Stay Tuned By Stan Cornyn: Cream On

Tuesday, June 11, 2013
Stay Tuned By Stan Cornyn: Cream On

Every Tuesday and Thursday, former Warner Bros. Records executive and industry insider Stan Cornyn ruminates on the past, present, and future of the music business.

Around 1965 or so, rock/blues musicians often floated from band to band, without breaking any contract. Afloat amid the shifting bands, shifting from jazz to blues to rock to psychedelic, were these three kings:

• Ginger Baker (drummer) felt constrained by his gig leading the Graham Bond Organisation, even though Bond himself was generally praised for bringing English R&B to life. But Bond did drugs too much, and Baker wanted out. So he left.

• Jack Bruce (bass guitar, harmonica, piano) had left the same Bond Organisation, now on his own, too. He liked the idea of being in a new group with Ginger, even if he and Ginger had never mixed well.

• Eric Clapton (blues guitar) had left The Yardbirds (he wanted to concentrate more on wailing the blues) and after that was left band-less when John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers shut down. (Jack Bruce had been with the Bluesbreakers as well.)

(You needn’t try to memorize all that. This is the mid-‘60s, and young London bands were evolving constantly. Between ’64 and ’65, Mayall had over 100 different musicians in and out of his Bluesbreakers.)

Imagining The Cream

Back to ’65-’66 now. One evening, Ginger Baker drove his new Rover out to a gig where Clapton was playing. Afterwards, Baker drove them both back into London. Baker said he was impressed by how well Clapton had played, and Clapton answered how impressed he was at how well Baker drove his new car.

Baker asked if Clapton wanted to join him in a new group he was about to start. Sounded good to Clapton, but “On one condition. We get Jack Bruce on bass.” Baker, holding tight to his steering wheel, reacted with a jerk or two.Baker and Bruce had constantly quarreled during their time together in the Graham Bond band. Every night, on stage, fights, even breaking each other’s instruments.

Still, such a new group would be super. Baker and Bruce and Clapton all agreed; away we go.

They decided to name this new group “The Cream,” as in “the cream of the crop.” Jack Bruce would do the vocals.

Stigwood Pulls the Strings

Working with musicians like these had become a fertile garden for both Atlantic’s Ahmet Ertegun and Polydor’s Robert Stigwood. Stigwood knew England, and Ahmet would send over to him his new Atlantic-Atco artists, first option, for Stigwood’s labels in the UK.

And vice versa. Stigwood’s acts, when available, would end up at Atlanatic. Most of their deals paid off. Big.

Like the evening Ahmet and Stigwood went to a London club. On stage, they heard and saw a kid playing, angelic of face, his eyes closed. Ahmet was stunned by what he was hearing. “You really think he’s great?’ Stigwood asked. Ahmet wanted to sign him, immediately.

Stigwood set out to sign Clapton. (Stigwood was already managing Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker.) So besides signing Clapton, too, Stigwood would now manage the trio’s Cream. He had them drop the “The.” Pure “Cream.” He signed them onto his sub-label, RSO. And saved for Ahmet’s American label.

Later, when Ahmet had come back over to sign the Bee Gees from RSO, Stigwood also introduced him to Cream. Another deal for Ahmet to say “yes” to. He did.

This Ertegun-Stigwood trade off party often left other labels out. Both entrepreneurs spent their backers’ money freely, and it worked: both had financing backers and those backers knew, while opening their wallets, knew to shut their mouths.

Sweet and Sour Rock’n’Roll

With Ertegun-Stigwood calling the shots, their first aim was to get Cream out touring. Money would start flowing that way. The Cream guys told Stigwood that they needed time to create new songs, new arrangements. They needed to, since they didn’t have the same backgrounds in music. So they started out with a bunch of blues tunes, even though Ginger and Bruce were more jazz guys, fugitives, as they once put it, from Ornette Coleman.

And Cream started out with little equipment. They had no guitar techs to handle the amps, the monitors, the lighting. But Stiggy wanted them out, finding good crowds.

On July 29, 1966, Cream made its first public performance (at the Twisted Wheel in Manchester), before it stepped up to arena-size performances.

Ten days later, and it quickly got big: the Windsor Festival. Windsor was not a sunny event. It rained on the outdoor audience, but the soaking audience didn’t care. They cheered Cream. Already, Cream was this year’s sensation.Already, the loudest trio in rock.

