Mr. Baker drew worldwide attention for his approach to the drums, as sophisticated as it was forceful, when he teamed with the guitarist Eric Clapton and the bassist Jack Bruce in the hugely successful British band Cream in 1966.
Keith Moon of the Who was more uninhibited; John Bonham of Led Zeppelin — a band formed in 1968, the year Cream broke up — was slicker. But Mr. Baker brought a new level of artistry to his instrument, and he was the first rock drummer to be prominently featured as a soloist and to become a star in his own right. Mr. Clapton praised him as “a fully formed musician” whose “musical capabilities are the full spectrum.”
Both as a member of the ensemble and as a soloist, Mr. Baker captivated audiences and earned the respect of his fellow percussionists with playing that was, as Neil Peart, the drummer with the band Rush, once said, “extrovert, primal and inventive.” Mr. Baker, Mr. Peart added, “set the bar for what rock drumming could be.”
But Mr. Baker, who got his start in jazz combos and cited the likes of Max Roach and Elvin Jones as influences, bristled when the word “rock” was applied to his playing. “I’m a jazz drummer,” he told the British newspaper The Telegraph in 2013. “You have to swing. There are hardly any rock drummers I know who can do that.”
Mr. Baker’s appearance behind the drum kit — flaming red hair, flailing arms, eyes bulging with enthusiasm or shut tight in concentration — made an indelible impression. So, unfortunately, did his well-publicized drug problems and his volatile personality.
Mr. Baker, who by his own count quit heroin 29 times, was candid about his drug and alcohol abuse in his autobiography, “Hellraiser,” published in Britain in 2009.
He recalled driving from Los Angeles to San Francisco while on tour with the band Blind Faith in 1969 and being more amused than surprised when he heard a report on the radio that he had died from a heroin overdose.
Of a later tour, he wrote, “In 1983-84, I formed the Ginger Baker Trio with guitarist John Simms and bassist Ian Macdonald and we did a tour that included Malta, Spain and Germany; but I can’t remember anything about it due to the fact that I was drinking so heavily.”
He was also, by all accounts, not a very likable man. Journalists who interviewed him tended to find him uncooperative at best, confrontational at worst. The hostility between Mr. Baker and Mr. Bruce, which sometimes led to onstage altercations, was the stuff of rock legend. The 2012 documentary “Beware of Mr. Baker” — the title is taken from a sign outside the house in South Africa where he was living at the time — begins with footage of Mr. Baker physically attacking the film’s director, Jay Bulger.
“If they’ve got a problem with me, come and see me and punch me on the nose,”Mr. Baker says in that film. “I ain’t going to sue you; I’m going to hit you back.”
But if he was difficult to deal with, his talent was impossible to ignore. As A. O. Scott of The New York Times noted in his review of “Beware of Mr. Baker,” Mr. Baker’s music was ultimately “the only reason anyone should take an interest in him.”
Peter Edward Baker — he became known as Ginger during childhood because of his red hair — was born on Aug. 19, 1939, in the Lewisham area of southeast London, to Frederick and Ruby (Bayldon) Baker. His father, a bricklayer, was killed in action during World War II.
Drawn to the drums at an early age, Mr. Baker talked his way into a job with a traditional-jazz combo when he was 16 despite his lack of professional experience. Before long, he was well established on the London jazz scene. He also had a heroin habit that would dog him for decades.
In 1962 Mr. Baker joined Blues Incorporated, one of the earliest British rhythm-and-blues bands, beginning his contentious but musically rewarding association with Mr. Bruce. When the organist and saxophonist Graham Bond left that band in 1964 to form his own group, the Graham Bond Organisation, Mr. Baker and Mr. Bruce went with him.
Two years later they teamed with Mr. Clapton, whose work with the Yardbirds and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers had made him one of Britain’s most celebrated guitarists, to form Cream.
Performing a repertoire that mixed original compositions with radical reinterpretations of old blues songs, Cream was an instant sensation. Within two years, the band went from nightclubs to stadiums and released four albums, whose total sales were estimated at 35 million. But in 1968, at the height of its success, Cream disbanded.
One reason for the breakup was the continuing animosity between Mr. Baker and Mr. Bruce. Another, Mr. Baker later said, was the extreme volume at which Mr. Clapton and Mr. Bruce played.
“For the first 18 months it was great,” he said in 2013. “But things got too bloody big and too bloody loud. They kept piling these huge Marshall speakers one on top of another. That’s why my hearing’s wrecked.”
Mr. Baker’s next band was, on paper, even bigger than Cream: Blind Faith, in which he and Mr. Clapton joined forces with the singer, keyboardist and guitarist Steve Winwood, known for his work with the Spencer Davis Group and Traffic. (The less famous Ric Grech was the bassist.) Hopes were high, but Blind Faith imploded after one album and one tour, the victim of excessive hype and conflicting egos.
Following the similarly brief life of his next band, Ginger Baker’s Air Force, a jazz-rock outfit with a saxophone section, Mr. Baker led a peripatetic life and stayed largely out of the spotlight.
He spent much of the 1970s in Lagos, Nigeria, where he built a recording studio and became immersed in African music, performing and recording with the singer, songwriter and political activist Fela Kuti. He also developed a love for polo that over the years would prove almost as costly as his drug habit: He drove himself into debt more than once buying and importing polo ponies.
In the ensuing decades he was in and out of various bands, ranging from the hard-rock group Masters of Reality to a jazz trio in which his high-profile sidemen were the guitarist Bill Frisell and the bassist Charlie Haden. He was also in and out of financial trouble and moved frequently, living in England, Italy, Los Angeles and South Africa, where he settled in 1999 and stayed until returning to England in 2012.
Mr. Baker and the other members of Cream were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1993. The band reunited for concerts in London and New York in 2005 and received a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement in 2006.
Whatever hope there might have been for another reunion ended when Jack Bruce died in 2014.
Mr. Baker was married four times. He is survived by his wife, Kudzai Baker, a nurse from Zimbabwe with whom he lived in Kent, England, and three children: Nettie Baker, who has written several books about her relationship with him; Leda Baker, a business analyst; and Kofi Baker, a drummer. All were born in the 1960s during Mr. Baker’s first marriage, to the artist Liz Finch.
In 2013, although he had serious health problems, Mr. Baker toured and recorded with a quartet whimsically named the Ginger Baker Jazz Confusion. Interviewed that year on the BBC television program “Newsnight,” he claimed to have “lost everything six or seven times in my life” and suggested that the motivation for his return to music was more financial than artistic.
“I thought I’d retired,” he said. “Managed to sort of outlive my pension, as it were, so I had to go back to work.”
Asked in that same interview how he would like to be remembered, he paused for a moment and then gave a one-word answer:
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