Cream – guitarist Eric Clapton, bassist Jack Bruce, and drummer Ginger Baker – were all members of the ’60s British blues scene. Clapton with the Yardbirds and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers; Bruce and Baker with Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated and the Graham Bond Organization.
When Alexis Korner’s musical partner in Blues Incorporated, Cyril Davies, died in 1964, Korner replaced him with Graham Bond, a British jazz saxophonist who resembled Pavarotti. Eventually, Bond left Korner and took Bruce and Baker with him to form his own band, the Graham Bond Organization (British jazz guitarist John McLaughlin was a brief member of the Organization, but was fired for his erratic playing style. McLaughlin found fame in the early ’70s when he started his own band, the jaw-dropping Mahavishnu Orchestra).
The Graham Bond Organization – Bond on organ/vocals; Bruce on bass/vocals; Baker on drums; Dick Heckstall-Smith on sax – released two albums in 1965: There’s A Bond Between Us and The Sound Of ’65. Both albums, full of a “Swinging London” jazz beat, contain remakes of blues/R&B standards as well as early versions of songs that would become Cream classics.
Tired of the ongoing arguments between he and Baker, Jack Bruce quit the Graham Bond Organization and jammed with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers while Clapton was still a member – do you see where this is going? – before briefly joining Manfred Mann (Bruce can be heard on their single “Pretty Flamingo”).
Ginger Baker, who admired Clapton’s work, wanted to form a band with Eric (Clapton had sat in with the Graham Bond Organization from time to time). Clapton, who admired Ginger’s work, was keen on the idea, and, unaware that Bruce and Baker didn’t get along, suggested Jack Bruce be the bassist. Unable to deny Jack’s musical skills, Baker agreed. The three got together, naming themselves Cream as each was the others’ favorite musician.
The first Cream LP, Fresh Cream, was released in Dec. 1966 in the UK and in Jan. 1967 in the US. It contains the classic “I Feel Free” and their first single, “Wrapping Paper,” as well as a handful of blues classics: “I’m So Glad” comes from the pen of Nehemiah “Skip” James, who wrote and recorded the original in February 1931 for Paramount Records. “Four Until Late” was recorded by Robert Johnson on June 19, 1937, for Vocalion as “From Four Until Late” (compare the beginning of both versions and you’ll clearly hear why I feel that ’20s and ’30s blues guitarists were playing rock riffs). “Rollin’ And Tumblin'” was first cut by Hambone Willie Newbern as “Roll And Tumble Blues” on March 14, 1929, for Okeh Records. It was remade in January 1950 by Muddy Waters, Little Walter and Baby Face Leroy for Parkway Records (not to be confused with the pop label Cameo/Parkway). The Parkway version is intense. Recorded in two parts, it features Muddy’s raw electric slide, Walter’s harmonica, and Baby Face Leroy’s rapid bass drum. It is this version that inspired Cream’s version. As Muddy was signed to Chess Records, Leonard Chess, having learned of Muddy’s association with Parkway, had Muddy recut “Rollin’ And Tumblin'” in February. Despite Leonard’s vow to release a superior version, it is clearly the Parkway version which is the more exciting of the two, as the Chess release featured only Muddy’s guitar with bass accompaniment. Fresh Cream also features Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful,” first cut by Howlin’ Wolf, also for Chess, in June 1960. Even by 1960 standards, the “spoonful” theme was not a new one: Charley Patton cut “A Spoonful Blues” at his debut session on June 14, 1929, and Charley Jordan cut “Just A Spoonful” in June 1930. Rounding out Fresh Cream’s blues covers is “Cat’s Squirrel,” cut by Doctor Ross for Sun Records in or around 1953 as “Cat Squirrel,” though it was not released at that time. The version cut by Cream, however, was molded from Ross’ 1959 remake for Fortune Records.
Note: The UK version of Fresh Cream contained “Spoonful” but omitted “I Feel Free” while the US version of the LP contained “I Feel Free” but omitted “Spoonful”. Both tracks are released on the CD edition the album.
