Best known to most as one third of blues/psych trio Cream, Jack Bruce was one of the world’s finest bassists. In little over eighteen months as a member of that band, his profile was elevated to world-famous status, as he pitted his huge bass sound against Eric Clapton’s fuzzy guitars and Ginger Baker’s powerhouse drumming. Those few months in the spotlight alone would be enough to ensure he would be influential to millions and forever remembered, but the work of John Symon Asher Bruce left a bigger mark on the world over a career that spanned six decades.
His career started as a member of Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, at the forefront of the early 60s blues boom, before moving on to lend his skills to the Graham Bond Organisation and a brief stint with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers with future bandmate Clapton. Prior to Cream, he also found work with sixties rhythm and blues/pop combo Manfred Mann. Between July 1966 and November 1968, Bruce became bassist, vocalist and key songwriter in power trio Cream, lending his talents to a string of classic numbers including the radio friendly ‘I Feel Free’ and psych classics ‘Tales of Brave Ulysses’ and ‘White Room’. It was during Cream’s brief and volatile life-span that Bruce’s array of talents became noted by most, eventually leading to his being namechecked on a regular basis with regard to the world’s best bassists.
Following Cream’s implosion, Bruce hammered on at full pace with a solo career. His solo output yielded fourteen studio albums recorded sporadically between 1969 and 2014. His first solo recordings resulted in ‘Things We Like’, a collection of jazz fusion recordings made with Dick Heckstall Smith and Jon Hiseman (both future members of fusion outfit Colloseum). Polydor Records shelved the album until 1970, preferring Bruce instead to release something rock based. ‘Songs For a Tailor’ (released in September 1969) presented ten strong songs mixing strong rock and blues influences with hints of jazz. Two of its songs ‘The Clearout’ and ‘Weird of Hermiston’ actually dated from two years previously when they were demoed by Cream and shelved. The low-key organ and bass-led ‘Hermiston’, in particular, best represents the best of the album’s material, showcasing Bruce as a distinctive vocalist as well as world-class musician.
Following albums were less commercially successful, but each showed Bruce’s gifts for rock based composition – although always with the focus on complex bass parts – with ‘Harmony Row’ and ‘How’s Tricks’ being strong offerings that have gained a cult audience retrospectively, despite being overlooked in the 1970s. Escalating drug habits meant that Bruce’s output became rather more scant from then on, but he collaborated with Procol Harum’s Robin Trower on two cult releases in the eighties and finished the decade on a high note with ‘A Question of Time’ at a time when a new generation of music fans were discovering his Cream work.
The 90s saw Bruce playing live shows with Ginger Baker, but again studio output remained thinner on the ground compared to his 70s peak, although a collaboration with Gary Moore and Ginger Baker (as BBM) gained an extremely positive response. He underwent surgery for a liver transplant in 2003 and that year’s solo release ‘More Jack Than God’ was met with some very favourable reviews and claims that it marked his strongest work for decades. and in 2005 the almost unthinkable happened when he reunited with Clapton and Baker for four live shows celebrating Cream’s work and influence. Ill-health meant that Bruce’s public profile was kept low after this, but he still performed live from time to time – most notably at shows with Vernon Reid celebrating Blue Note in 2008. In 2012, he played live with Roxy Music’s Phil Manzanera.
His last solo album ‘Silver Rails’ was released in March 2014. The album featured appearances by old acquaintances Robin Trower and Phil Manzanera, while a guest spot from organist John Medeski (of Medeski Martin & Wood) showed that Bruce’s love of jazz remained strong.
Real Gone celebrates Jack Bruce’s six decades as a musician via several video and audio clips below.