In 1997, I spent the day with Jack Bruce, the great Cream bassist/vocalist, and his family at London’s famed Savoy Hotel. We discussed many things music there, among them the possibility of a Cream reunion. The band, arguably the greatest rock trio of all time, had avoided the reunion scene, all the rage at the time, and hadn’t played together since their breakup in 1968 at Royal Albert Hall.
The reunion indeed, did happen, in 2005, first for four nights at Royal Albert in the spring, later for three nights at New York’s Madison Square Garden in the fall. Bruce, guitarist Eric Clapton and drummer Ginger Baker finally put it all together again. The concerts won critical acclaim, showing the boys still had it. Scalped tickets, even the cheap seats, fetched thousands of dollars. I was at both venues, courtesy of Bruce’s widow, Margrit Seyffer.
Bruce passed in 2014, Baker in 2019, but what the former had to say 26 years ago about Cream and its significant impact on rock music – despite its short, two-year life – is important, historical stuff.
This interview with Bruce has been published in various parts over the years, but here, below, is the chat in its entirety, with light edits. I found the man to be charming, witty, and with a great, self-deprecating sense of humor.
Jim Clash: Take us back to when Cream first came over to the U.S. at the tail-end of the British Invasion.
Jack Bruce: We did a seven-month tour of America, playing places like Psychedelic Supermarket in Boston, I think it was – just every little club. That’s how we did it, physically by going on the road. We actually created that so- called underground audience. When we got to the Fillmore in ’67 was when the band really began to happen.
But it all tends to get overlooked now, maybe not necessarily in a musical way, but in the fact of being a catalyst to make other [musical] things happen. We got to be very good. Sometimes there was so much power from that band that it was incredible. There were only two groups I’ve been in that had a similar kind of energy: Cream, and the one with Tony Williams, John McLaughlin and Larry Young [Tony Williams Lifetime].
Clash: You wrote a lot of Cream’s material. How did, “Sunshine Of Your Love’’ come about?
Bruce: We were in my flat in Hempstead [England], Pete Brown and myself. We had been working all night trying to come up with material for the next album, Disraeli Gears I think. Normally, I would just play on acoustic guitar or piano and get ideas that way, but we hadn’t really got anywhere.
I just picked up my string bass and played the riff. We kind of both looked out the window, and the sun was just coming up. Pete wrote, “It’s getting near dawn.” It’s one of those things where it actually happened that way [laughs]. Once we had the riff and a bunch of lyrics, we didn’t have a way of ending the sequence. That was Eric’s [Clapton] contribution – to come up with chords, very important.
Then the problem became convincing people like [Atlantic Records] Ahmet Ertegun that this was a commercial proposition. He didn’t see it at all. I was very lucky that Booker T [Jones] came into the session. When he heard Sunshine, he said, “That’s a hit.”
Clash: And the rest is history.
Bruce: It turned out to be Atlantic’s biggest single up to that point. It’s also wonderful that people still remember it. There were a couple of uses that I love. One was [Martin] Scorsese’s Goodfellas. When [Robert] DeNiro is in the bar, it starts playing and I’m going, “Oh no!” The most horrible scene in that movie when DeNiro whacks the guy, and there’s my riff [laughs]. Also, there’s a very strange use of it in the movie True Lies. The little daughter is playing it on her walkman. Things like that really knock me out.
Clash: There was always the association of Cream with hard drugs.
Bruce: That was really exaggerated. The ’60s for me wasn’t a time of heavy hard drug use. In my experience, people got into that more in the ’70s. But there was a lot of pot around, especially when we got to San Francisco, but it was kind of light- hearted.
I can only speak for myself, not for Ginger [Baker] or Eric, obviously. But there was no [collective] band hard drug use, no getting-down- together sort of thing. I hate to use the word professional, but I think we took it too seriously to be out of it on stage. Don’t get me wrong, there were a couple of times we experimented with some acid. With that band [Cream] as far as I remember, I only played once under the influence of that, and it was impossible.
Clash: Do you remember which gig?
Bruce: I do. It was at Liverpool University. I don’t remember why, but we were traveling from somewhere to there, and we dropped acid [LSD] together. I had a really interesting journey, very hallucinogenic. We were in a car, and I remember it kind of rubbery going around this bend, like a cartoon car.