Cream released their second LP, the classic Disraeli Gears, in November 1967. The album placed more emphasis on psychedelia – after all, the year was 1967 – but it was not without its blues influences.
Disraeli Gears contained the hits “Sunshine Of Your Love,” “Strange Brew,” and “Tales Of Brave Ulysses”. The source for Clapton’s solo in “Strange Brew” was taken note-for-note from bluesman Albert King’s “Oh, Pretty Woman,” cut on August 3, 1966 for Stax Records – one of the premier labels for ’60s soul.
“Outside Woman Blues,” also found on Disraeli Gears, is credited to Blind Joe Reynolds, who recorded the song circa November 1929 for Paramount. However, the song was first recorded by blues queen Ida Cox circa July 1926, also for Paramount, under the title ‘Fore Day Creep”. Cox sang the song again at Carnegie Hall on Christmas Eve, 1939 at the From Spirituals To Swing concert, which showcased the best of black and black-oriented music [Ida Cox: Complete Recorded Works In Chronological Order Volume 4. DOCD 5325].
Actually, there were two From Spirituals To Swing concerts. The first was held at the same location a year earlier, on December 23, 1938. Both shows were organized by blues/jazz enthusiast, record producer and talent scout John Hammond. It was the first time many of the artists appeared before a predominantly white audience. Robert Johnson was scheduled to perform but it was discovered that he was murdered. His replacement on the Carnegie Hall stage was vocalist/guitarist Big Bill Broonzy.
In 1999, Vanguard released the 3-CD boxed set From Spirituals To Swing, which features the best of both concerts plus a handful of studio sides (it was initially released as a two record set in 1959). The CD’s come with a reproduction of the program to the 1938 concert, which alone makes the set worth owning. It contains an essay written by Hammond and James Dugan entitled The Music Nobody Knows. It begins in a most interesting way: “The music that will be presented in New Masses’ [the sponsors of the show] From Spirituals To Swing program is rarely heard. To be sure, it is not rare, for America is rich with it, but serious audiences have neglected it, and it has had to find its followers among uncritical groups.” I feel this statement still holds much truth.
But getting back to Cream.
Cream were essentially two bands: a studio band and a live band. Their third album, Wheels Of Fire, released in August 1968, demonstrated this aspect in that it was released as a two-record set: the first LP was studio; the second, live. Live, Cream improvised endlessly, thus becoming an exciting hybrid of blues, jazz and rock. After all, the key element of jazz is improvisation.
The studio half contained the Cream classics “White Room,” “Pressed Rat And Warthog,” “Deserted Cities Of The Heart,” and “Politician,” plus the blues standards “Sitting On Top Of The World,” first recorded by black string band the Mississippi Sheiks in 1930, and Albert King’s “Born Under A Bad Sign,” recorded by King on May 17, 1967. The song was written by Stax artist William Bell and Booker T. Jones of Booker T. and the MG’s. Booker T. and the MG’s were the house band for Stax Records in addition to releasing hits of their own, most notably 1962’s “Green Onions”.
The live half of Wheels Of Fire featured an improvised, 16:39 version of “Spoonful” which builds a tension that never climaxes, leaving the listener riveted throughout and wanting more when it finally ends. “Crossroads,” recorded March 10, 1968, at Winterland in San Francisco, is also from this album. Robert Johnson first recorded this tune as “Cross Road Blues” on November 27, 1936.
The first Robert Johnson LP, King Of The Delta Blues Singers, released in 1961 – 23 years after his death at age 27 from poisoning on August 16, 1938, and not a week before the first From Spirituals To Swing concert the moment he learned he was to appear on the Carnegie Hall stage as stated in the program mentioned above – contains the alternate take of “Cross Road Blues,” making Cream’s version (and all other versions) molded after the “wrong” take, for lack of a better term. The version issued on 78rpm as Vocalion 03519, ends with the lyric “And I went to the crossroad, mama… I looked east and west… I went to the crossroad, baby… I looked east and west… Lord, I didn’t have no sweet woman… Ooh-well, babe, in my distress” as opposed to the far more famous “You can run, you can run… tell my friend-boy Willie Brown… you can run… tell my friend-boy Willie Brown… Lord, that I’m standin’ at the crossroad, babe… I believe I’m sinkin’ down.” Cream’s version has not been edited as has often been speculated.
