You might be tempted to think that this tribute to the former Cream-ster was precipitated by the recent death of Ginger Baker. Well, yes and no. Back in 2005, the band re-formed to play some shows at Royal Albert Hall. (Which, BTW, now they know how many holes it takes to fill.) A DVD and CDs were made from this extravaganze and they aired the show -or maybe part of it- on a cable channel a while back. I had DVR’d it and never gotten around to watching it.
I watched it the other day and was reminded not only of what a great bass player and songwriter Bruce was but also what a great singer. I loved his voice. It was unique, distinct and instantly recognizable. It was a key part of Cream’s sound.
So I thought to myself – why not do a tribute to Jack Bruce? And so here it is.
Brief bio from his website: Jack was born to musical parents in the shipbuilding city of Glasgow, Scotland on 14 May 1943. His parents traveled extensively in Canada and the U.S.A. Jack attended 14 different schools, finishing his formal education at Bellahouston Academy and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music, to which he won a scholarship for cello and composition. He left the Academy and his homeland at the age of 16, because of poverty and discouraged by his professors’ lack of interest in his ideas.
Jack traveled to Italy and then England, playing double-bass in dance bands and jazz groups, and joined his first important band in 1962 in London. This was Alexis Korner’s Blues Inc. for whom Charlie Watts played drums. Jack left Alexis in 1963 to form a group with organist Graham Bond, guitarist John McLaughlin, and drummer Ginger Baker.
This group became the seminal Graham Bond Organisation after John left, and saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith joined. Jack was compelled to leave this band after three years by Ginger Baker, who said his playing was “too busy”! (It’s well-known I think that Bruce and Baker did not get along, Ginger once even pulling a knife on Jack.)
I will now detour you over to my Cream post for that particular story if you haven’t already read it. Then come back over here. I’ll wait.
Ok, so, onward. While Bruce is certainly best-known – and revered- for his work in Cream, that band only lasted a couple of years and Bruce lived for another 44. He did a fair amount of playing post-Cream and as noted, prior to it.
Let’s kick this thing off with the aforementioned Graham Bond Organisation which in its heyday (early-to-mid ’60s) was a potent and original R&B and jazz band. Like the Yardbirds, it was an influential band whose greatest accomplishment was probably to be the cauldron for the greats mentioned above.
This tune, “Harmonica,” features Bruce, Baker, Bond and Heckstall-Smith. It’s a pretty good example of that kind of primitive, yet funky blues/R&B track that you hear so much of back in the early days of British rock. Weirdly it comes from a long-forgotten 1965 British sci-fi film called Gonks Go Beat. (Gonks were apparently a British novety toy of the time.)
Now you will enjoy the fact that our hardworking staff has scoured the globe and found the actual clip from the movie and yes, that’s Ginger on drums and Bruce (?) on harmonica. Crazy, man.
It might interest you to know that a while back fellow blogger, Canuck, and ice-hockey head (with a weakness for Tim Horton’s) Cincinnati Babyhead did a post on Bruce’s first solo album Songs for A Tailor. I knew of the album but as I said there, didn’t really know it. There’s some really nice stuff on there.
I’ll go here with “Rope Ladder to the Moon,” which is one of those odd, unclassifiable songs that Bruce liked to compose. Like his “As You Said,” for Cream, it’s got unusual jangly chords, cello (his other axe) and a strange, offbeat feel. A ballad it is not. Co-written with his lyricist Peter Brown.
Starting in the early ’80s, Bruce collaborated with guitar great Robin Trower. While few guitarists can complete in my affections with Eric Clapton, Trower comes damn close. Other than the fact that he does not sing I think that Trower could have fit in nicely with Cream which would have given a whole different Hendrix-influenced feel.
In 1981 they released an album called B.L.T, standing for Bruce, Lordan, Trower. Bill Lordan was a drummer in Trower’s band as well as Sly and the Family Stone. This is a tasty riff called “No Island Lost.”
I mentioned the Cream reunion and maybe it was this song – “We’re Going Wrong” – that inspired me to do this post. Purportedly it’s about Bruce’s relationship with his then-wife. Whatever, it’s another one of his non-ballad ballads, strange and powerful.
I recall reading that when Bruce sat in with an early Ginger Baker band, they tried to throw him off by playing some fast be-bop. Baker admitted they couldn’t do it and he kept right up with them. I think that no matter what genre he played, at heart Bruce saw himself as a jazzer.
And while Songs for a Tailor was released first, the album Things We Like was the first solo that he recorded. Joining him were John McLaughlin on guitar, Dick Heckstall-Smith on sax and Jon Hiseman on drums. If you only know Bruce for blues and blues-rock, this may surprise you.
This tune is called “Sam Enchanted Dick Medley.” (The Dick here seems to be Heckstall-Smith so get that thought out of your head.)
I’ll leave you with one more tune from Songs for a Tailor. I first heard “Theme for an Imaginary Western” when Mountain did it. Leslie West played some magnificent guitar on that version. To this day this is one of my favorite songs. It’s somewhat of a tribute to Bruce’s bandmates Dick Heckstall-Smith and Graham Bond who Bruce saw as cowboys.
Jack Bruce died on October 25, 2014, which just happened to be on the same night as the very last Allman Brothers show I saw at the Beacon in NYC. (They did two more after that then called it quits.) Without saying a single word about Bruce, the band that night launched into Bruce’s great “Politician.” I guess they figured you either got it or you didn’t.