Formed: 1966 in London, England
Disbanded: 1968 in London, England
They weren't together all that long, really - a little over two years by any account - and they only released three studio albums during their tumultuous career. Still, Cream vaulted guitarist Eric Clapton into the superstar stratosphere and forged the musical blueprint that blues-rock bands still follow, forty years later. Cream's success spawned a slew of "power trio" followers, and influenced blues-based artists such as Free, Led Zeppelin, and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, among many others.
When Cream formed in mid-1966, Eric Clapton already had a fine reputation in the U.K. as a blues guitarist due to his tenures, however brief, with both the Yardbirds and John Mayall's Bluesbreakers. Bassist Jack Bruce had spent a short spell with Mayall, played with the Manfred Mann Band, and was a member of the Graham Bond Organisation, a British R&B outfit, with drummer Ginger Baker. When the three musicians came together in Cream, they were all looking for a way to musically break out beyond the perceived barriers of the standard rock band, with a focus on extended solos and jazz-like improvisation.
The band's first album, Fresh Cream, was released in late-1966 and was heavily based on the blues, including covers of Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters songs, along with several songs written or co-written by Bruce. But the album also ventured readily into the nascent sound of psychedelic rock, free jazz, and the sort of guitar-driven hard rock that would evolve into heavy metal. Influential and groundbreaking, Fresh Cream was unlike anything the blues or rock worlds had heard at the time.
Working with producer Felix Pappalardi, who himself would later help form the blues-based power trio Mountain, the band crafted its musical tour de force, 1967's Disraeli Gears album. Released at the height of the psychedelic era, the album blended hard-blues with psychedelic-rock, the mostly original set of songs displaying a uniquely British personality. The album would become Cream's breakthrough in America, yielding a major hit in the song "Sunshine of Your Love," and landing in the Top Five on the charts.
The band's follow-up, 1968's two-album set Wheels Of Fire, would top the American charts and place Cream in rarified company like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones as one of the biggest rock bands in the world. Wheels Of Fire offered one studio album and one live album, and the tensions among the three band members were beginning to show in the grooves as each musician's ego wrestled for center stage.
The resulting album was both invigorating and flawed. When Cream was at its best - as on the hit "White Room" or on the live jam underlying Willie Dixon's "Spoonful" - no other contemporary band could touch their blend of virtuoso musicianship and imaginative blues-rock hybrid. At their self-indulgent worse, however...count Ginger Baker's 15-minute live reading of "Toad," which literally invented the cliché of the extended drum solo, among those moments...Cream could be overbearing and blustery.
After two years of almost constant touring, stopping only to record new albums, the members of Cream decided to break-up the band after the release of Wheels Of Fire. The band's volume onstage had damaged Clapton's hearing, and the guitarist had grown weary of getting in the middle of Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker's frequent clashes. The band agreed to a short "goodbye" tour, which included dates in the U.S. and England with the band Taste opening, as well as a last, posthumous album in the appropriately-named Goodbye, released in early 1969.
With only six songs clocking in at around 30-minutes, Goodbye nevertheless displayed all of the power and glory of earlier Cream albums. The album featured three live and three studio cuts, including a live jam on Skip James' "I'm So Glad," which the band had also recorded for Fresh Cream, and another major hit in the Clapton-George Harrison song "Badge."
Royal Albert Hall & Beyond
After Cream's farewell concerts, held at the Royal Albert Hall in London on November 25th & 26th, 1968, Clapton immediately formed the short-lived "supergroup" Blind Faith with Steve Winwood and Ginger Baker before launching his solo career. Jack Bruce would go on to record several solo albums, as well as perform session work for other artists, while Ginger Baker would later form Ginger Baker's Air Force with Winwood and Rick Grech of Blind Faith.
The band's record label attempted to keep the money machine rolling during the early-1970s, releasing two live albums as well as a "best of" collection before the cash cow that was Cream ran out of gas. Cream would be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1993, and in 2005 the three musicians came together for a series of reunion shows in England and the United States, the highlights of which were released as a two-CD and DVD sets. One of the most beloved of "classic rock" bands, Cream's influence on rock and blues-rock has been immense and long-lasting.
Recommended Albums: Cream's Disraeli Gears shows the band at its very best, highlighting Jack Bruce's maturing songwriting skills and Clapton's inventive fretwork. Live Cream, Vol. 2 is a fine showcase for the band's live performances.