When it came to actually playing, the same thing was going on with the bass. The neck was not solid anymore [laughs]. I’ve got recordings of things later from similar situations, with Jim Keltner and other people at the Record Plant in New York, and the tempo is so slow. It’s one….. …two………. I didn’t enjoy that at all, and I wouldn’t recommend it. I go with the Charlie Parker way of looking at it – drugs may make you think you’re playing better, but the best way to play is straight.
Clash: How would you describe your longtime relationship with Ginger Baker?
Bruce: There had always been problems between Ginger and myself. We’re kind of like brothers. When it’s nice it’s great, but then sometimes, as with siblings, it can go really wrong. He took it upon himself to fire me from the Graham Bond Organisation, although he wasn’t the band leader [laughs].
He said I was playing “too busy.” I think I was just finding myself and a style very much influenced by James Jamerson, people like that who played melodically. I was interested in trying to take the bass guitar out of the rhythm section. I was also influenced by jazz: Scott LaFaro, Charlie Mingus, the sort of people I looked up to. So yeah, I probably was playing a lot of notes. He [Baker] didn’t quite agree with that [laughs].
Clash: What finally did Cream in?
Bruce: It was this seven-month [American] tour that sowed the seeds of destruction. I think everybody in the band would agree that we were very unfortunate to have [Robert] Stigwood as manager. He might have been successful in some ways, but he wasn’t good in the sense that he knew how to encourage a band to continue.
There was never any, “You want to do a record, why don’t you take two or three months and go somewhere and write some material?” It was on the road, then straight into the studio, then straight on the road again. Let’s milk this thing for what it’s worth while it lasts, which is very shortsighted.
The band probably would have gone on longer. What we could have done was split up, done our own projects, then come together as a band every now and again and do something. But because of the way it ended, a kind of bitter ending, it didn’t.
Clash: Bitterness implies more than just a frenetic schedule.
Bruce: Well, the touring was too much, but there was quite a lot of bad feeling about the fact that most of the material was mine and Pete Brown’s. That wasn’t a deliberate thing, me going in and insisting we do my material. It’s just that’s what it was.
When we went into the studio, I would have maybe 20 songs, Eric might have one song and Ginger might have one idea. That would be the proportion. Eric started to write more things towards the end. Again, what we should have done was gone away, I don’t know to Jamaica or somewhere, and been together in a more social way. We could have written things together. Very few songs were written by the three of us.
Clash: What did you think when people were calling Eric Clapton “God”?
Bruce: That was earlier, the “Eric Clapton is God’’ thing, when he was part of the Yardbirds and John Mayall. Somebody chalked it up on a wall somewhere in London, and it kind of caught on. It didn’t bother me because he was a good guitar player, you know?
Clash: Could anyone other than Clapton have pulled off the lead guitar role in Cream?
Bruce: I think that band couldn’t have happened if it had been any other drummer, another bass player, singer, guitarist. I think with all successful musical groups, it’s the individual personalities. It’s like Duke Ellington and his great bands – you can’t imagine Cootie Williams not being there, or Sam Woodyard. I couldn’t imagine anyone else being in Cream.
But I would have to own up that it was Eric really who made the band as commercial as it was. I’ve never been a commercially-minded person – I’m not pushy, I’m not ambitious in that way for huge success. Eric made those kinds of things happen.
Clash: Give us an example.
Bruce: He was very fashion-conscious. Because of that, we started the hairstyles and flared trousers. We actually went to an Army-Navy store and bought U.S. Navy whites with huge bellbottoms. There are some black-and-white publicity pictures of us on the Thames [River] wearing those [laughs].
I had problems with the hair. I have such fine hair that when it got long it just went into big knots, and I’d find things living in it [laughs]. I remember Eric saying after we met Jimi [Hendrix] that one of us had to have that kind of afro. I said, “It ain’t going to be me, mate.” So Eric got the perm. Things happened in that band by default.
Clash: Really, what else?
Bruce: When we first got together, we had a competition to see who wouldn’t be the singer. I didn’t want to be singer, Eric didn’t want to either. I guess I lost [laughs].
Clash: But you have a great voice?
Bruce: I started off singing in church choirs, then solo’d with Benjamin Britten conducting, things like this. But then I became a musician, and musicians, particularly jazz musicians, have this kind of snobbishness where they look down on singers. I sang some songs with Graham Bond [Organisation], a couple of blues things, but I didn’t really find the range in my voice. That came later.
Clash: Go back to childhood. How did you become interested in music?
