Listen to this track by British R&B soul-jazz gurus The Graham Bond Organisation. It’s “Wade In The Water” a version of a traditional song that appears on their second, and final, album The Sound Of ’65, released that very year in March. The band consists of Bond on organ and alto saxophone, Dick Heckstall-Smith on tenor saxophone, Jack Bruce on bass, and Ginger Baker on the kit.
Along with Alexis Corner’s Blues Incorporated, The Graham Bond Organisation (misspeling of Oxford English “orginisation” is deliberate, everyone …) was a very well-respected unit on the R&B scene in London from the early to mid 1960s. If the Beatles and the Stones were the bands that the record buying public loved, then Graham Bond and his compatriots were just as beloved by their musician peers on the London club scene. For a time, even future jazz-fusion innovator John McLaughlin was a part of the band on guitar. For those looking for pure chops and blues authenticity that was so sought after at the time, then these guys were it.
As short-lived as this band was, they helped to sow the seeds of the progressive rock and jazz-rock movements in Britain that would flourish by the end of the sixties and into the seventies. As influential as they were, there was much trouble at the root for these guys when it came to personal demons.
Even if their tenure together wouldn’t span more than a few short years, Bond’s band connected a lot of dots for musicians coming up behind them. There’s a sort of European addition to the blues licks he lays down on this particular song, which helped to allow other musicians in Britain into music that was not strictly their own at this point. Bond’s organ lines are Bach-flavoured, liturgical, and yet also spookily full of a dark portent that gives his playing tremendous presence and gravity. And I haven’t even got to Ginger Baker’s drums, which are thunderously sonorous, way up front, and full of his signature African influence and raw physicality that reflected his personality so well, connecting precisely to the traditional material, a spiritual from the nineteenth century with some dark associations connected to slavery. As great as these guys were as musicians, they knew a thing or two about dark associations too.
One aspect of this was drugs. Long before Keith Richards had ever thought of strapping on a rubber hose and cooking up a spoonful himself, Bond and Baker were early users of heroin. In the traditions of Charlie Parker and Ray Charles, heroin was a jazz musician’s drug, a supposed means to open up musical vistas that were unavailable to non-users. Of course, drug use would derail this band as much as they thought it would empower it. Bond’s health and band leadership began to deteriorate due to drug use, and schisms formed. Baker fired Jack Bruce at one point, pulling a knife on his former bandmate, followed it up (allegedly) with a beating. This was not a happy group of people! When Baker and Bruce inexplicably agreed to be in Cream together by the next year, this time including whiz-kid guitar player Eric Clapton, not much of that vitriol between had them mellowed.
The Graham Bond Organisation would run aground by 1967, too early to catch the wave of progressive rock scenes that would soon dominate British rock music by the end of the sixties. Bond himself would go solo by the end of the decade, and later join both Ginger Baker’s Airforce and Jack Bruce’s band in the early seventies. It was during this period that Bond was known to have become more and more obsessed with the occult. In 1974, he would be killed beneath a train at Finsbury Park Underground station in London under mysterious circumstances, perhaps ones that are just as mysterious as those of his birth. If one were a superstitious sort, one might say that the darkness that he wove into his music, and into his life, had finally caught up with him. But, maybe a more rational and compassionate view would simply be that such a musical pioneer deserved more recognition than he finally got.
To learn more about Graham Bond’s career, check out grahambond.org.
And for more on Ginger Baker, a man who changed the way rock drumming was approached by many who followed after him, read this 2009 article from Rolling Stone written by Jake Bulger that traces Baker’s history and influence, and captures something of his famously cantankerous personality as well.
For an even more up-to-date profile of Ginger Baker, I highly recommend Bulger’s follow-up documentary to that article; Beware of Mr. Baker, which goes into even more detail on the drummer’s tumultuous life, including his years with The Graham Bond Organisation. You can learn more about the film right here.