Fronted by Eric Clapton, Cream was the prototypical power trio, playing a mix of blues, rock and psychedelia while focusing on chunky riffs and fiery guitar solos. In a mere three years, the band sold 15 million records, played to SRO crowds throughout the U.S. and Europe, and redefined the instrumentalist’s role in rock.
Cream formed in mid-1966 when drummer Ginger Baker left Graham Bond’s Organisation, bassist Jack Bruce (formerly of Bond’s band) left Manfred Mann, and Clapton, already a famous guitarist in the U.K., left John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. Debuting at the 1966 Windsor Jazz and Blues Festival, Cream established its enduring legend on the high-volume blues jamming and extended solos of its live shows. By contrast, its studio work — 1966’s Fresh Cream (Number 39, 1968), 1967’s Disraeli Gears (Number Four, 1968) and half of Wheels of Fire (Number One, 1968) — tended toward more sophisticated original rock material, most of it written by Bruce with lyricist Pete Brown. Cream’s U.S. hit singles included “Sunshine of Your Love” (Number Five, 1968), “White Room” (Number Six, 1968), and a live version of the Robert Johnson country-blues standard “Crossroads” (Number 28, 1969). Wheels of Fire, made up of a live LP and a studio LP (both recorded in the U.S.), remained at the top spot on the Billboard album chart for four weeks in the summer of 1968, just as the group was coming apart.
Tension within the band led to a quick breakup. Cream gave its farewell concert, filmed as Goodbye Cream, on November 26, 1968, at London’s Royal Albert Hall. After patching together the Goodbye LP (Number Two, 1969) — which featured “Badge,” cowritten by Clapton and George Harrison — Clapton and Baker subsequently formed Blind Faith with Traffic singer Steve Winwood, and Bruce went solo. Clapton and Baker soon also went on to solo careers, and Clapton has remained hugely popular ever since.
In 1993 Cream was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; Clapton, Baker, and Bruce reunited to perform three songs at the ceremonies. In 2005, the volatile trio again reemerged for sell-out performances from their legendary catalog at a four-date show in early May at London’s Royal Albert Hall and a two-date show in late October at New York’s Madison Square Garden, but the tensions resurfaced and Clapton and Baker later said there would be no more reunions. The following February, Cream won a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement.