#454: I Feel Free by Cream
Peter Edward “Ginger” Baker was born in 1939 in South London. He excellent at British football in his teens. At age fifteen he began to play drums and took lessons from iconic British jazz drummer Phil Seaman. In 1962 Baker joined Blues Incorporated along with Jack Bruce and others who played at the London Blues and Barrelhouse Club. In 1963, Baker was one of the founding members of a jazz/rhythm & blues band, called The Graham Bond Organisation, spelled the British way. Jack Bruce also joined the band. The band appeared in the 1965 UK film Gonks Go Beat, which also featured Lulu and the Nashville Teens.
John Symon Asher Bruce was born in 1943 in Lanarkshire, the lowlands of Scotland. He learned to play the cello in high school and played in school jazz bands. After leaving school he toured Italy, playing double bass with the Murray Campbell Big Band. While they were in several bands together, Baker and Bruce didn’t get along very well. And in 1965, Jack Bruce left The Graham Bond Organisation for John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers. It was with this band that Bruce met Eric Clapton.
Eric Patrick Clapton was born in 1945 in Ripley, Surrey, 25 miles southwest of London. He was given a guitar for his thirteenth birthday. By age sixteen he was busking with his guitar in the West End of London, and several suburbs. When he turned seventeen Clapton joined a band called the Roosters. An opportunity to join the Yardbirds came in October 1963, and Eric jumped at the invitation. Clapton stayed with the Yardbirds to record their first major hit “For Your Love”, in early 1965. Due to a more pop-music oriented direction, Clapton left the Yardbirds to briefly join John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers. But Clapton was still not settled. In 1965, he collaborated with Jimmy Page and others billed as The Immediate All Stars. In 1966, he went on with Jack Bruce and Steve Winwood to form Eric Clapton and the Powerhouse. In July 1966, Eric Clapton was invited by Ginger Baker to join him with Jack Bruce to be part of their new band called Cream.
In their lineup, Jack Bruce provided lead and backing vocals, bass guitar, keyboards, piano, harmonica, cello and acoustic guitar. Eric Clapton provided lead and rhythm guitars, backing and lead vocals. And Ginger Baker anchored the band with drums, percussion, backing and lead vocals. In 1966 Cream performed 74 concerts. In the fall of 1966, Cream went to the recording studio and in December 1966 released their debut album, Fresh Cream. Though it was not included on the UK pressing, the first track on Side One of the North American album was a song titled “I Feel Free”.
“I Feel Free” was written by Peter Brown, with music by Jack Bruce. Ginger Baker provided the lead vocals on the record, though Jack Bruce provided vocals for the opening “bomb, bomb, bomb, ba-bomp, bomp, I feel free…” The song is a brilliant fusion of blues and psychedelic pop-rock. The psychedelic lyrics offer up paradoxes: “I can walk down the street, there’s no one there/Though the pavements are one huge crowd,” and “Dance floor is like the sea/Ceiling is the sky.” The song offers a shift in perception, inviting the listener to consider what is real and what is possible. The song equally concerns a synchronicity between two people who are romantically focused on each other: “You, you’re all I want to know, I feel free.” When the couple are on the dance floor together, the singer observes “we move like the sea.” They have a rhythm in their dance that ebbs and flows, and keeps them in perpetual motion.
Psychedelic pop-rock was an “in” genre at the time “I Feel Free” was on the pop chart in Vancouver. Other examples of psychedelic pop-rock in the mid to late ’60s include The Electric Prunes “I Had Too Much To Dream” (#3 Vancouver/#11 Billboard), The Count Five’s “Psychotic Reaction” (#1 Vancouver/#5 Billboard), The Castaways “Liar Liar” (#4 Vancouver/#12 Billboard), The Seeds “Can’t Seem To Make You Mine” (#2 Vancouver/#41 Billboard), Canned Heat’s “On The Road Again” (#2 Vancouver/#16 Billboard), Blue Cheer’s “Summertime Blues” (#4 Vancouver/#14 Billboard), The Mojo Men’s “Sit Down I Think I Love You” (#2 Vancouver ~ #36 Billboard), “Time Won’t Let Me” by the Outsiders (#2 Vancouver/#5 Billboard), the Standells “Why Pick On Me” (#12 Vancouver ~ #54 Billboard), “Pushin’ Too Hard” by The Seeds (#3 Vancouver/#36 Billboard), “Open Up Your Door” by Richard and the Young Lions (#2 Vancouver/#99 Billboard), “The Witch” by The Sonics (#2 Vancouver/did not chart on Hot 100), “I Want Candy” by the Strangeloves (“#4 Vancouver/#11 Billboard), “Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White” by the Standells (#7 Vancouver/#43 Billboard), “A Question Of Temperature” by the Balloon Farm (#7 Vancouver/#37 Billboard), “Looking At A Baby” by the Collectors (#8 Vancouver/did not chart Hot 100), “Lydia Purple” by the Collectors (#7 Vancouver/did not chart Hot 100) and Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” (#1 Vancouver/#8 Billboard). And leading the pack were the Beatles with tracks from their Revolver album like “Norwegian Wood” and everything from their Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album.