Bruce: My mother was a great folk singer. My father worked in a factory all of his life. He was quite a remarkable man, very intelligent, and won a scholarship to the best high school in Glasgow [Scotland]. But he wasn’t able to go because he was the oldest of a family of 12 and had to work at age 14.
That was a real pity, I think. He could have done a lot. He wrote very well and was a musician, too. He was a big fan of Fats Waller, so I grew up with a lot of jazz in the house. My brother was a bee-bop fan, and there would be physical fights between my father and brother about jazz. My brother was eight-years-old, and I’d be listening to these amazing battles with my father saying, “The saxophone is the death knell in jazz,” and all this kind of stuff [laughs]. I guess I picked up on all of that.
Clash: What instrument did you first pick up?
Bruce: Very early on, there was no piano in the house, so I started singing in church choirs and also in the opposite of church choirs, the socialist Sunday school. Both of my parents were pretty left-wing. They grew up in the Great Depression and, like a lot of people, saw the unfairness that was going on and wanted to do something about it. So yeah, I grew up with this socialist ethos, and here I am at the Savoy [laughs].
Clash: Fast-forward a few light years. How did you feel in 1993 when Cream was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame?
Bruce: Old [laughs]. Actually, the rehearsal was really good the day before. It was like cranking up this big old vintage car or something, rrrrrrrr. It took a while to get going, but once it did go, it was amazing. It was as if we hadn’t played in just a few weeks rather than 25 years.
We did “Sunshine Of Your Love,’’ “Crossroads’’ and “Born Under A Bad Sign.’’ But, as Eric said at the time, you have very mixed feelings. He said something like, “I’m against institutions per se.” But if you sit through that whole thing you get moved, sucked in, especially with people like Frankie Lymon And The Teenagers, whatever’s left of them. If you actually know about Frankie Lymon – I used to know his road manager – it’s a very sad story of the disgusting things that can happen in the music business.
Clash: I’m not familiar with the Lymon story.
Bruce: Drugs, really, not something that’s my place to go in to. But seeing those who were left, The Teenagers, come up [to get their award], you kind of said, “Wow, it is a wonderful thing,” and ended up crying along with everybody else. You got very moved by it – we all did. Bob Dylan was saying nice things. It’s something you might have mixed feelings about – “Hmm, I don’t want to be in a museum” [laughs] – but then again, why not?
Clash: Didn’t the three of you also get together at Eric Clapton’s wedding in 1979?
Bruce: We played together, but it was Ringo [Starr], George [Harrison] – a whole bunch of people – Mick Jagger. It wasn’t really a reunion, but we were on the same stage together. It was just one of those jam things, and we didn’t play any Cream songs.
Clash: You and Ginger Baker have done the David Letterman show together. What’s that like?
Bruce: That show is really tricky. I would have loved to do it with my whole band, but they [the house band] always want to play with you. I brought my band just in case. You know what that show’s like, kind of informal. Sometimes you don’t even get on. You travel there, hang around and they run out of time. But we did get on.
Clash: How was Dave?
Bruce: He was fine. I’ve always liked him, been a fan from the early years. It’s more middle-of-the road now, but those very early shows were quite chaotic. I remember one  where a wrestler [Jerry Lawler] had broken somebody’s [Andy Kaufman] collarbone or something. Afterward, they came on the show together live. The wrestler went for him again while he was wearing a neck brace! That’s TV, I guess [laughs].
Clash: What’s your favorite Cream song?
Bruce: Probably, “White Room.’’ The inspiration for the music came from meeting Jimi Hendrix and his approach to playing. In fact, he came to the recording session of that in New York and said to me, “I wish I could write something like that.” I said, “But it comes from you!”
It’s a synthesis of things, and not a completely original chord sequence. It’s the way we placed certain things in time that makes it original. I had problems with the record company because of the introduction being 5/4, and those suspended second inversion chords. They didn’t think it would make it.
Clash: Not commercial enough, eh?
Bruce: I’ve always thought that record companies, in particular, look down on their audiences much too much. In a way, it is a commercial thing. They think, ‘well, if the audience gets too intelligent and likes really good musical things, we’re going to have to keep finding those things.’ So if you can reduce it to a fairly low common denominator as far as the music goes, there’s always a bunch of other guys or girls coming along who can do that. But I don’t want to overstate the importance – it’s only rock and roll, you know [laughs].
Clash: What’s another Cream song you like?
