GINGER BAKER: Is correct to say that Mitch Mitchell, the drummer in the Jimi Hendrix Experience, was a hopeless journeyman?

MICHAEL PAULL writes ...

Before getting into this, a few facts to consider:

-Ginger Baker is a drummer who is deeply admired by many of the most iconic drummers in the business. The guy could play. So for what it’s worth, when he, on a rare occasion, happens to say someone else is good, he’s probably gonna be right about them. That said…

-Most musicians we consider to be of world-class caliber (like GB) tend to be quite positive and even complimentary when discussing the skills of other musicians in their orbit (unlike GB)-even those who might not be their technical equal. For instance, doing a simple “Google” search, it is generally far easier to find ringing endorsements of Ringo Starr’s playing among the top drumming virtuousi of our time, than it is to find anything negative. In Starr’s case, they pretty much all say the same thing: “He was the absolute perfect guy for The Beatles…complemented their songs in just the right way…no one else could have done it like him…”, etc., etc. Doesn’t matter that he’s not the fastest gun in the West, or the most stylistically versatile, etc.

I believe the same thing could be said about Mitch Mitchell with the Jimmy Hendrix group (both the “Experience”, and the final band lineup, with Billy Cox on bass). In fact, what really attracted me to Hendrix’s music, as much as Hendrix himself, was the incredible musical interplay between him and Mitchell. I’ve never heard two musicians that sounded more “joined at the hip”, and the results are pretty stunning. They literally seemed to be finishing each others’ thoughts, especially in many of the more intense passages in “Stone Free”, “Fire”, and “Manic Depression”, and other similar gems. In a way, it reminded me a little bit of the musical relationship between Jazz legends John Coltrane and Elvin Jones. In both ensembles, there was such chemistry between the lead guy and the drummer, that their collaborative and conversational give-and-take ended up putting them “out in front”, with the rest of the band more or less supporting them with whatever musical space was left. This differentiates them from many other well-known bands/ensembles, who spread out their musical “hierarchy” a bit differently-or more traditionally (in the case of The Rolling Stones, nobody is tuning in to the idea of a “collaborative dueling” between Keith Richards and drummer Charlie Watts as a “thing”).

So Mitchell was extremely important to Hendrix, as we can hear throughout the band’s most iconic recordings and performances. It speaks volumes that after the Band of Gypsies broke up, and Buddy Miles left, Billy Cox stayed, and then Hendrix pulled his old drummer back in, for the “ultimate” line-up.

So yeah, one more (third) fact to consider:

-Ginger Baker was, at his worst, a very bitter, narcissistic man. And he became even more like that whenever he discussed other musicians. To him, NOBODY was ever going to be as good as he, and his fellow compadres in Cream. And given that his band had such a short run, especially in comparison to so many other famous groups of the time, it had to have rankled him pretty good. Looking at the recent movie, one could even count this as a certainty, as he speaks incredibly dismissively about most other bands and individual musicians he’s known. Almost no one of his musical caliber does this kind of smack-talk. He even told his own son that he sucks as a drummer, as a parting goodbye, before hitting the road.

So there it is: yes, Ginger Baker was great. Listen to his work. But take the rest with a grain of salt.

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