“Old and modern blues” is how Eric Clapton described Cream’s music when the trio were launched into an orgy of expectation in the summer of 1966. Bassist (and classically trained cellist) Jack Bruce talked about “rewriting the blues” while being awesome. drummer Ginger Baker spoke of the “fantastic sound that we were all a part of”.
Clapton already had impeccable blues credentials, thanks to his stint with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. Bruce and Baker had arrived from the progressive, R&B-based Graham Bond Organization. The chemistry these three mercurial talents produced blew up the stuffy, traditional British blues scene that had demanded note-for-note faithful reproductions of American blues.
Cream took Howling Wolf’s two-note riff Spoonful and stretched it from two and a half minutes to six and a half minutes, jamming with an intensity that hadn’t been seen outside of jazz. Behind them, a host of bands from Fleetwood Mac to Chicken Shack followed them into the breach.
It was the same when they came to America. The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane were proud of their musical talent, but Cream simply blew them away. They increasingly focused on breaking up America and through their third album, the Double wheels of fire by the summer of 1968, they had. But they had also broken.
Their volatile mix could not withstand the incessant touring and they went their separate ways after a final show at London’s Royal Albert Hall in November 1968. They had, however, been pioneers of change. When they started, everything was known as pop music. When they were done, they were spearheading rock music.