Familiar elements of psychedelic pop included “trippy” effects such as fuzz guitars, tape manipulation, sitars, backwards recording, and Beach Boys-style harmonies blended with pop, resulting in melodic songs with tight song structures. The style lasted into the early 1970s. In “I Feel Free” the tight vocal harmonies of Baker, Bruce and Clapton made the song a potentially commercially successful tune. The euphoric acclamation of having achieved the feeling of freedom, gave the song an unabashed jubilance. This upbeat tone was one element of psychedelic pop. In contrast, songs like “Smashed Blocked” by John’s Children (#13 Vancouver/#102 Billboard) and “Frustration” by the Painted Ship (#7 Vancouver/ did not chart Hot 100) were strictly psychedelic (and not psychedelic pop) because of the disoriented mayhem it evoked, with no positive “trippy” outcomes.
“I Feel Free” peaked at #4 in Vancouver (BC) and #10 in Worcester (MA). The song got no radio play in 39 states across the USA and stalled at #116 on the Billboard Hot 100 in December 1967, nine months after its peak in Vancouver (BC). Yet, in England it peaked at #11 on the UK charts. Cream’s next single on the pop charts in Vancouver was “Strange Brew”, was a minor hit in June ’67.
As “I Feel Free” was climbing the pop chart on CKLG in Vancouver, Cream went to the studio and recorded Disraeli Gears. The album became a huge breakthrough for the band across North America in the winter of 1967-68. Cream was also involved in a grueling schedule of 172 concert and TV appearances. in 1967. Disraeli Gears topped the album charts in Australia and Finland, and climbed to #4 in the USA. In 1999 Disraeli Gears was given a Grammy Hall of Fame award for Historical/Lasting Rock Album. The hit single from the album, “Sunshine Of Your Love” peaked at #5 on the Billboard Hot 100, #1 in Hamilton (ON), Toronto and Edmonton (AB), and #2 in Calgary (AB) and Windsor (ON). But in Vancouver the single didn’t make the pop chart.
On June 2, 1968, Cream performed in concert at the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver. In July Cream made an official announcement that the band would breakup after the current tour of North America was over. Between January and June 1968, Cream had given ninety performances. Then, in August 1968 Cream released a double album titled Wheels Of Fire. The album topped the US and Canadian album charts, and peaked at #2 in France and #3 in the UK. The album included two hit singles, “White Room” and “Crossroads.” Both songs charted into the Top Ten in Vancouver, with “White Room” peaking at #4 and “Crossroads” climbing to #8. The band performed on nine more occasions on their final tour between October 4th and 19th.
Cream was persuaded to go back to the studio to make one more album. The outcome was the Goodbye album released in February 1969. It topped the UK album charts and climbed to #2 on the Billboard 200 album chart. Although the single from the album, “Badge” peaked at #2 in Vancouver, it stalled at #60 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Cream split in early 1969, which happened to coincide with the breakup of Traffic. Clapton and Baker from Cream, joined Steve Winwood and Ric Grech from Traffic to form Blind Faith. Their self-titled debut album, Blind Faith, proved to be their only trip to the recording studio. The album was one of ten that topped the Billboard 200 album chart in 1969. It was also a huge international seller exceeding 8 million in sales. However, after touring in the summer of ’69, Blind Faith split up that October.
When Blind Faith went on tour in 1969, Clapton invited Delaney & Bonnie to be the opening act. And he also performed with them. After Blind Faith split, Clapton continued to perform with them in Delaney, Bonnie & Friends. In December 1969 Clapton was in the recording studio with Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett, George Harrison, Rita Coolidge, Dave Mason and others. The outcome was an album titled On Tour with Eric Clapton, which included the hit single “Only You Know And I Know”. Clapton also appeared on their sixth album released in 1972 titled D&B Together. Concurrently, in 1970 Eric Clapton formed Derek and the Dominos. They released “Layla” from their sole studio album in 1970. Initial sales were weak. However, the song became Top Ten hit in 1972, despite its length of seven minutes and eight seconds. “Layla” climbed into the Top Ten in Canada, Ireland, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, the UK and USA. It had its best chart run in Puerto Rico where it peaked at #1. The song won Eric Clapton a Grammy Hall of Fame award in 1998 for a Historical/Lasting Rock Single. The 1970 album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs also won Eric Clapton a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 2000 for Historical/LastingRock Album.
