Great Moments in Rock N’ Roll

by John Cipiti

John Cipiti

This Article Was Originally Published On: April 15th, 2016 #Issue 18

I’ve never been a nostalgic person, but it’s fun to look back every now and then at the formative years of musical experience. There is music that is sacred to us, and I would bet that most of us are able to recall the first time you heard a piece of music that affected you in such a way that it was nothing short of a life-altering experience.

I remember the first time I sat down with my Harmony acoustic guitar with the strings four inches from the twelfth fret to the top of the nut, and began the clumsy process of trying to figure out how to play the opening riff to Smoke on the Water on the low E string – had to get that low down and gritty sound, you know. Surprisingly, it took no time at all to dazzle my siblings with my flashy index finger work. Man, I thought I was the hottest thing going from the Cip’n Dip candy store on Fulton Street to Aunt Millie’s Thrift Shop at the end of Fifth, and when I killed it on the A string … Phewwww! I became an instant legend in my own mind.

I was the only one rip-snorting around the neighborhood with an acoustic guitar, and it was just a matter of time before I unveiled my latest weapon in the form of a bass. Once the kids got a load of that baby, they thought I was from another dimension. I never knew the make or model; the whole thing was void of lettering or numbers, but this only added to the mysterious nature. The case was a pathetic piece of flappy, wrinkled, and shredded cardboard that survived the wash, but spared the dryer. The body was a sickly Pepto-Bismol color, the fretboard had bigger divots than the back nine at Sun Valley, and the strings were so rusty, my mom thought I should get a tetanus shot, “just in case.” Still, lifting it out of the case for the first time was akin to Arthur pulling Excalibur out of the stone.

The second life-altering riff rolled out of my stereo speakers like the biblical flood, nearly shaking my Farah Fawcett poster off the north wall of my room. Fortunately, I executed a perfect swan dive between the clothes hamper at the foot of my bed while catching a corner of poster before the dresser drawer swallowed her up near the open east window. I could hear the neighbor lady yelling at me to turn it down. At first, I could not tell if it was a guitar or a bass playing that riff. After a few hearings, it dawned on me it was both, and what I heard was the bass playing a prominent roll with the riff. The song was Sunshine of Your Love, by Cream. Learning this tune took some doing, but I eventually got it, having to fight the poor action and not having an amp to play it through.

Jack Bruce bassist, pianist, vocalist, composer, had grown up poor in Scotland, where he never felt that he fit in. Bruce began playing professionally at the age of 15, and soon was making more money than his father. His first instrument was the cello, and he quickly showed an aptitude for music. At age 17, he earned a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music in London, where he also studied the piano as a second instrument, along with composition. He sang in his church choir as a young boy and would soon become an impeccable musician, able to play any style from classical, jazz, Latin, and blues. His wide-ranging talent would serve him well, but he would become famous for his expressive melodic bass lines that would anchor rock’s first super group.

Bruce dropped out of the Academy after three months and began playing in a trad jazz band in Glasgow, where he met Ginger Baker, the iconic drummer for Cream. This was the dawn of a forty-year love/hate relationship between the two. Bruce would eventually move to London in his late teens and play with the R&B pioneers Alexis Korner and the Graham Bond Organization, where the onstage arguments between Bruce and Baker would go from appalling to awful. The other members of the band, not able to go on performing with two guys who were constantly at each other’s throats, supposedly had a meeting where they devised a solution to the problem. Baker, who was suffering from heroin addiction at the time, was to let Bruce know that he was out of the band. “I was the only junkie in the group, so they gave me the job of telling him,” Baker would go on to say in a BBC Four documentary on the life of Jack Bruce. After being let go from the group, Bruce would join John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, a band that featured Eric Clapton on guitar. After a brief period with Manfred Mann, which turned out to be what Bruce called an “ill-advised attempt at commercialism,” where he was asked to perform one note bass lines on pop tunes, Jack would soon leave to join Clapton and Baker in the forming of Cream in 1966, which became a showcase for three of the hottest musicians in the London rock scene. Cream would herald the birth of a new kind of hard rock.

Before Bruce joined, Clapton had been talking with Baker about forming a band and asked what he thought of Jack Bruce joining the group. Clapton had heard Bruce’s bass playing and singing in his earlier bands, and thought he would be a perfect fit. The problem was, he did not know of the strained relationship between the two when he stated that he would do it only if Bruce came aboard. Baker grudgingly accepted the idea, not wanting to lose the opportunity to play with arguably the best guitar player on the scene. Though it may have seemed the two could not stand to be around one another, underneath the bickering, both men were in agreement when it came to respecting the other’s musical genius. They argued onstage and offstage, and would reportedly come to blows at the drop of a hat. Clapton would later say that he often felt like the caretaker for the band, and eventually it would become too much, and he split the band in 1968.

In the early days of Cream, with Bruce handling the vocals and the bulk of the songwriting, the band was introduced to the performance poet and lyricist Pete Brown, who in the mid-sixties was doing poetry readings in jazz and blues clubs. He met up with Bruce and Baker at the Marquee Club in London, where the two were impressed with Brown’s poetry, and they asked if he might be interested in creating some lyrics for the band. Bruce, along with Pete Brown, would write some of the band’s greatest songs, such as Sunshine of Your Love, I Feel Free, and White Room, along with many more. Brown’s contribution would later be scoffed at by Baker in the BBC Four documentary Jack Bruce: The Man Behind the Bass, (go online and watch this) saying the “Pete Brown thing was a farce. Pete earned more money out of Cream than Eric and I.”

Cream (1966-1968) is arguably the first super group in the truest sense of the word. They created for the world four records, selling 35 million copies, and went on to be a blueprint for every hard rock group that followed. As the band’s front man, Jack Bruce, with his powerful, almost operatic voice, moved the bass to the front of the stage for the first time in rock music and inspired a whole generation of ambitious musicians to pick up the electric bass. Before Jack Bruce, the role of the bass player in rock music was to stand in the background and deliver a never-ending stream of chord roots and fifths. Bruce came along and showed everyone the other possibilities that were available for the bass player. He made the bass cool, alive; something you had to have, touch, and hear.

After Cream had broken up, Jack went immediately into the studio and recorded Songs for a Tailor, his first solo album. It would go on to reach No. 6 on the album charts and featured Theme for an Imaginary Western, which he co-wrote with Pete Brown. Over the next ten years, Bruce would go on to record six more solo albums, but none of these efforts rose to the commercial success that he enjoyed with Cream. By the end of 1970s, he was in the throes of financial crises. He endured ongoing disputes with his financial manager over the royalties to the songs he had written and began to involve himself with hard drugs. Through the years, until the end of his life, he would continue to record new music, with excursions into jazz, funk, rock, and fusion.

I never had the privilege to meet Jack Bruce and was surprised at how difficult it was to find information on him, other than the usual “he-was-the-bass player-in-Cream” routine. What I do know is that after seeing him in the BBC documentary, he was a genuinely soft-spoken and gentle man whose talent and contribution to the history of rock-and-roll seems as of yet to not be fully written.