Obituary: Jack Bruce, musician

Cream bassist and one of the most renowned Scottish musicians of the 20th century. Picture: Getty
Cream bassist and one of the most renowned Scottish musicians of the 20th century. Picture: Getty
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BORN: Bishopbriggs, Lanarkshire, 14 May 1943. Died: Suffolk, 25 October 2014, aged 71.

Jack Bruce was one of the most renowned and significant Scottish musicians of the 20th century, known

primarily for the brief two-year period between 1966 and 1968 which he spent as the bassist in blues-rock group Cream, alongside guitarist Eric Clapton and drummer Ginger Baker. The band’s four albums together and numerous hits including I Feel Free, Sunshine of Your Love and White Room would earn international success and recognition which endures to this day, although Bruce’s own career as a skilled multi-instrumentalist proficient in many genres would also flourish from the point the band split.

Born John Symon Asher Bruce in Bishopbriggs near the end of the Second World War, Bruce’s early life would see him move around with his nomadic family, attending 14 schools in the process. Settling down at Bellahouston Academy, he would later recall the family living in a council flat filled with music. His mother Betty was an amateur folk singer, his father Charlie a fan of traditional jazz artists like Louis Armstrong and his elder brother a devotee of modern jazz. Bruce himself would sing in a church choir before ever taking up an instrument.

The family lived in such poverty that Bruce never received pocket money. However, his parents – a factory worker father and a cleaner and bakery assistant mother – saved enough to be able to send their prodigiously talented son to the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama to study cello and composition. Yet the musical roots planted by his family were strong in him, and he would soon be playing extracurricular jazz bass around Glasgow clubs in the evenings. His tutors frowned upon a classical student engaging in such frivolous activities, and strong disagreements with them would cause him to leave the RSAMD and Glasgow at the age of 17.

Travelling once more, first to Italy, Bruce would pitch up in London as a musician for hire just as the rock ‘n’ roll era was in full flow in the UK. The musical climate of the time was perfect for a player with Bruce’s jazz and blues tastes and abilities, and he would spend the first half of the decade achieving varying degrees of success with a number of bands. These included Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated and the Graham Bond Organisation, both of which featured Baker on drums, and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, whose guitarist was Clapton.

He would also go on to spend a brief period playing bass with Manfred Mann, whose song Pretty Flamingo was one of only two number one singles Bruce would appear on. Yet it was an approach to get involved with Clapton’s next project after their brief time together in the short-lived and unremembered Powerhouse with Spencer Davis Group singer Steve Winwood that would truly make his name. Featuring three players bearing their pedigrees, Cream was considered at the time to be a blues-rock supergroup.

However, there was an irony in the fact that Bruce’s departure from the Graham Bond Organisation was precipitated by his then bad relationship with Baker, and Clapton had to lobby the latter at the time to accept Bruce’s inclusion on the strength of his formidable ability. As it turned out, Bruce would write most of Cream’s output alongside lyricist Pete Brown and sing on the majority of their tracks. He would later reveal that being the vocalist wasn’t what he would have liked, but that he and Clapton “had a competition as to who didn’t want to be the lead singer. I guess I sort of lost.” Friction between bassist and drummer along with Bruce’s desire to explore other forms of music would eventually pull the group apart. During their two-year lifespan Cream would release three records – Fresh Cream, Disraeli Gears and Wheels of Fire – and 1969’s posthumous Goodbye, each of which would go on to find a place high on future accepted lists of greatest rock records of all time. Briefly reunited in 1993 for induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame and for live dates in London and New York in 2005, the band had helped popularise the “power trio” format and the improvised instrumental jam session in live rock playing, with their hard-edged riffs all the while bearing the focused and melodic legacy of Bruce’s stated Beatles influence.

In later years Bruce would elaborate upon the “double-edged sword” of being in Cream, in that it would earn him a large amount of royalties right through his life but overshadow every subsequent project, leaving him feeling like an actor who had been typecast. Although his debut solo album Songs for a Tailor was a hit in 1969, subsequent projects wouldn’t enjoy such commercial success, with much of his most interesting work coming thanks to the artistic ambition of it (free jazz and world music would both be used) or the choice of collaborators he was working with. He would also come to struggle with periods of alcohol and drug addiction. Bruce’s many later collaborative projects included playing bass on Lou Reed’s 1973 album Berlin, Frank Zappa’s 1974 record Apostrophe and in a latter-day commercial success with the trio BBM alongside Baker and Irish guitarist Gary Moore, scoring a top ten album in 1994 with Around the Next Dream. He would return to Scotland to help score playwright John Byrne’s film version of his Slab Boys trilogy in 1997, to receive an honorary doctorate from Glasgow Caledonian University in 2009 and to play the Celtic Connections tribute concert for the late Gerry Rafferty in 2012. His final album Silver Rails was released earlier this year.

An artist so versatile that he turned down a slot in Marvin Gaye’s band in order to get married and played uncredited on The Scaffold’s 1968 comedy song Lily the Pink (the Hollies’ Graham Nash, Tim Rice and a pre-fame Elton John also featured; it was Bruce’s second and only other number one hit), Jack Bruce died at home in Suffolk from liver disease, having already beaten liver cancer by means of a transplant in 2003. He is survived by his second wife Margrit, whom he married in 1979, sons Malcolm and Corin (another son, Jonas, died in 1997), daughters Natascha and Kyla, and granddaughter Maya.

DAVID POLLOCK