Cream of the crop

Jack Bruce--singer, songwriter, composer, bassist, and elder statesman of rock--says people wrongly assume that British rockers of the '60s all know each other, like some elite club of ex-prime ministers. It's an impression that Bruce's last American appearance--as part of Ringo Starr's recent All-Starr (and almost all-Brit; saxman Mark Rivera is "the token Yank," as Bruce puts it) Revue--did little to dispel.

Ringo's once-mocked Revue has redeemed itself lately. In fact, the tightly rehearsed lineup that smoked Billy Bob's on May 23 was the best of the four All-Starr tours, mostly because of the four revolving frontmen: Ringo, Jack Bruce, Procul Harum's Gary Brooker, and Peter Frampton. Although our MTV culture allows them scant opportunity to play rock concerts--an arena they pioneered--the quartet performed with tremendous grace and prowess. Hearing the old hits--the Lennon-McCartney songs (Ringo took the high road, announcing he would spare the audience "Octopus's Garden"), Procul Harum's "Whiter Shade of Pale," and "All Right Now"--you realize that the music of these four frontmen is as much a part of America as mom and apple pie, and more sacred here than in Britain.

Bruce did three songs associated with Cream, the first bona fide supergroup and the band that he will forever be associated with: "Sunshine of Your Love," "White Room," and Bruce's emotional showstopper, "I Feel Free," powered by Ringo, drumming in unison with Simon Kirke of Free and Bad Company.

"He's quite a drummer," Bruce says of Ringo. (Ginger Baker, Bruce's bandmate in Cream--he's now a member of the Denver Volunteer Fire Department and sat in with the Revue there--once declared the deceptively brilliant Ringo his favorite drummer.) "I don't think he does a lot of playing in between these little tours; he's not one for a lot of woodshedding these days. But he's certainly in shape now, having a great time."

Bruce's ever-bold bass--he was the first to make the bass a lead instrument in rock--had crystal clarity, unlike Frampton, whose Les Paul was poorly equalized. He alternated between a fretless Warwick (which he endorses) and a 1955 Gibson EB-O, which he used for earlier tunes.

Sporting a full head of hair, Bruce is still the most forceful and unique blues-rock shouter ever to come out of Britain, Joe Cocker and Rod Stewart included. A five-minute bass solo kept even Billy Bob's middle-of-the-road audience riveted: "One of the things I play is 'Burning of the Midnight Lamp,'" Bruce says, "which would get a big cheer of recognition at my own concerts."

Still, there's no Brit-rock club. "I was never one for hanging out," says Bruce, who met Frampton and Brooker "maybe once in all those years." Unlike his bandmate in Cream, Eric Clapton, Bruce didn't attend any Beatles sessions. "I first ran into Ringo at Abbey Road when I was doing a session for Paul McCartney's brother, Mike McGear, who had a band called Scaffold, around '66."

Bruce's storied career is diverse. He's recently moved between opera; film scoring; concerts in Liechtenstein, Switzerland, and Germany with Chaka Khan; a piano album, Monkjack, that contains duets with former Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell; a children's musical titled Little Stars; and performances of commissioned works in Vienna with the Niederssterreichischen Tonkunstler Symphony Orchestra. He lists nearly 100 albums in his discography. Like Ginger Baker, he transcends categories and follows a more dignified path, rather than wallowing in the stagnant cesspool of pop music.

Back in the '60s--when Cream sold 35 million albums--pop music was serious art, the glory of the times, yet Bruce has no qualms about the greatest-hits, vaudeville nature of Ringo's All-Starr tours. "What's wrong with vaudeville?" he asks. "I would love to have seen a vaudeville show. Even I'm a bit young for that. Obviously we're doing classic songs; it wouldn't be fair to the audience to do obscure ones. If I've got three songs to play, they have to be ones that people know. I can't do one of the classical piano pieces from my last record."

The voice and chops are certainly stronger than they were in West, Bruce & Laing, the group that Bruce formed in the early '70s. He'd recently left the Tony Williams Lifetime, which featured John McLaughlin; Bruce describes that period as the "musical time of my life." Leslie West and Corky Laing had previously been in Mountain with Felix Pappalardi, who brilliantly produced Cream. Although WB&L seemed to be mired in delusions of psychedelic grandeur and excess (they arrived at their Carnegie Hall debut in separate limousines), Bruce differs. "West, Bruce & Laing didn't get the credit it should have. It was very much a trend-setting band," he says, even though he can't recall a single favorite number from the band's three albums.

On the demise of Pappalardi, who led Mountain on bass, he will not speak. In 1983, Pappalardi was shot by his own wife, Gail Collins, lyricist of many a Cream and Mountain Song, as well as illustrator of the latter's albums. From his unique vantage point, Bruce offers no insight, abruptly dismissing the bizarre and murky tragedy with only "I miss him very much."