Bruce: “I Feel Free,” our second single. I was fascinated by The Beatles’ use of two-and-a-half-, three-minutes time to make really amazing statements. I was very influenced and keen to do something similar. I don’t think I quite managed [laughs].
Clash: We talked earlier about the hyped drug use in Cream. But wasn’t Baker an addict?
Bruce: Let’s be honest about that. Ginger was a junkie. When I first met him in the early ‘6os, he was a registered heroin addict [in England]. He went to a very famous doctor, and I used to go with him when he’d get scripts. If it were a holiday, he’d get five. That was the situation in this country in ’63, ’64, very healthy and civilized because there was no black market for drugs.
But Ginger did fall off the wagon when we had early success doing Top Of The Pops. He had this thing some people have – he was scared of success. He would do something just at the wrong moment, like O.D. in the dressing room. Oops, oh well [laughs]. But we actually had a rule in the early days of the band that Ginger wouldn’t do hard drugs, and he mostly stuck to it.
Clash: How about Clapton?
Bruce: When I first met Eric, he didn’t even smoke cigarettes, and would only have a few drinks.
Clash: Many still credit Clapton with Cream. But you were the lead singer, wrote most of the material?
Bruce: Cream was really Ginger’s idea, to do something with Eric. But Eric wanted me in the band. When Ginger approached him, he said, “Yeah, but we need to get Jack in as singer and on bass.” That’s the way it happened. Again, I didn’t think of myself as a singer, but Eric liked my voice.
Clash: Do you believe Clapton misses his Cream days?
Bruce: Obviously Eric, of those from the old bands, has had tremendous success, commercially and on his own terms probably musically. But I think that musically [Cream] was his high spot, so far. I think he realized that when he played with us again at the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame . In fact, he said it there. A lot of people who have listened to what he’s done since miss the kind of inspirational quality he had in his playing in those days.
A lot of it was never released. Being a three-piece band, you need some kind of show to pace it. So he would play sometimes unaccompanied, just on his own, 15 or 20 minutes, and you would never get bored. I mean, he was so good! He would be playing this sh*t that really took you to another place.
Clash: How about Baker on “Toad?’’
Bruce: Yeah, but that was just a drum solo [laughs].
Clash: How about you. Any bass solos?
Bruce: No, I’ve never really liked bass solos. If I can avoid them, I do. I played long harp solos in “Traintime,’’ which I enjoyed.
Clash: Any animosity about Eric getting so much credit for Cream?
Bruce: I suppose I do have some feelings in that there was a deliberate attempt [by the record company] to promote Eric. I didn’t get as much recognition, that’s true. But that’s show business, you know. On the other hand, I’m basically just a musician who’s been quite fortunate. If I look at it from that sense, I’ve been able to make a very good living doing what I love.
Clash: Many call you THE bassist of that period.
Bruce: I’m very happy to get the recognition, for sure.
Clash: Do you think you’re that good?
Bruce: Um, yeah [laughs].
Clash: I know you were inspired by jazz and classical bass, but who are some rock bassists you admire?
Bruce: Well, James Jamerson, if you can call him a rock player. I would call him a rock player, definitely. [Paul] McCartney did great things. “Rain” is an example of his simple, lovely bass playing.
Clash: How about Noel Redding of Jimi Hendrix Experience?
Bruce: Noel was a very good player, but I think Jimi played a lot of those bass lines. You don’t have to print that [laughs]. I mean, Noel would admit that. You can hear it’s Jimi on his records.
Clash: How about The Who’s John Entwistle?
Bruce: Yeah, loud, very loud – but really good, especially for that band. It’s like asking, “Was Keith Moon a good drummer?” If you put Keith Moon and Ginger together, Moon couldn’t hold a drumstick. But with The Who, he was fantastic.
Moon’s tempos were up and down, up and down. Ginger’s just got faster all the time, which at least you could deal with. It’s relative. But, yeah, I can’t imagine any other drummer or bass player with that band in those days.
Clash: What did you think of John Bonham as Led Zeppelin’s drummer?
Bruce: I found him very stiff. The thing about Bonham was that he had a fantastic sound. I think their experience as studio musicians helped them [Zeppelin] get the sonic thing happening.
Clash: Didn’t lead guitarist, Jimmy Page, play bass in The Yardbirds when he first joined them?