In addition, Eric Clapton pursued a solo career. In 1970 he released a self-titled debut album which included the single “After Midnight”. But he struggled with heroin addiction and retreated from the spotlight for a few years. In 1974 he went back to the studio and released 461 Ocean Boulevard. The album gave him a number one hit single “I Shot The Sheriff”, a cover of a 1973 record by Bob Marley. The single won Clapton a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 2003 as a Historical/Lasting Rock Single. And in 1977, on his fifth studio album, he had success with “Lay Down Sally” and “Wonderful Tonight”. Through the 80s, Eric Clapton was mostly successful on the Mainstream Rock charts. Still, he managed on Top Ten hit on the Billboard Hot 100 that decade with his 1981 release of “I Can’t Stand It”.
But it was the 1990s where Eric Clapton re-emerged to top the pop charts for the first time. In 1991 he penned “Tears In Heaven”. The song was about the death of Clapton’s four-year-old son, Conor. On March 20, 1991, Conor died after falling from the 53rd-floor window of a New York City apartment belonging to a friend of Conor’s mother. The single won Clapton three Grammy Awards in 1993: Record of the Year, Song of the Year and Beset Male Pop Vocal Performance. He also won at the February 1993 Grammys Album of the Year for Unplugged, and Best Rock Song for his acoustic version of “Layla”. At the 1997 Grammys, Clapton won both Record of the Year and Best Male Pop Vocal Performance for “Change The World”. And in “My Father’s Eyes” won him a Grammy Award for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance. Over the decades Eric Clapton has recorded 21 studio albums, released 26 singles and 14 live albums. Eric Clapton has been nominated/considered for 42 Grammy Awards since 1969, and has been awarded 22 Grammy Awards. Among his other awards, Clapton won in the Best Traditional Blues Album category for From The Cradle (1995) and Riding with the King (2001). He also won a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album in 2008 for The Road to Escondido. Among his many nominations for a Grammy Award is one for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal for his 1994 recording of “My Back Pages“.
After Blind Faith split, Ginger Baker formed Ginger Baker’s Air Force, with Steve Winwood, Ric Grech and others. The short-lived jazz-fusion band recorded two albums. Baker established a recording studio in Lagos, Nigeria in 1971 where Paul McCartney and Wings recorded Band On The Run. In 1974 Baker formed Baker Gurvitz Army, a Jazz-Afrobeat band. After one of the Nigerian musicians died in a plane crash in 1976, the band broke up. Through the 1980s, Ginger Baker lived on his olive farm in Tuscany and retreated from music. He also finally kicked a heroin habit he’d developed playing at jazz clubs in London in the mid-60s. In 1993 Baker formed a trio with Jack Bruce and Gary Moore called BBM, who released one album. He had problems with U.S. immigration due to his past drug history. After living in Colorado between 1993 an 1999 he returned to Europe.
Jack Bruce went on to record several solo albums. In 1972 he joined two ex-Mountain bandmates to form West, Bruce & Laing. He formed his own band in 1976 which went under several titles, but ran into financial and health problems due to his drug habit. His recording output was intermittent. Between 1981 and 200o he released just four albums. Although, he continued to record new material, including his 14th studio album in 2014.
At Clapton’s request, Cream reunited for a series of four shows, on May 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 6th, 2005, at the Royal Albert Hall in London. This was the same venue where they performed their final concerts in October 1968. Cream subsequently performed three concerts at Madison Square Gardens in New York City, October 24-26, 2005. Eric Clapton has been given a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire, and in 2004 promoted to Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
Ginger Baker released 18 solo albums, his final one being Why in 2014. He died at the age of 80 in 2019 after a series of heart-related illnesses. Jack Bruce died of liver disease in 2014 at the age of 71. On March 30, 2020, Clapton turned 75.
May 4, 2020
Bob Elliott, “Wheels of Fire to Burn Out: The Gig List 1968,” net space, Australia.
“Cream bassist Jack Bruce dies, aged 71,” BBC, October 25, 2014.
Mark Savage, “Ginger Baker: Legendary Cream drummer dies aged 80,” BBC, October 6, 2019.
Elias Leight, “10 Things We Learned From ‘Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars’ Doc,” Rolling Stone, February 9, 2018.
“List of Awards and Nominations Received by Eric Clapton,” Wikipedia.org.
“Boss 30,” CKLG 730 AM, Vancouver, BC, March 31, 1967.
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