Of Mountain's legendary 1970 recording of Bruce's composition (co-written with his '60s songwriting collaborator, poet Pete Brown) "Theme For An Imaginary Western," Bruce says "I never liked that version. It wasn't good: It was very heavy, inaccurate to the music. They made it plodding, less musical. In fact, they were a plodding band. I still think Leslie has the finest sound in rock 'n' roll, and I was obviously a fan of Felix," says Bruce, who once pronounced West the greatest guitarist he ever played with. "But I never thought the band swung, and for me, a band's gotta swing to get me, gotta have that movement that excites me."

Old pal Brown is "doing quite well," Bruce reports, and "just produced a British blues tribute record to Cyril Davis--one of the first people to bring Chicago blues to Britain." Americans tend to assume John Mayall was Father of the British Blues, but Bruce refutes the idea: "By no means, not for 10 or 15 years." Rather, Bruce assigns that title to Davis. "He was playing a little club in Manchester when I was with Alexis Korner, and we found him. [Mayall's] the next generation. There's a whole generation of people before him who started the British blues movement in the '50s, bringing Leadbelly and Big Bill Broonzy to Britain. Even in the '40s. I was into jazz in the '50s--my dad took me to see Oscar Peterson and Ella Fitzgerald. I wasn't into the blues until later."

Even Ella Fitzgerald had a hit single with "Sunshine of Your Love," Bruce's most-covered song. "When it first came out," Bruce recalls, "it got diverse covers, from Ella to the Fifth Dimension. I once had a computer printout of who did my songs. Joel Grey did 'White Room.' It's quite amazing."

"I Feel Free" is likely his second-most-recorded song, Belinda Carlisle having the most recent hit with it in Britain. "There again, I didn't like it, but it went triple platinum," Bruce admits. "David Bowie did it recently, which I liked."

"Sunshine of Your Love" is probably the world's most familiar guitar riff, used to great effect in the movie Goodfellas' climactic cocaine paranoia scene. Only recently has Bruce enjoyed approval for the vast use of such songs: "I did get a fax from Martin Scorsese's people roughly describing the scene. But I trust him very much; he's a great director. I finally managed to get the right to say yes or no. For many years I had litigation, as many of us did from the '60s, to get my rights."

Incredibly, Bruce has little input toward what will appear on an upcoming Cream box set, and can only submit preferences for his own impending Jack Bruce box set on Polygram; because of song copyrights, he doesn't have final say. Hopefully, the Cream box will include an extraordinary Falstaff Beer commercial that Bruce wrote, but that was never released: "I don't think they ever used it. Fortunately, you can't even buy Falstaff Beer in Britain, which is about the worst beer. It was when the band was breaking up. Eric and I didn't want to do it, but Ginger needed the money, so we did it for him. We wrote and recorded it in 20 minutes."

Understandably not wanting to dwell on Cream, he does answer the obligatory question on Clapton, whose music seems uniquely designed for elevators: "That's true, you do hear it in elevators. It's his chosen path. That's all you can ever hope for, isn't it--to be successful at what you want to do? I don't listen to it. To be completely honest, he does waste his talent. Because he is amazing. The last time he moved me was in the film about Chuck Berry [Hail, Hail, Rock 'n' Roll]. He did a slow blues that was outrageous."

Prior to the All-Starr Revue, Bruce's last professional trip to America was in 1993, for Cream's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame--another pit stop in the industrial wasteland of marketing. "Like Eric, I wasn't keen to do it," he says. "It's just another award, an institution. A lot of people get left out; it's unfair. I guess you can't include everybody. Where does rock 'n' roll begin and end? I was happy to see George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic inducted."

Such ceremonial accolades do little to boost Bruce commercially. "It really doesn't matter," he says. "I've been following my particular path out of choice for many years. I never really wanted to be a huge commercial success; that wasn't even the plan with Cream. I always wanted to play a lot of different kinds of music and make a living, which I have.

"When my 14-year-old was 10, she discovered the Beatles," he adds. "I played a video of Yellow Submarine for the kids, then she bought every Beatles record. Now she's into gangster rap. I like gangster rap myself, and MTV. My favorite band in Britain at the moment is a band called Prodigy. One of my sons is in an Afro-Celt rap band. Music moves on."

At the end of the All-Starr Revue at Billy Bob's, two 13-year-old girls in braces, accompanied by a mother, staked out front stage for souvenirs. When the meat rack of security guards turned away, the best souvenir one of them could grab was Gary Brooker's sweat towel. Sensually inhaling its fragrance, the girl neatly folded the white-haired musician's rag. Once there were thousands of such girls, each night, girls who'd get up and dance--perhaps before this one's mother was born--and who would've fainted over the sweaty drippings of any one of the four men who just left the stage.

"What do you plan to do with it?" I asked.
"Keep it by my bed," she purred.


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