baker on the phone, said “Fuck you, I’m dying,” and hung up.)
Clapton had to (for the second time) tell John Mayall he was leaving. (The first time he just arbitrarily left with a pick-up band and wound up in Greece. Long story.) But now this was where his (and the other guys’) career really took off. Hailed as a ‘supergroup’ (in the UK anyway initially), they immediately set out to come up with a newer, more free-form, improvisational style of playing.
But from what I’ve read about the band, there doesn’t seem to have been a master plan as to exactly what to play. Blues? Sure. Jazz? Certainly Clapton, for one, wasn’t a jazzer. So lacking any real direction, they decided to play songs that Bruce wrote with his non-band partner Pete Brown. Clapton, not having yet started writing songs, would suggest old blues numbers like Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful,” and Skip James’ “I’m So Glad.”
Clapton felt strongly that he wanted Steve Winwood to join the band to fill out the sound but the other guys shot him down. (Clapton admits that they overdubbed instruments regularly on their albums.)
Cream first played outdoors in July 1966 to 15,000 people at the Windsor Jazz and Blues Festival. (They weren’t even referred to as Cream, just by their individual names.) They played a bunch of blues songs and a few originals and went over well. (Check out the fairly obscure “Meet Me in the Bottom,” a tune that was in their set that day but subsequently disappeared.) But after that, they slogged up and down England like every other band, recording when they were able.
Their second release, “I Feel Free,” is not quite a blues, but it’s a good, upbeat rock/pop tune. (Interestingly, also the first song ever played by underground radio station WBCN in Boston, one of the key stations in American underground radio:)
As I relate in one of my Jimi Hendrix posts, it was around this time that Hendrix showed up, plugged in, jammed with Cream – and blew everyone away. “Jimi just went for it,” says Clapton. “He played the guitar with his teeth, behind his head, lying on the floor…. It was amazing, and it was musically great, too, not just pyrotechnics.”
Released in November 1967, Disraeli Gears (a play on a bicycle’s derailleur gears and the British prime minister), was the album that arguably put Cream over the top. The musical atmosphere had changed over the years and the so-called British Invasion had brought in a flood of great bands and players. Seemingly overnight, at least in America, musical prowess was at least as important – if not more so – than a great song.
I thought for a while about what tune to use from this album. But how could I not go with “Sunshine of Your Love?” It’s the perfect psychedelic 1967 Summer of Love song with Bruce’s great vocals, Baker’s powerful drumming and Clapton’s quote from the doo-wop song, “Blue Moon.”
But here’s the thing – you can listen to the studio recording any time. However, I stumbled on this live, not lip synched, performance from some Glen Campbell (!) TV show. Lord knows what his middle-of-the-road audience thought:
To say Cream were popular would be an understatement. Mega-popular. Their live shows were famous (or infamous) for long, freewheeling improvisations. This is one of the bands that inspired a generation to graduate from 3-minute pop songs and into listening to blues, psychedelic music and long, extended jams. Asked to describe their music, Clapton called it blues, ancient and modern.
Today, “jam bands” are somewhat of a niche, the genre having fallen out of favor, at least on a mass popularity scale. A lot of rock bands today don’t even have members who can solo or for that matter, even want to.
Personally, I loved hearing these guys take a song, stretch out and play it for all it was worth. I’ll still sometimes put Cream on in the car, drive around and just dig the sound. This music is, for me, a stepping stone to jazz. Not because they use jazz chords or progressions but because they improvise so freely.
This is a live version of “I’m So Glad,” released in February 1969 from their final album, Goodbye:
However, as much as we loved them and never wanted them to stop, Cream had other ideas. The music kept getting louder and longer and with all the incessant touring, the relationship between Baker and Bruce forced Clapton into a peacemaker role. And then Eric wanted out, largely for two reasons.
Reason number one is that he had heard the music of Dylan and, specifically, an early acetate of The Band’s Music from Big Pink. That’s what I want to do, he said. The Band were about as far away from blues and endless jamming as you could get. But by 1968, Clapton had had enough of the guitar virtuoso role. Or, as he came to call it, the pseudo-virtuoso.
Because the other thing that happened is that on a college gig in Boston, a Rolling Stone writer did a scathing review of Clapton’s playing. He said he could trace every one of Clapton’s licks back to various blues players and called him the “master of the blues cliche.” (Interestingly, while Clapton in his autobio talks about his obsessive love for Pattie Boyd and his drug addiction, he never once mentions this incident.)
This profoundly affected the already sensitive Clapton and together with his love for The Band’s music, made him want to quit Cream and go in another direction. (The reviewer – Jon Landau – six years later saw Bruce Springsteen at the Harvard Square Theater and famously pronounced, “I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.” Landau went on to become Springsteen’s producer and manager.)
And so Cream announced they would break up in May 1968 after two Royal Albert Hall concerts and a brief tour of the U.S. (The Albert Hall concert opening bands were Taste, with a young Irish guitarist named Rory Gallagher, and an up-and-coming band called Yes who didn’t even have an album out yet.) Some, including the band, think Cream’s final British shows were lackluster. Judge for yourself here. I think it smokes.
Goodbye was released in 1969 after the band’s breakup. It included the song “Badge,” co-written with Clapton’s chum, George Harrison. Harrison, for contractual reasons, appeared as L’Angelo Misteriso. Cream went their separate ways but reunited in 2005 for four shows at Royal Albert Hall. (Good album, killer version of “Stormy Monday.”)
Jack Bruce died of liver disease in 2014. I saw one of the very last Allman Brothers gigs that very night at the Beacon Theater in New York. Without saying a word, they played Cream’s song, “Politician.”
Cream were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993. They were included in both Rolling Stone and VH1’s lists of the “100 Greatest Artists of All Time.