In 1968 Jimi Hendrix took the stage at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, and as part of the set introduced a song that had worked its way into the repertoire: “Right now we’re gonna do a song by some real groovy cats, it’s too bad they are breaking up, it’s one of the heaviest groups in the world . . . it’s not sayin’ we can play the thing better than them, it’s just sayin’ we dig the cats and dig this song and we’d like to do it our own way, which will be an instrumental jam.” The song was Sunshine of Your Love, and the group Hendrix referenced was (The) Cream.
Hendrix’s powerful instrumental take on the song caps a double tribute: Cream wrote Sunshine of Your Love on the heels of seeing Jimi Hendrix perform in London, as a response to the jaw-dropping challenge he proposed as a performer and songwriter, and in its riff and melodies the song holds at once the past and future of rock and roll.
The song was penned by Jack Bruce, Cream’s bass player, chief vocalist, and lead songwriter. Bruce led the life of a musical prodigy, a force that pushed and pulled his similarly-gifted peers, to such an extent that Ginger Baker, arguably Britain’s most influential drummer and certainly one of Bruce’s few musical equals, left one band (Graham Bond Organisation) because of him and started another band (Cream) despite his presence. Guitarist Eric Clapton — another equal — insisted Bruce be a part of Cream, and Baker relented because, as he noted, both Clapton and Bruce had the same innate gift of “time.”
Since Jack Bruce died last week, I’ve thought a good deal about what Sunshine of Your Love, Cream, and this firebrand musician have meant to me through the years. Cream had hits, lots of hits, scattered across their three studio albums, but Sunshine of Your Love stands out among their work (“Crossroads,” rightfully still played on classic rock radio, being the highpoint of their live recordings). The riff is simple, as if, yes, they were taking cues from Hendrix, who disassembled the blues root of rock and roll, slowed the rhythms down, emphasized their laziness while adding blistering solos and an African funk. Separation of bass and drums and guitar became important, as if the transformation was about creating rather than filling space. In Sunshine of Your Love, Cream takes the Hendrix aesthetic and writes it large, in four minutes and ten seconds mapping Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and most Heavy music for the next half century. It’s a blues made universal, and because of Hendrix’s own reaction one doesn’t get the idea that Cream was somehow playing Elvis to Hendrix’s Little Richard but, on the contrary, like Hendrix, actually embodied a much-needed cultural embrace. This wasn’t just heavy music for white boys.
Cream chugged hard and burned hot for two years before they couldn’t stand it or each other any more. Their recorded live work is mind-blowing but not for the faint of heart, and while Clapton became the superstar, with some justification, it was Bruce and Baker that ran the engine, driving each other mad while simply driving Clapton to greater heights. Sunshine of Your Love became ten then fifteen minutes long, the jams endless, the power draining as quickly as it had mounted. Clapton left for Blind Faith, not expecting Ginger Baker to follow even though he did, and Bruce was on his own. He released a fabulous solo record, Songs for a Tailor, with very non-Cream arrangements and approaches, and then from the perspective of a Cream fan like myself kind of drifted. He landed in projects like the one where he became the bassist for a power trio that Cream inspired, Mountain, hooked up with Robin Trower in yet another power trio, rid of Cream but not rid of Cream, and played various so-so groups with the jazz rock dudes of his era. He reunited with his Cream mates in 2005 for a set mostly plagued by the adult rock smoothness Clapton’s purveyed since 1972 (the stellar Pressed Rat and Warthog, a Baker chestnut that will never die because of sheer weirdness, notwithstanding). The grit, the volume, the burn were regrettably, inevitably, flattened. As with Clapton, as with Baker, Bruce’s best work was when he was a journeyman, with Cream.
It is a catalogue every bit as thrilling as it is brief. Those core Cream records remain embedded in the rock psyche, the elephant in any rock and roll room, their centerpiece Sunshine of Your Love.
Some Favorite Jack Bruce Moments
The Coffee Song
Sunshine of Your Love
Tales of Brave Ulysses
Deserted Cities of the Heart
Never Tell Your Mother She’s Out of Tune
Tickets to Waterfalls
Theme from an Imaginary Western