Jack Bruce, the cream that came to the top

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Bass players are often given short shrift in the public perception. Without the perceived mystique of guitarists and singers, or the berserk ferocity of famed drummers such as Keith Moon, they are often unfairly left to languish by the side of the stage, basking in reflected glory.

Not so Jack Bruce, who sadly passed away from liver disease on October 25 at age 71. His undeniable talent and vision refused to be shunted off stage to be left to noodle aimlessly, but fought tooth and nail for its share of the limelight. In the foreword to Bruce’s biography Jack Bruce Composing Himself, Eric Clapton reflected on the first time he found himself playing with the then 22-year-old bassist in the pressure cooker atmosphere of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers circa 1966, “My life was never the same again… It was not volume, or technique, or virtuosity that defined Jack’s presence onstage. It was his obvious desire to make the most out of every musical opportunity…. The music, and the experience of playing it, took me to another dimension.”

Born in Scotland on May 14, 1943 Bruce was a childhood prodigy who won a scholarship to study cello at Bellahouston Academy in Glasgow. Bruce had been a part of the burgeoning London R&B scene since 1962 when, throwing his classical training aside, he joined Alexis Korner’s group Blues Incorporated. It was in this group that he began his association with a wildman of a drummer named Ginger Baker with whom he went on to play  in the Graham Bond Association. The two would do much of their best work together but their relationship could politely be described as ‘tense’, or more accurately summed up by the fact that Ginger Baker once pulled a knife on Bruce simply because his playing was “too busy” and distracted from Baker’s drum solos, before throwing him out of the band (perhaps physically).

After his stint in the Bluesbreakers with Clapton he spent a mercifully brief time in Manfred Mann (an experience he found mortifying, anyone who has ever heard Manfred Mann can doubtlessly empathise) this was followed by Baker re-establishing contact (sans knife) to ask whether he would join a proposed trio, alongside Clapton fresh out of the Yardbirds, named Cream.  It’s a sign of the respect that the musicians had for each other’s talents (if not each other) that even after the knife incident the pair were still willing to work together.

It’s an unfortunate irony that supergroups are rarely super. Rather disparate stars fusing into a rock supernova, they are instead often little more than damp squibs with the titanic egos of each member homogenising the music down to a creative common denominator. Cream was one of the first supergroups and may have been the only one whose music rose to a greatness that outshone each member’s previous successes rather than the usual, ‘oh…yeah, that’s…pretty good I guess,’ drabness that most supergroups seem doomed to wallow in.

Initially formed as an attempt to play uncompromised electric blues, the band soon found themselves stretching the definition of blues to breaking point. Jazz and Psychedelia had as much to do with their sound as Blues and, played live, their compositions grew into mammoth earthshaking jams with songs often lasting upwards of 40 minutes (the debate as to whether this is a good thing or the aural equivalent of Chinese water torture still rages on). Bruce wrote and sang most of the songs, including I Feel Free, White Room, Politician and Sunshine Of Your Love.  This again caused tension with Baker who felt that his own efforts were not being recognised by the writing credits. In addition Bruce was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with how far the band had digressed from its original conception.

These tensions soon led the band to fracture in 1968, after just two and a half years (thankfully without anybody getting knifed) whilst, arguably, at the height of their powers. The four albums they released  (including Wheels of Fire, the first album ever to hit Platinum) have cast a long shadow over the future of rock even though, unfortunately, it did open the door to the hour long drum solo.

In the years following Cream’s dissolution, Bruce committed to a deeply idiosyncratic path, recording solo albums such as Songs for a Tailor in between brief team ups into power-trios such as West, Bruce and Laing and BBM (which also featured Ginger Baker, continuing their abusive relationship). Unsurprisingly BBM suffered the fate of every Baker-Bruce project in that it was acrimonious, volatile and lasted about five seconds.

In 2003 Bruce was diagnosed with liver cancer and whilst he received a transplant, his body initially rejected it leaving him seriously ill for a long period. Two years later Cream reunited for a run of shows at the Royal Albert Hall and Madison Square Gardens where Bruce was still seeming noticeably fragile, before the reunion came to an abrupt halt due to tensions with Baker, surprising precisely no-one.

Bruce was honoured in 2011 with the prestigious International Bassist award previously only awarded to Jaco Pastorius and Nathan Watts and in 2013 released Silver Rails his first solo album in a decade. He was looking forward to getting back in the studio when his condition worsened. He died surrounded by his family at his home in Suffolk, undoubtedly one of the greatest bassists of all time.

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