A teenage boy wanders into the music room at school and looks around. The guitars, the drums, the keyboards and saxophones are all spoken for – all that’s left is a battered old double bass leaning up against the wall. He goes over, plucks the strings – and one of the greatest bass careers of all time begins.
Jack Bruce gives a throaty chuckle as he recalls the encounter with the instrument that would lead him to worldwide fame with Manfred Mann, Cream and solo, in a career that has spanned more than 50 years.
“Nobody wanted to play it,” says the 69-year-old Scot, “it was the only instrument left lying around. It was this terrible old double bass and I started plunking on it and just fell in love with it. The bass and me were meant to be, there was something about it that really turned me on.”
Jack was born in Glasgow in 1943 to musical parents and began playing jazz bass in his teens, winning a scholarship to study cello and musical composition at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and playing in Jim McHarg’s Scotsville Jazzband to support himself. He toured Italy with the Murray Campbell Big Band and, in 1962, became a member of the London-based band Blues Incorporated, led by Alexis Korner – where Jack met Ginger Baker, who was playing the drums. Jack and Ginger went on to form the Graham Bond Quartet, with guitarist John McLaughlin, and Jack switched from double to electric bass.
“They invented electricity so I thought that maybe it was time to move on,” Jack laughs.
John McLaughlin left the band, which then became the Graham Bond Organisation, and, three years later, Jack too was ‘compelled’ to leave by Ginger Baker, who said his playing was ‘too busy’.
“We did nine gigs a week,” Jack remembers, “sometimes twice in the same day, you know. There’s a box set of that band that’s just come out – that’s how I know!”
Jack then joined John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, where he first met Eric Clapton, and then Manfred Mann, in what he describes as an ‘ill-advised attempt at commercialism’. Ginger Baker asked Jack to form a trio with himself and Eric Clapton, insisting that Jack take on the singing duties.
Cream were only in existence from July 1966 to August 1968 but they became one of the most hardworking, successful and influential bands of the 60s, and it was with the group that Jack cemented his reputation as one of the best bassists and songwriters in the business, penning such classics as Sunshine of Your Love, which has one of the most played guitar riffs of all time, White Room and I Feel Free. Cream sold more than 15 million albums in those two years and were awarded the first ever platinum disc for Wheels of Fire, their third album.
“Yeah, Cream was quite short-lived,” muses Jack, “but we did so much, we packed so much into those two years that it seemed to be forever. There was a lot of touring in there, a lot of gigging.
“There’s no doubt that Cream was a highlight in my life, both musically and, you know, as far as having a great time on stage went – that was a great band. I think the other two guys maybe don’t look back at it with the same fondness as I do! But I thought it was great, we conquered the world and we were very influential, while we were so young.”
But while Cream is what Jack is perhaps best remembered for, the band is far from Jack’s only career high point.
After the supergroup split, Jack began recording solo albums, starting with the influential Songs for a Tailor, in September 1969, and beginning the policy of playing simultaneously in rock, jazz, classical and world music formats with musicians in many genres that has defined his career ever since.
After Cream, Jack joined the jazz-rock fusion group The Tony Williams Lifetime with drummer Tony Williams, guitarist John McLaughlin and organist Larry Young.
“Tony Williams was great,” says Jack. “I’ve always had a love for modern jazz – I know that’s practically a swear word these days – and he was such a great drummer. He played with Miles Davis when he was 16, that’s how great he was, and I got the chance to play with him. And John McLaughlin was basically a genius and Larry Young was a great organist. So musically I would say that was one of the highlights of my career.”
In 1972, after Lifetime split, Jack formed the blues rock power trio West, Bruce & Laing, who were together for two years, and Jack continued to record solo albums, played bass on and co-writing Frank Zappa’s Apostrophe album and Lou Reed’s Berlin album, performed with the likes of Gary Moore and The Knack’s Bruce Gary.
In the 1980s, Jack recorded more songs with both Ginger Baker and Eric Clapton for his own solo albums, and in 1993 Jack formed the power trio BBM with Ginger and Gary Moore, off the back of a special concert in Cologne to celebrate Jack’s 50th birthday. In the 1990s, he toured with Ringo Starr’s All-Starr band alongside guitarist Peter Frampton, and performed with Bob Dylan, Keith Richards, Steve Cropper and many others.
In 1993, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Cream, and in May 2005 Jack reunited with his former Cream bandmates for a series of concerts at the Royal Albert Hall and New York’s Madison Square Garden, and the decade continued with more solo offerings from Jack.
In 2003, he was diagnosed with liver cancer and underwent an almost fatal liver transplant, which his body initially rejected. But Jack’s health gradually improved and he was soon back gigging and recording.
“It was fashionable in the 60s to say ‘never trust anybody over 30’,” Jack laughs, “we said that when I was, like, 23. And then when you become 30 you go ‘Oh, well maybe I’ll hang around for a little bit longer’. There are things we would all do differently and certainly I would’ve taken better care of myself, in terms of the drugs, but I’m still here so I don’t like to preach. And I’m having a great ride now – I’ve got great kids and a grandchild, it’s wonderful.”
Jack is 70 in May and still touring extensively and recording new material with his two bands, the Big Blues Band, with who he’s coming to the Alban Arena in April, and Spectrum Road.
“I just love playing,” he says, “and I play with these really great musicians. The Big Blues Band is a really fun band, we all have a good time and we usually manage to get that across to the audience.
“I’ve been in some great bands and this is one of them. Last year we played all over the shop – South America, Japan and Europe – and this year we’ve got a few gigs and some festivals in Europe coming up. It’s all part of an ongoing world tour that’s been going on my whole life.”
Jack Bruce plays the Alban Arena, Civic Centre, St Albans on Saturday, April 6 at 7.30pm. Details: 01727 844488, www.alban-arena.co.uk