Bruce: Yeah, he used to play bass. Again, I remember Jimmy Page from being a session musician. That’s why I never took Zeppelin seriously. They were a bunch of session musicians that we kind of looked down on. We looked down on everybody [laughs]. We looked down on Mick Jagger and Keith Richards early on when they used to come along and try to sit in with us. We’d tell them to piss off: “Go away, learn to play and then come back” [laughs].
Clash: Were they in awe of you guys?
JB: In those days, yeah, when we were with Alexis Korner. But they had this idea we didn’t recognize as valid at the time – the kind of Chuck Berry approach to rock. I think Chuck Berry is great, by the way. But we were darker, more interested in the seedy side of the music, this real bluesy thing coming more from jazz. So in our stupid, arrogant way, we looked down on those people.
Clash: What was it about The Rolling Stones?
Bruce: We used to play at the Flamingo Club, just down the road from here [Savoy Hotel]. I remember seeing the Stones play there – we did the all-nighters Fridays and Saturdays – not Cream, but this mixture of Ginger and me, Dick Heckstall-Smith and others. They [Stones] had a fantastic sound. Long before anybody else, they sussed that out as the important thing. I remember being amazed by the clarity and beauty of their sound live, whereas we were still scratching away trying to get it to happen.
Bruce: Cream didn’t have any sound at all. It was very difficult. We did Madison Square Garden, for instance, and it was impossible because technology hadn’t caught on everywhere in ’68. The stage was actually revolving, if you can imagine such a thing. I guess the audience would get a burst of guitar, some drums and bass, and then have to wait awhile for it to come around again.
This is the God’s honest truth – the PA, it came down like, “And in the blue corner” – you know, the ones that used to come down! That’s what we had. We also did baseball stadiums with equipment a few feet high. It was embarrassing!
Clash: Most people know the first time you, Ginger and Eric practiced as Cream. But do you remember the first time you three actually played a show together?
Bruce: Yeah, that was at the Windsor Jazz Festival. It’s gone on to be called something else now. Eric was with The Yardbirds at the time, and Ginger and me were with Graham Bond. That’s the first time I’d heard Eric at all and, of course, I was impressed. There were other people playing with us, too, but I think the three of us stood out. Then Eric started coming down to some of the London dates to check us out. [Of the three] he was youngest, Ginger was oldest and I was the middle-aged one [laughs].
Clash: You mentioned how hard it was to get good live sound in the Cream days. When did you catch on about monitoring and PA systems?
Bruce: When I was in San Francisco hanging out with Owsley Stanley and various people from the [Grateful] Dead, I met this amazing guy, Charlie Button, who did all of the Dead’s equipment. He would tell me, “What a great band [Cream], but you sound terrible, like sh*t.” I said, “I know, but what are we going to do?” He said you make a stage to take around with you, and the sound [system] is built into it. I got chills about that.
Clash: Did Cream get one?
Bruce: I went to Ginger, the band leader basically when it came to business, and told him about this amazing idea that would stop me from losing my voice. We had what, 200 watts on the guitar, 200 watts on the bass and 200 watts for the voice. Literally, I was screaming!
Clash: Was he sympathetic?
Bruce: He said, “We can’t afford it!” just like that. He didn’t want to spend whatever it was, $40,000, a lot of money in those days. So in Canada I left the band physically, went to the airport and bought myself a ticket to go home. The road managers came and physically dragged me back so I could do the gig. Unfortunately, Ginger’s decision was another short-sighted one that caused more tension in the band.
Clash: Some concert venues had decent sound systems built in, right?
Bruce: The only places where the technique had caught up with the music were Bill Graham’s. And that’s why they were so successful musically, and such a gas to play – the old Fillmore and Winterland. They had specialists who went in and built house PA’s with monitors. It was a dream! You could actually hear yourself and, for the first time, the other guys in the band.
Clash: Earlier, you said Clapton and Baker left most of the songwriting to you. That must have been a cause for more tension?
Bruce: That was a bit of a struggle, another part of what led to the demise of the band. I wrote two things when I was six, and a string quartet when I was 11. So it had always been my dream to be a composer. I was very proud of the fact that I was writing music, and it was being recorded with my name on it.
With Cream, I had to sort of insist on that. If I had written something, I had written it. In a subsequent band with Leslie West and Corky Laing, there was a rule that everything was written by the whole band. Again, I was doing most of the writing and getting only a third of the credit. It’s not really the money. I know it’s fashionable now to say, “You can have the credit, I’ll take the money.” But I want the money and the credit.