I should state that the “Willie Brown” mentioned above was a contemporary of Delta bluesmen Charley Patton and Son House. Willie Brown recorded two country blues classics, “M & O Blues” and “Future Blues,” on May 28, 1930, in Grafton, Wisconsin – the same session that produced Son House’s first masterpieces. Charley Patton, also in attendance, cut four songs that day.
Also worth mentioning is the fact that it was the duet of Son House and Willie Brown whom Robert Johnson followed, watched perform, and tried to imitate when the two older musicians took breaks only to be ridiculed for his lack of talent. Later, Robert Johnson astounded House with his guitar skills; attained, Robert said, by selling his soul to the Devil. The location this “exchange” took place? The crossroads, of course.
Cream disbanded in 1968. Contributing factors were Bruce and Baker’s ongoing arguments, the ever-increasing volume of Cream’s live performances (which damaged Baker’s hearing), and, most significantly, a scathing review in Rolling Stone that attacked the group in general and Clapton specifically. There was also Music From Big Pink, the 1968 debut of the Band. Music From Big Pink is an album of well-written, straightforward songs played by multi-talented musicians which made the members of Cream rethink their own motives. After hearing Music From Big Pink, Cream felt that what they were doing was pointless. This writer hardly thinks so.
Cream played their final US gig in Providence, Rhode Island and their farewell gig at the Royal Albert Hall on November 27, 1968. The latter was filmed by the BBC and is available on DVD.
Despite disbanding in 1968, Cream did release one more album: Goodbye.
Like Wheels Of Fire before it, Goodbye, released in March 1969, was split between live and studio tracks. The album opens with a furious nine minute jam on Skip James’ “I’m So Glad,” recorded live on October 19, 1968, at the Forum in Los Angeles. James, who died of cancer a year later, on October 3, 1969, at age 67, said of “I’m So Glad” after learning of Cream’s rendition: “That piece is absolutely gonna stand.” Also from the October 19th show is “Sitting On Top Of The World”. Credited to Howlin’ Wolf, this version is far more exciting than its studio counterpart found on Wheels Of Fire. Among Goodbye’s studio tracks is the radio-friendly “Badge,” written by Clapton with George Harrison.
In June 1970 (the month and year yours truly was born) and June 1972 came Live Cream and Live Cream, Volume 2, respectively. Live Cream features a fiery version of “Rollin’ And Tumblin’,” recorded March 7, 1968, at the Fillmore West in San Francisco. It also features one studio track, “Lawdy Mama,” an outtake from the 1967 Disraeli Gears sessions. The original was recorded on July 8, 1935, as “Hey Lawdy Mama” by Bumble Bee Slim for Decca Records. Live Cream, Volume 2 includes a 13:29 version “Stepping Out,” recorded at the same gig that gave us “Crossroads”. It is largely a showcase for Clapton in that he solos without bass/drum accompaniment throughout most of the recording. Cream’s BBC version of “Stepping Out,” released in 1988 on Eric Clapton’s 4-CD boxed set Crossroads and in 2003 on Cream’s BBC Sessions, is mighty fine, also. The original “Stepping Out” was done by blues pianist Memphis Slim and released on his Vee-Jay LP At The Gate Of Horn in 1959. Despite the title, the album is a studio release.
In 1991, Cream were inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame. The group performed three songs, which proved to be an emotional reunion. In May 2005, Cream played four shows at the Royal Albert Hall, the sight of their farewell gig 37 years earlier. They also played New York’s Madison Square Garden. In 2005, a DVD and a 2-CD set were released of the Royal Albert Hall performances. The CD contains Cream classics and blues standards, including a tune never recorded by Cream in their 1960s prime: “Stormy Monday,” recorded by electric blues guitarist T-Bone Walker in 1947. The new releases show that, while the fire has dimmed a bit, the magic never left.
Cream ended two years before I was born, but I smile just knowing that Baker, Bruce and Clapton toured together during my adulthood.
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Photo: Public Domain