We’ve departed Glasgow early, due to circumstances beyond our control. Although we’re biding a few days in Edinburgh before our next scheduled house-sit, I wanted to bid Glasgow farewell with a look at my favourite musician of Glaswegian origin. John Symon Asher Bruce, known more famously as Jack, was best know for being the powerhouse bassist, singer, and songwriter for the pioneering late-60s blues-rock trio Cream.
Born in the north Glasgow suburb of Bishopbriggs in 1943, Bruce was raised by parents who moved a lot, and spent part of his childhood in Canada before the family settled back in Glasgow’s south bank. A classically trained cellist, he attended the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Dance (now the Royal Conservetoire) on a scholarship for cello and composition, but was expelled for playing jazz at venues around town at night. Jazz, at that time, was considered an unacceptable and ‘dirty’ musical form to highbrow classical ears. Despite his classical training, and ultimately his legacy in blues and rock n’ roll, Bruce considered himself a jazz artist. At the age of 16, the multi-instrumentalist, who played double bass, harmonica, and piano in addition to cello, bass and vocals, accepted the expulsion, ultimately moved to London, and soon cut a swath through the unfolding rock n’ roll scene there.
In 1962, he joined Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, which then featured on drums a pre-Rolling Stones Charlie Watts, and the singer Long John Baldry. Korner was also at the helm of a “Rhythm and Blues Night” at the Ealing Jazz Club, which attracted numerous musicians who would soon come into prominence as members of the Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds/Led Zepplin, and The Faces. When Watts departed Blues Incorporated, he suggested Ginger Baker as his replacement behind the kit. Bruce and Baker soon departed Blues Incorporated as well, along with bandmate Graham Bond, to form the Graham Bond Organisation. The members of the five-piece jazz/R&B combo were encouraged to play improvisationally, giving rise to ideas that would reach their fullness a few years later amongst Cream’s signature pieces. Despite the high degree of creativity and innovation, the band was strained by a fiery and ongoing feud between Bruce and Baker, the latter of whom wanted Bruce fired for being “too busy” in his bass playing.
Bruce, who was unprecedented in treating the electric bass as a lead instrument, joined the pop group Manfred Mann for a short time. The fit was wrong, though, and after recording “Pretty Flamingo” and the EP Instrumental Asylum, Bruce jumped at the invitation to form Cream. Cream would reunite Bruce with drummer Baker, and feature Bruce’s former bandmate in John Mayall’s Blues Breakers, Eric Clapton, on guitar. The result was explosive, exciting, and unprecedented, combining blues rock, hard rock, and psychedelia, featuring three lead instruments, sometimes simultaneously, and usually featuring Bruce’s soaring vocals delivering Pete Brown’s poetry.
Largely considered to be the world’s first supergroup, Cream’s third album, Wheels of Fire, was the first doulble-album ever to reach Platinum status. Although the group recorded and toured for only two years, 1966-68, their catalogue of hits is prominent to this day, including such songs as “White Room,” “Crossroads,” and “Sunshine of Your Love,” with Bruce having composed the primal, driving, and unmistakable riff of that latter song on his double-bass.
Bruce and Baker’s old feuds flared again in Cream, exacerbated by a heavy touring schedule, with Clapton often playing the peacemaker between them. Those tensions, coupled with technical developments in music which allowed (and indeed, demanded) greater amplification from the stage, which in turn both damaged hearing and caused the drummer to feel unheard in the melee, pushed the band to the breaking point.
Regardless, the band’s efforts are the stuff of legend. Bruce’s melodic and complex playing laid the groundwork for bassists as diverse as John Paul Jones, Jaco Pastorius, and Sting. In 2011, Rolling Stone readers voted him the eighth greatest bassist of all time, with three of Cream’s four studio albums landing in that magazine’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
Bruce has continued to play, write, record, and perform both as a solo artist and in collaboration with others. He suffered and overcame a heroin addiction, which later resulted in a devastated liver. In 2003 he received a liver transplant, and made full recovery, allowing him to reunite in 2005 with his Cream bandmates for a series of concerts at London’s Royal Albert Hall and New York’s Madison Square Gardens. The band was inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1993, and received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006.
Since being expelled from the Royal Conservatoire as a jazz-loving teenager, he received an honourary degree from that institution, and is namesake to its Jack Bruce Space, where students both perform and socialize.
Bruce released an acclaimed new record, Silver Rails, in March 2014. However, he succumbed to liver cancer in October that year, prompting legions of fans to wonder, as one Rolling Stone reader commented at the end of Bruce’s obituary, “How the hell did Ginger Baker outlive him?”
Jack’s life is the subject of a forthcoming Artworks documentary on BBC Scotland.