Point is in the Cream days in order to write the songs, because we didn’t have periods where we went off to get it together in the country or something, they were done on the road, or in- between tours. That’s work, you know.
Clash: How did you manage it?
Bruce: Pete Brown and me would stay up days on end writing stuff in order for it to happen [ie, “Sunshine Of Your Love’’]. I would only write music, and then usually we would work on the lyrics together. Quite often, I would have an idea for lyrics and we kind of hammered them out. They went through a lot of versions before we got to the one that ended up being the one.
Clash: You have quite the sense of humor, Jack. Give me a fun tidbit from the Cream days.
Bruce: This is a funny story. Once we were in Scotland and had the idea of doing Ben Nevis for cover photos [Disraeli Gears]. We climbed it, but were all on acid and the photographer, Robert Whitaker, I think, forgot to put film in the camera, or it didn’t work or something.
So when we got down – it was a day, you know, really quite hard, and we didn’t have photos. We had had this fabulous expedition and then had to go to Regent’s Park and take them there! I’ll never forget when we were above the scree line, where there was snow, we saw these real climbers looming out of the mist with ice axes, the whole bit. And there was us, wearing pink boots [laughs]. They said, “Oh my God, it’s the Cream!” and we had to sign autographs [on the mountain].
Clash: Speaking of Ben Nevis, recently I asked Everest pioneer Sir Edmund Hillary what he wanted to be remembered for. How about you, anything come to mind?
Bruce: Oh God. What did Hillary say?
Clash: He wanted to be remembered for the schools and hospitals he built for Sherpa people in Nepal more than for his big climb of Everest.
Bruce: I don’t take myself that seriously. It’s very difficult to put myself on a plane with someone like Edmund Hillary. I don’t really want to be remembered. I would like the music I’ve been involved in to be remembered.
Obviously, I don’t think I’m finished yet. I would like to do some writing that would live on. But I’m not going to be buried, just cremated, so how can you have an epitaph [laughs]? Just scatter this dust in the wind. But I like last words. I’d like to have some really good last words. I kind of collect them.
Clash: Maybe Pete Brown could help you with those [laughs]?
Bruce: He probably could [laughs]. But you’ve got to say something some time, haven’t you? As one king said, “I feel better now.” So really good last words rather than an epitaph. Do you know Malcolm Lowry, the [English] writer? People don’t, and it’s a real shame he’s not well remembered.
I think he was the best writer of the 20th Century – him and [James] Joyce. He played the ukulele and wrote himself an epitaph which went something like, “Here lies the bones of Malcolm Lowry, late of the Bowery, whose prose was flowery, and often glowery. He lived nightly, and drank daily, and died playing the ukulele.” You have to be funny.
Clash: Do you still see Pete Brown?
Bruce: We had got so close, it was almost like a marriage, but then we had a kind of a terrible divorce. I did a solo piano record for the Edinburgh Festival, went all high-brow. That was a lot of fun, and Pete and I worked together on it. I did a record for him as well, so the doors are open. Yeah, we’re friends again, which is nice.
Clash: You seem like the kind of musician who never, “sold out.”
Bruce: I was always pretty true to my own kind of principles. Obviously doing something like the Ringo tour [Ringo Starr And His All-Star Band], I have mixed feelings – I’m trying to justify that [laughs]. But I think I’ve earned a bit of fun. So what if we entertain people and have some fun? We aren’t doing harm to anybody. But overall, yeah, I would like to think I haven’t really sold out. But that’s for other people to say.
Clash: It’s a bit of a relative term, no?
Bruce: It works two ways. When Tony Williams, the great drummer who joined Miles Davis when he was 17, played with me and John McLaughlin, he was getting it from both sides. He was put down by the rock-and-roll community because it was, “too complicated,” and he was put down by the jazz people because he was, “selling out.” Sometimes you can’t win. You just have to follow your own feelings, you know.
Clash: The music industry consistently gets a rap for being sleazy.
Bruce: I think it’s just a business. It’s not any more corrupt or better than any other business. The difference is that people who are the workers in it – the musicians – don’t regard it as a business, at least when they start out. They’re doing it for love, so they get exploited. We got ripped off, too.
But look at the way people got ripped off in the really early days. They would sell a song for 50 bucks and then it went on to become a classic. Or with the early things by people like Chuck Berry, the manager or agent would have his name in the writing credits, too. Quite often in the big band era, [the leader] would get a writing credit just because it was his band!