Cream exploded, both with audiences and into each other. Baker and Bruce resumed the violent disagreeing built upon their past fights. If one said “pigeon,” the other answered “penguin.” Bitching at each other went on and on. Any topic, they’d fight over it. Clapton stayed out of it, detached.

But for audiences, Cream quickly became The Rage. Amplified.

Stigwood was now managing both Cream and the Bee Gees. For him, the Bee Gees were much simpler to manage. He considered them “keen and compliant and relatively simple-minded compared to the firebrand Jack Bruce.” So Stigwood spent more time with his Bee Gees. But from Cream, he wanted a first album. Now.

Album One: Fresh Cream

Cream’s first album was “conventional” compared to those which would follow, even though its cover did show the band wearing flying gear and goggles. But otherwise, it fit its audience comfortably. It hit #6 in the UK and #39 in the US. Its songs were short, tight, five-minute cuts.

That shortness would soon get neglected: in follow-up recordings, the solos would get wilder and stretch out longer. Even in this album, the track “Toad” had rock music’s first drum-only-single.

The LP’s hit single, “I Feel Free,” reached #11 in the UK charts in January, 1967.

Despite Cream’s in-studio lack of recording studio experience, their momentum carried their first album into an awaiting public.

(In Cream’s few years together, there continued to be a major imbalance between paid dates and studio sessions; they used quick weekdays off to record, then quickly got back on the road, where the cash was. This imbalance would later get added up: in their 28 months together, Cream played 275 live dates, but spent only about 50 days in the studio. Totally unlike, say, The Beatles, who took weeks and weeks in recording studios.)

Album Two: Disraeli Gears

When Cream’s first single was being released, Ahmet persuaded Stigwood to fly their trio over to New York to appear on Murray the K’s 1967 Easter Show at the RKO Theatre on 58th Street. There Cream performed along with The Who, Wilson Pickett, Mitch Ryder…

This debut fell flat. Murray the K rushed acts on and off stage, getting a new box-office audience every hour. Cream was first allowed two songs; then cut back to one. And the audience out front for each show was half empty.

After the ten days of Murray the K, Cream did quick recording at Atlantic’s midtown studio, where they found fresh recording equipment and found engineers like Tom Dowd, who, unlike in London, didn’t take a tea break between tunes. At Atlantic, they recorded a few new cuts, but not enough for an album. Their visas were expiring.

Back on the road.

But as soon as possible, Cream hurried back to New York, back to Atlantic Studios to finish this next album, Disraeli Gears, using Atlantic’s producer (Felix Pappalardi) and Atlantic’s engineer (Dowd). They had only four days: from Thursday until their flight back to London, and that was on Sunday night at seven. Four days = one album?

At the sessions, Ahmet spent full time with his album makers, advising what his ears predicted.

Early in those sessions, Ahmet decided that Cream’s lead vocalist should be Clapton, not Bruce. Ahmet felt better leadership from Clapton. But within a day, Ahmet backed off when he realized the bass player, Bruce, was the one really running the group.

Four days to fill the album.They did it. Recording at what Dowd referred to as “ear-shattering levels. I never saw anything so powerful in my life, and it was just frightening.” They had tunes now.; Cream rewrote “Lawdy Mama” into a new song called “Strange Brew.” Other strong songs: “Strange Brew” and “Tales of Brave Ulysses.” The song called “SWLABR” was short for “She Walks Like a Bearded Rainbow.” But the album’s monster hit was “Sunshine of Your Love.”

When their limo driver came into Atlantic’s studio at five on Sunday and said, “I’m looking for a group,” Tom Dowd said, “They’re ready.” Cream got on their Sunday-at-7 flight and were gone.

Now part of rock’s acid-art crowd, to create album cover in psychedelic fashion Cream got artist Martin Sharp to paint over the original cover photo of the trio.

“Sunshine of Your Love” became Cream’s only gold-selling single in the U.S. Under it, Eric Clapton plays the riff on his bass guitar, as well as the guitar solo. With wah-wah pedal and Clapton’s “woman tone.”

It's getting near dawn, When lights close their tired eyes.
I'll soon be with you my love,
To give you my dawn surprise.
I'll be with you darling soon,
I'll be with you when the stars start falling.

I've been waiting so long
To be where I'm going
In the sunshine of your love.

