Cream was the first grownup music I listened to. It was the fall of 1971, and I had picked up the group’s first live album for 99 cents in a local store’s cut-out bin. Until then, I’d listened to some good bands and artists—Jethro Tull, Jefferson Airplane, Allman Brothers, Zappa—but Cream had me hooked after the first song on the album, “NSU,” as Baker, Bruce and Clapton fought a sonic gunfight against one another for 10 breakneck minutes. They seemed miles ahead of the music I was listening to. Live Cream was—and still is—a remarkable record, capturing the band’s incendiary sound during its extensive improvisations.
At the time, I paid the most attention to drummers in the music I listened to. Cream had a great one: Peter “Ginger” Baker. Cream had a great guitarist too, Eric Clapton, and one listen to Live Cream had me wanting to hear more of him. Jack Bruce was an afterthought.
Until one day, when I was listening to “Crossroads” from the band’s double-disc Wheels of Fire (the first-ever platinum album). I noticed that at the start of the song, Bruce was going note for note with Clapton, matching Clapton’s dynamic playing with his lower-register prowess. And when their playing paths diverged, what Bruce was playing was as compelling as Clapton was playing during Slowhand’s solos. It was a remarkable thing to hear. Suddenly, I began to focus on Bruce, largely because I hadn’t realized a bass could be played with such dexterity and authority.
Jack Bruce’s musical career spanned more than 50 years. Think of it: 50 years! He was a mainstay on the British blues circuit in the very early ’60s; joined Clapton and Baker for Cream, a shooting star of a group that burned brightly and briefly; worked with Leslie West and Corky Laing of Mountain to put out an album called Why Doncha, which features an unfettered Bruce in full form; and later performed with Lou Reed on the Berlin album, Frank Zappa on Zappa’s Apostrophe LP, and the Golden Palominos on Blast of Silence, to name just a few of the bands and artists he played with. Along the way, he put out an array of solo albums that I bought: Songs for a Tailor, Things We Like, Harmony Row and Out of the Storm. And that’s just the stuff in my collection; I didn’t need to go to Wikipedia to look any of this up. Rather, it shows how much Jack Bruce was part of the music I loved.
What impressed me most about him, though, was his singing. You’ve heard it: “White Room,” “Tales of Brave Ulysses,” “Sunshine of Your Love,” “Spoonful,” “Born Under a Bad Sign”—man, he had serious pipes. The studio version of “Spoonful” is a tour de force. “Born Under a Bad Sign” shows how mighty Cream was when the three of them played together instead of taking off on their own, as they did in their live recordings.
And Bruce wasn’t just a bassist. He played guitar, piano, harmonica, organ, and cello, and he worked with the poet Pete Brown to write most of Cream’s songs. He didn’t just play rock and blues; his worked spanned a variety of musical genres. And the list of the great musicians he played with over his career is a veritable who’s who.
His powerful voice lost its higher range the older he became; on the Jack Bruce and His Big Band record from a few years ago, you can hear him straining. But his fingers never abandoned him, nor did his sense of the instrument. Go online and look for photos of him. In a great many of them, he’s playing a fretless bass with a neck as long as an aircraft carrier. When Cream formed, he played a six-string bass. And this was in the late ’60s. It was unheard of.
I heard the news of his death as I was walking past my living room tonight. Sherry had the NBC Nightly News broadcast on, and suddenly I heard Bruce’s familiar intro to Cream’s song “Badge.” I poked my head into the room, and I could tell by the way Lester Holt was talking that Bruce had died.
I am bummed, not only as a music fan, but also as a wannabe bassist. I play a Gibson SG because it looks like the Gibson EB-3 Bruce used to play with Cream, and in the blues ensemble course I take, I asked that we perform “Born Under a Bad Sign” one semester so I could play a simplified version of Bruce’s bass line.
I’ve been listening to Jack Bruce for over 40 years. Rock ‘n’ Roll is a world full of unearned superlatives, but I have no fear of being accused of hype when I say that Jack Bruce was among the very best musicians of his time.
Categories: Music/Popular Culture