Baker was born to a blue-collar family in South London during WWII. He took up drums as a teen and quickly developed an aptitude out of sheer restlessness. Known for showy solos, jazz-fueled fills and frequent tantrums, Baker’s earliest work was with guitarist Diz Disley, who parted ways with the drummer when an 18-year-old Baker set fire to a hotel room they were staying in while on tour in Europe.
From there, Baker joined Blues Incorporated and The Graham Bond Organization, absorbing blues shuffles and straight-ahead pocket drumming. Both outfits featured a young Jack Bruce on bass, who would join him in founding Cream along with Eric Clapton in 1966. The iconic, albeit short-lived, union produced four albums, pioneered the psyche aesthetic, and established the power trio configuration that would provide an early framework for Jimi Hendrix, who infamously (and unintentionally) sent Clapton packing for the night after sitting in with the band at Central London Polytechnic.
By 1971, Cream had disbanded and Baker had built a studio in Lagos, Nigeria, where locals and internationally-renowned musicians would record. While in Lagos, Baker regularly performed with afrobeat superstar, Fela Kuti, and recorded a live album with the icon. “He understands the African beat more than any other westerner,” said Tony Allen, Kuti’s longtime drummer.
Though he was prone to outbursts and notoriously difficult to work with (detailed in the 2012 documentary Beware of Mr. Baker,) the rest of Baker’s life was defined by a profoundly collaborative spirit. He’d play with jazz giants — including, but not limited to, Max Roach, Art Blakey, and Elvin Jones — and founded the prog-rock ensemble, Baker-Gurvitz Army, with brothers, Paul and Adrian Gurvitz, releasing three albums on Janus and ATCO.
Baker is survived by his three children, Kofi, Leda and Ginette. Amongst musicians, he is remembered as a versatile and eccentric drummer, a hub for distant rhythmic traditions, and a bridge between them.
You can watch Baker and Fela perform together in the clip below.