The first, Beatles-led wave of “The British Invasion” helped revive rock ’n’ roll on both sides of the Atlantic, but it was the group of UK musicians right behind that wave—many of whom originally had little to no interest in rock—who really revolutionized the genre. Bassist Jack Bruce was one of these rock refuseniks. A classically trained cellist, Bruce started playing around with the bass guitar in his teens, gravitating to American jazz and traditional blues. In his early 20s, Bruce was already an in-demand sideman in the burgeoning British blues scene, playing with Blues Incorporated, The Graham Bond Organisation, and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. And then in 1966, Bruce joined with two of the scene’s other young studs—guitarist Eric Clapton and drummer Ginger Baker—to form the band Cream.
Bruce, who died over the weekend in Suffolk at the age of 71, had a long career that extended well beyond his time with Cream—a group that only lasted for three years and four albums. But Cream was the culmination of what Bruce and a lot of his peers were doing in the UK while all the post-Beatles pop bands were dominating the charts. A group of obsessives, devoted to practiced musicianship and improvisation, fed off each other in underground clubs throughout the early 1960s. And then Clapton, Bruce, and Baker cranked up the volume and the velocity, creating a heavy blues-rock-jazz hybrid that was a progenitor of both heavy metal and prog-rock. The music press dubbed Cream a “power trio,” and the first “supergroup.” The band was an immediate sensation.
Bruce contributed to Cream as a writer and lead vocalist as well as a bassist, but his fat riffs on songs like “Sunshine Of Your Love” and “Strange Brew” defined the band’s sound as much as Clapton’s scorching guitar leads or Baker’s jazzy fills. A deeply adversarial relationship between Bruce and Baker, though—dating back to their time together in the GBO—caused Cream to burn out quickly. Clapton’s discomfort with the band’s massive following, coupled with Bruce’s and Baker’s insistence on trying to outplay each other on-stage, exacerbated what was always an unstable situation. Around the time of Cream’s 1968 “farewell tour,” Clapton heard The Band’s Music From Big Pink, and decided that pinning audiences to the back of the wall with massive blasts of sound was a juvenile and limited approach to rock ’n’ roll. Cream would reunite a few times in the 1990s and 2000s, on special occasions, but that explosive 1966-1968 run of records and concerts has remained the band’s primary legacy.
Post-Cream, Bruce recorded solo albums—1968’s Songs For A Tailor being the most popular—and returned to his first love, playing jazz-fusion. He stayed busy right up to his death, spending decades doing session work and forming new supergroups with the likes of Leslie West, Robin Trower, John McLaughlin, and Ringo Starr. Outside of maybe The Who’s John Entwistle, no rock bassist in the 1960s did more to elevate the instrument’s status, showing that the bass could be a lead instrument as well as part of the rhythm section. Bruce played hard, and freely, and muscled out a place in rock ’n’ roll for all the studious kids who take the time to learn their craft.