Out in November, 1967, Disraeli Gears went Top 5 in both UK and US charts.

Conquering Bigger

At dates, Jack Bruce had pushed up the volume levels through bigger amps, stacks upon stacks of amps. Their performances got blasted by huge amplification, and the trio also confessed that, at these shows, they were mostly just showing off. Eric Clapton once mentioned that in one concert, he just stopped playing and neither Baker nor Bruce realized it.

They’d won America, touring from the Fillmore (San Francisco) to the Atlantic.

And now, at Cream’s performances, now “single” songs reached jams of twenty minutes, for tunes like “Spoonful,” “I’m So Glad,” ‘though not for “Sunshine of Your Love.” “Sunshine” stayed (reasonably) short, because airplay had already defined it as a single.

Fame had brought crowds who bought albums.

Ahmet told Stigwood that their two-together acts -- Cream and the Bee Gees -- had now become 50% of Atlantic’s album income. Atlantic was clearly post-Harlem and post-Memphis now.

Next, both men wanted Album #3. Maybe a double-LP?

Album Three: Wheels of Fire

Wheels of Fire became the world’s first platinum-selling double-album, and, by now, Cream was clearly “the world’s first successful super-group.” They’d combined blues rock, with hard rock, with psychedelic rock.They could step on pedals and wah-wah orgasmically. Bang those drums.

Hits on the first LP in Wheels of Fire were studio-recorded: “I Feel Free,” “Sunshine of Your Love,” and “Badge.”

But to those who’d been there, in the same studio when these were getting recorded, real cracks inside the band had begun to be obvious. Atlantic engineer Tom Dowd felt it. “There were times when I thought they were going to kill each other.”

Record two of the set featured live performances from the Winterland Ballroom and the Fillmore, both of San Francisco. These had been taped in August, 1967, amid San Francisco’s “Summer of Love,” when $3 bought you a ticket and the Fillmore was jammed with spaced out fans. Cream sold out at the Fillmore for five straight nights. For this, Fillmore-manager Bill Graham gave each of the three Creams a gold watch.

Breaking Up Is Loud to Do

After Wheels of Fire, the Cream had just had enough of one another. They wanted to split. Clapton had told Baker, “I’ve had enough of this,” and Baker said he had, too. He couldn’t stand any more. The last year, Baker said, had damaged his hearing, permanently. It was the sheer volume from the speakers; at first, it felt strong, but “it just went higher, into the realms of stupidity,” Baker said.

And Clapton was sick of always having to play peacekeeper between Baker and Bruce. “I just want out,” he said, and blamed everybody.

And, to be fair, here’s a milder opinion, from Ginger Baker: “It’s all right most of the time. They put up with me – and I tend to be bad-tempered. We have had some plays that have been absolutely tremendous. We draw big crowds and they thoroughly enjoy themselves. We are three totally different personalities, and none of us thinks alike, but we get more and more together musically. It’s a world-class band and I don’t think there are three other musicians to touch us.”

But getting a divorce was now Cream’s major agreement.

Stigwood now had his managerial hands full. He’d just given up on trying to get the Bee Gee’s Robin Gibb to clip his overgrown hair, and now he learned that his RSO artists, Cream, wanted to break up.

Time for the “farewell tour,” Stigwood insisted.

Album Four: Goodbye

They began it late in ’68, and finished it early in ’69. They also completed their final tour (22 shows in America; then two farewell concerts in Royal Albert Hall). But even the band admitted it was getting worse every minute now.

Clearly, it was over, up and over.

It was all true. At Cream’s farewell concert at Royal Albert Hall, Stiggy got a phone call backstage from Barry Gibb, telling him the Bee Gees are splitting up, too.

Stigwood’s next meet-up with Ahmet will not feel fun.

Cream Was Over. But Ahmet and Stiggy, Still a Couple

Cream divided into two parts now: a duo (Baker and Clapton) and off over there, a solo (Bruce). But Baker and Clapton still were Stigwood men.

And Ahmet and Stigwood still clung together.

The rest of the industry was agog with envy. Ahmet, facing to London, had won the Sixties. It felt like he had everything but the Beatles, kind of.

And Stigwood had signed hot American acts.

Or, as Ahmet put it, reflecting on Atlantic now in 1968, “You know, we’ve sort of become an all-white label.”

-- Stay Tuned