A “supergroup” is a band whose members are already rock stars, either individually or with other music groups. Supergroups tend to contain temperamental musical geniuses whose interpersonal skills lag behind their musical abilities. A prime example is the music group Cream, who in 1969 was christened the first supergroup by Rolling Stone magazine.
The best known member of Cream is Eric Clapton, the legendary guitar hero who still fills arenas today, more than forty-five years after he co-founded Cream in 1966.
Back in the day Clapton was the featured guitar player in John Mayall’s Blues Breakers. One of Eric’s band mates was bass player John McVie. Both men thought the Blues Breakers were in a rut, and were looking for greener pastures. McVie left the Blues Breakers to become the “Mac” in Fleetwood Mac. When Ginger Baker sat in on a Blues Breakers gig in Oxford, he and Clapton began talking about forming their own group.
Rock and roll has never been short on characters. One of the larger characters of his time was Peter Edward “Ginger” Baker – nicknamed Ginger for the color of his red hair. Baker had a deserved reputation as an excellent, versatile drummer who could bang and thump with the best rock bands but preferred drumming to jazz. After the Oxford gig Baker asked Clapton about starting their own band.
Clapton was up for it, with one condition: that Scottish bass player Jack Bruce join their band. Born John Symon Asher Bruce, Jack (as he was known) was a multi-instrumentalist savant who could write songs and sing lead vocals. Like Baker and Clapton, Jack Bruce was a gifted musician. Clapton met him when Bruce played bass in the Blues Breakers for a short time. Clapton was impressed with Bruce’s musicality: "I knew how good he was from then on. He sang a couple of things and they were really great. He was a natural first choice for any group I might dream about forming."
The only problem was that Baker and Bruce had a history with each other. Both played in the group the Graham Bond Organisation, and developed an instant, strong aversion to each other. Jack Bruce recalled a gig where he thought Baker was drumming too loudly:
'I said "Shhhhhhh..." and he started throwing drumsticks at me, hitting me on the head. So I took my bass, lifted it, and chucked it at him. That demolished that, and we were rolling around the stage fighting. We punched the hell out of each other on stage.”
Baker fired Bruce, but Bruce refused to recognize the termination because Baker was not leader of the band. Baker insisted that Graham Bond told him to fire Bruce. Bruce didn’t believe him. Bruce kept showing up for gigs in defiance of Baker’s attempts to pink slip him - until the night Ginger pulled a knife on Jack. Bruce tendered his resignation on the spot and quickly left.
Clapton was insistent about having Jack Bruce in their new band, so Baker sounded Bruce out about it. The two decided to put aside their difficulties for the opportunity of playing in a band with the twenty-one year old guitar phenom Eric Clapton. Clapton named the group Cream, as befitting their stellar musical reputations.
All was well until the three had to be in the same room together to practice. Then the animosity between Baker and Bruce ignited once more. The age old complaint was that one was playing too loudly for the other to be heard. Although Baker and Bruce formed one of most explosive rhythm sections the rock world has ever known, they had a tendency to explode on each other. Early on Eric Clapton inherited the thankless role of peacemaker.
Cream was an immediate commercial and critical success. Much of their music was written and sung by Bruce. Clapton’s influence added some standard blues songs to Cream’s playlist. The band’s sound was loud, and they played very fast. Rock critic Dave Marsh called Cream “the fastest, loudest, most overpowering blues-based rock ever heard, particularly onstage.”
Their first album, Fresh Cream, featured “Toad,” one of the first drum solos in rock history. The band’s second album, Disraeli Gears, is considered the band’s definitive musical statement: "Tales of Brave Ulysses" and "Sunshine of Your Love" are the best known tracks. The band toured America and album sales skyrocketed.
Cream’s third effort was a double album, Wheels of Fire. Released in 1968, it was the first platinum album in music history. Wheels featured “White Room”, “Born Under A Bad Sign,” and “Crossroads,” an old blues song Clapton transformed with a memorable, positively scorching guitar solo. Cream's tours consisted of very long renditions of album songs, which allowed all band members to showcase their talents. Clapton would later admit that at this point the band was “showing off.”
In three short years Cream had sold 15 million records, an unheard of feat at the time. The strain of constant touring, the drug element, dueling egos, and continual bitter arguments over volume, money, and song credits finally curdled Cream. The band announced their dissolution, then went on a farewell tour and issued a farewell album. Both were, once again, commercial and critical successes. Then it was over. Cream was no more, and band mates fled as far away from each other as possible.
In 1993 Cream was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They had not seen each other in 25 years, but the group performed a small set of songs for the ceremony. More years passed. Jack Bruce almost died when his liver failed. Ginger Baker was sucking on morphine inhalers and playing polo in Africa.
Clapton kicked heroin and alcohol, and became a living legend as a guitar player. In 2005 Clapton persuaded Baker and Bruce to perform a series of shows at London’s Royal Albert Hall and New York’s Madison Square Garden.The shows at Royal Albert Hall were magic. Cream played revamped versions of their greatest hits, and it seemed like the 1960’s all over again. All the men were happy playing the music they loved.
The MadisonSquareGarden shows were a regression to the squabble days. Baker was convinced Bruce was trying to deafen him by playing the bass too loud. The shows were proficient but uninspired.
Presently the three men are on different continents. In 2009 Jack Bruce was interviewed by Rolling Stone, and joked that even though he lived in England and Baker lived in South Africa, he was thinking of asking Baker to move: “He’s still a bit too close.”
Baker, predictably, continues to curse out Bruce to anyone who will listen. He is seventy now, and professes amazement that he is still alive: “God is punishing me for my past wickedness by keeping me alive and in as much pain as he can.” He insists he will never reform with Cream because of Jack Bruce.
So it goes. In Cream genius and pettiness were marbled, resulting in unique musical intensity, virtuoso performances, and incessant bickering and backbiting. In their short career Cream made legendary music. They are the first supergroup.
Clapton autobiography, 2007, Clapton: The Autobiography. New York, United States: Broadway Books.
Wikipedia entries for: Cream; Eric Clapton; Jack Bruce; and Ginger Baker.
"Eddie's Cream Page" is a must visit - it is a comprehensive overview of Cream's career, and has some of the anecdotes I used.