Blessed with the nimble fingers and dexterity of a conjuror, and the musical acumen of a jazz improviser, Jack Bruce was probably the greatest bass player of the 20th century. As one third of Cream, his obstinately melodic riffs made him not just the first virtuoso of the electric bass but the figure who moved it from being a beating heart to a voice in its own right.
Early in his career, drummer and future Cream colleague Ginger Baker accused him of playing too busily. Bruce explained that, “I wanted to introduce melody to the bass part in the same way that jazz bass players were playing countermelodies.” Paul McCartney was one of the first British musicians to give the bass a melodic role but in Bruce’s hands it became a lead instrument.
Cream, rock music’s first supergroup, and one which imploded after two years spent at white heat, was unquestionably the peak of Bruce’s career, and those of Baker and Eric Clapton. But while he never achieved the same commercial success again, perhaps because his musical imagination was too broad and his tastes too catholic with which to pave a straight path, Bruce’s works as a solo artist are a bountiful treasury of inventiveness that perhaps with his death will finally begin to receive the acclaim they deserve.
The son of staunchly Communist parents, his father a factory worker, his mother a baker’s assistant and hospital cleaner, Bruce was born and raised in Glasgow. His father was a jazz fanatic, his mother taught him Scottish folk songs, and alongside this he developed a love for Bach and Schubert.
As well as plonking on the family piano, Bruce was soon recognised as having quite a singing voice. Forever winning competitions, one of which earned him the encouragement of the composer Herbert Howells, he sang in the Sunday School Socialist Choir, and also performed in operas with the Carl Rosa Company. At Bellahouston Academy he learnt cello until he was big enough to handle the double bass, then won a place at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, but he was already such an adept player that he was earning more than his teachers by playing in ballrooms by night, something scandalous enough to get him expelled.
He then toured with a big band before moving to London in the early 1960s to immerse himself in the jazz scene, which was soon to go head to head with the burgeoning pop movement. He was recruited into Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, and from there, along with Korner and Baker, joined the Graham Bond Quartet. He and Baker’s relationship was fractious from the start, and the pair were not above onstage scuffles, but musically the combination was exciting.
Bond however, a key figure in British jazz-rock and blues, was already adrift in the deep waters of alcohol and drug addiction that, along with a maniacal obsession with the occult, led to his suicide 10 years later, and this did nothing to ease the tensions in the unit. Baker eventually had Bruce fired, and pulled a knife on him when he continued to show up at rehearsals.
By this time Bruce had switched to the electric bass after some initial scepticism. Following a spell with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers he joined Manfred Mann in 1965, and took the band in a wilder direction: on “Tengo Tango”, flamboyant jazz sax and Hammond organ flicker fiendishly over Bruce’s scuttling bass. Vocalist Paul Jones remembered that, “Jack’s timing was so utterly perfect that he could play seven or nine extra notes, and the most important four would always be in exactly the right place.”
The invitation to join Clapton and Baker to form Cream was met with some trepidation by Bruce, who at the same time was asked to join Marvyn Gaye’s band. He chose Cream, and thankfully the three egos managed to survive without killing each other just long enough to release four albums, set a benchmark never topped in virtuosity, and pass into legend for their epic solos and self-belief (at an early show in Bristol they encored with the 1812 Overture). Thirty-seven years later, Cream reunited for four London shows that sold out in an hour.
Key to their success was Bruce’s songwriting partnership with the performance poet Pete Brown. Brown and Bruce gelled on creations such as the malevolent “Politician”, the immortal “Sunshine of Your Love” and, best of all, the agonised “White Room”, a tale of romantic abandonment with lustrous lyrics which, vigorously sung by Bruce over his urgent bass riff and Clapton’s wah-wah work-out, concocted a heady brew of psychedelic heartbreak.
The partnership with Brown continued into Bruce’s bumpy solo career, which was frustrated both by public expectation and Bruce’s drink and drug problems. His first release, Songs for a Tailor (1969), was confident enough, but it is Out of the Storm (1974) that continually fascinates. With a rock-solid band including Carla Bley on keyboards and Mick Taylor on guitar, and with Brown’s lyrics at their most abstruse and fascinating, it is an example of the sheer strangeness and inventiveness that flourished in the perfumed garden that stood between Sergeant Pepper and the Sex Pistols.
Bruce, who died of liver disease, was badly detained by heroin for many years. Once he was clean he became a prolific performer again, but until then albums were occasional and drew little attention. He was fiercely unsentimental about his past, only ever interested in talking about whatever his current project was, perhaps out of irritation that he lived constantly in the shadow of the monolith that was Cream.
While it is undeniable that it was there that his talents were most intoxicatingly expressed, his solo work is likely to surprise all who seek it out, from the unpredictability of Out of the Storm to Silver Rails, released early this year, on which he once again sang words written by his old oppo Pete Brown, the final chapter of a songwriting partnership as concordant as Bacharach and David.
John Symon Asher Bruce, bassist, singer, songwriter and producer: born Bishopbriggs, Lanarkshire 14 May 1943; married 1964 Janet Godfrey (marriage dissolved; two sons), 1982 Margrit Seyffer (two daughters, one son); died Suffolk 25 October 2014.Reuse content