Clash: You covered some old blues musicians, but they did get songwriting credits and, presumably, royalties.
Bruce: If you’ve been in a band like Cream, sometimes you do cover songs by blues singers like Robert Johnson [“Crossroads”]. We also did “I’m So Glad,’’ a great song by Skip James. When I was playing with West, Bruce and Laing at Philadelphia’s Spectrum, I think, I went into the dressing room and there was this little old lady sitting very uncomfortably with all the really loud music.
It was Ms. Skip James. She’d come along to thank me for recording that song. She said her family made more money from the version Cream did than in her late husband’s whole life as a musician. The money enabled him to have decent medical care at the end of his life. So you have to put it all into perspective.
Clash: How about business ethics on the road?
Bruce: I remember we played the Café au GoGo on Bleecker Street [New York] for about 10 days . It was a huge success, two or three sets a night. I fell out with the guy who owned it because he had so many people queuing up outside that he wanted us to shorten our sets to turn the house around faster.
Sets were already short in those days. People never played more than 40 minutes, really – but he wanted us to cut that down to get another turnaround, you know [laughs]. In fact, I made a big speech, actually said to the audience, “We’re only going to play half-an-hour or 20 minutes because this guy is making us.”
Clash: Twenty minutes isn’t long by any standard.
Bruce: It’s like the old Charlie Parker story. People think Charlie Parker really liked country-and-western music. What he used to do was hire a country-and-western band when he played a club in New York or somewhere. People would say, “That’s great, he has such a wide musical taste.” But soon after the country guys started playing, the audience would split and then have to pay to get back in again [to see Parker’s next set]. I love that story [laughs].
Clash: Again with the humor. Was there much of it in Cream, practical jokes, whatever?
Bruce: It was a very funny band. When we were friends, there were a lot of good times. One time they put loads and loads of cornflakes in my piano without me knowing, things like that. It made this crunchy sound when I tried to play. Eric was more the practical joker, Ginger too. But when the humor went, that was the beginning of the end.
Clash: You said earlier that all of this isn’t to be taken too seriously since it’s only rock and roll?
Bruce: In the ’60s, you’d read all these band reviews. One particular guy [Tony Palmer], also a film director, did the Cream [Royal] Albert Hall [’68 Farewell] concert film. He got famous for comparing The Beatles to [Franz] Schubert, saying they were at least as good. Schubert is Schubert and they’re them, a few hundred years apart. It’s kind of a pointless exercise. I think it’s not good to take what we do too seriously.
Clash: I’ve read that early-on there was a push to make Clapton Cream’s focal point.
Bruce: When we went to do our first recordings on 61st Street with Atlantic [Records] in New York, for Disraeli Gears, it was decided that Eric was going to be the frontman. And I was just going to stay in the background and be the bass player.
That’s why, for instance, the first single [on Disraeli Gears], “Strange Brew,’’ featured Eric on vocals. “Strange Brew’’ was a very strange situation. What they did was use this other song we’d already recorded the track for [“Hey Lawdy Mama’’]. Ahmet [Ertegun] said to Felix Pappalardi, “Take that backing track and write something, and he came back the next day with this, “Strange Brew.’’ A lot of the time in those days, we would write singles separately as opposed to use album tracks.
Clash: I’m guessing this effort presented an uncomfortable situation for you?
Bruce: It was difficult to get [Atlantic] to let my songs be recorded. The reason they were accepted at all was Booker T [Jones] and Otis Redding came in to the session around the same time, and they were very encouraging about the things I was trying to do. We were all very fortunate to be in the same environment with them, anyway. Aretha Franklin was recording there, too. It was wonderful to meet those people. We were in awe of them – they were our idols!
Clash: “Sunshine Of Your Love,’’ which we discussed earlier, was one of your songs from those sessions. Why do you think it became such a hit?
Bruce: It’s like almost anything else – it’s a synthesis. I’ve tried to write very original things. But I think songs that are commercial are usually a synthesis of what’s happening at the time. You could analyze it – I guess people have – with that particular song, that particular riff. There are little bits of things put together, if you like, but that is a craft in itself [laughs].
Clash: Do you still hear it on the radio?
Bruce: I must admit, I don’t listen a lot. I’m not a big fan of rock radio. But I have heard it.
Clash: Does it bring back good memories for you?
Bruce: Oh yeah, the band [Cream] was still a lot of fun to be in up to a point.
Clash: One reason I came to England today was to suss out the possibility of a Cream reunion. Why hasn’t it happened?
Bruce: There were times when it was very close to happening. I remember going to Eric’s house with Ginger. There was always one of us who didn’t want to do it, basically. At different times, it was different members. But why it hasn’t happened more recently I don’t know. I mean, after the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame [induction in 1993], Eric was saying we’ve got to do a record.
Clash: We chatted earlier about your views on hard drugs and music. But do you think moderate use of something like pot enhances creativity?
Bruce: Some people do argue that it helps your hearing to separate strands of music. You can actually trace the development of drugs in music to [Claude] Debussy, and art, too, to that period when they started impressionistic painting. So yes, a limited use may help.
The problem with marijuana is not that you get addicted to it, but that you can get addicted to the use of it. If you’re playing or writing using pot, you might start to think, ‘I can’t actually write without it, ‘ or ‘I can’t really play as well without it.’ If you get into that kind of situation, the only thing to do is play without it.
Clash: You mentioned Cream covering, “I’m So Glad” and “Crossroads,” with Skip James and Robert Johnson, respectively, getting song- writing royalties. But not all artists are so lucky.
Bruce: America is not very good to its great artists. America awards some people so vastly. Madonna, she’s good and everything, a great entertainer and I would not dream of putting that down. But there are a lot of other people, maybe better or more important in the long run, who must feel so badly that they don’t get the recognition.
It’s difficult if you’re a white guy in a band, and a lot of what you do comes from that [African American blues] source. Eric had great success with, “I Shot The Sheriff,’’ which, I suppose, helped [Bob] Marley get some recognition. But it works both ways.
There have been bands – [Led] Zeppelin was accused of it, taken to court – that take [credited] things and call them, “traditional.” If you have a traditional song, you can “arrange” it and then get royalties. With anything like that, I’m always very careful to trace it back as far as I can. Tracking some of those things is very difficult.
Clash: Have you ever met Albert King?
Bruce: When I met Albert King the first time, I wanted him to play on a record. I was in San Francisco and went to where he was doing a club date. This is Albert King, you know, the most frightening blues man in the world [laughs]!
He said hello, and then sort of said, “I never got the money.” I said, “What do you mean, you never got the money?” He said he never got [royalties] from “Born Under A Bad Sign.’’ But he didn’t write “Born Under A Bad Sign!’’ He’d obviously done it for so long he thought he did.
It was quite new when Cream had recorded it, had just come out on an Albert King record. It’s not like he had been doing it for 20 years. He did get credit for [popularizing] it, but the real guys who wrote it were Booker T Jones and William Bell.
Clash: Was King joking about the money?
Bruce: I think there was a certain amount of that. But with Albert King, you never really knew [laughs]. A scary guy, but a wonderful player. He played his guitar upside down and didn’t push the strings, he pulled them – quite incredible.
Clash: Clapton sometimes copied old blues legends’ guitar licks, correct?
Bruce: Actually, in those days when Eric played solos, they often weren’t just solos, they were more musical statements, especially on singles. In “Strange Brew,’’ for instance, Eric actually quoted an Albert King [guitar] solo almost note for note, a kind of tribute. I remember watching him do that in the studio, the overdubs. They were quite impressive.
Clash: You’ve been in many groups since Cream’s
breakup. Do you cover your old songs?
Bruce: When I had my early bands, I didn’t do that. It was fairly close to the Cream days, and I wanted to try something completely new. But it’s a bit arrogant that way. You’ve got an audience, and they know you for that stuff.
I’ve gone to some concerts, and they haven’t played any of their hits, you know – they cheesed off, really [laughs]. I mean, I don’t want to just hear that – I like to hear new things, too. But obviously it’s nice to hear something like, “All Along The Watchtower’’ if it’s [Bob] Dylan – although he never remembers the words.
Clash: How about, “Pressed Rat And Warthog?’’
Bruce: That’s Ginger, that south London kind-of-cockney thing [laughs]. The music he actually wrote with a really great jazz pianist, Mike Taylor.
Clash: I heard that you and Baker once got into a fistfight on stage.
Bruce: Only once [laughs]? There were a couple of times, actually. The most amazing one was when I was in Graham Bond, just before the end when I got fired. And it did come down to a physical fight on stage.