November 9, 2023

There can be no doubt about Cream’s legacy as pioneers of rock, blues and fusion – generally touted as the world’s first ‘Supergroup’, (defined as a band whose individual members had already become famous in other acts), they were arguably the template upon which all power trios are based. Bassist, singer and songwriter Jack Bruce had played stints in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and Manfred Mann in addition to his time in Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated and the Graham Bond Organization, the latter two of which also included drummer Ginger Baker. Eric Clapton’s incendiary style had become influential and famous during his stints in the Bluesbreakers and the Yardbirds, but it was only with Cream that he became ‘God’. Massive musical talents notwithstanding though, the band only lasted four albums before imploding under the gravity of Bruce and Baker’s mutual antagonism.

However, a cursory glance down the songwriter list of their back catalogue reveals an interesting fact – a lot of their original lyrics were penned in collaboration with one Pete Brown, a performance poet from Surrey. It was Pete who was approached by Quarto Valley Records with a view to putting a tribute album together, and Pete who drafted in Ginger Baker. Rather than making it a full-blown album of covers though, it was decided to strip the production down to acoustic instruments. Jack Bruce’s multi-instrumentalist son Malcolm came on board, plus over 30 other musicians including Whitesnakers Bernie Marsden and Neil Murray, powerhouse vocalists Maggie Bell, Nathan James and Deborah Bonham, plus veteran bluesman Bobby Rush, the venerable Paul Rodgers of Free and Bad Company, and the ubiquitous Joe Bonamassa. This was always going to be a landmark musical endeavour.

Clockwise from top left: Ginger Baker, Malcolm Bruce, Pete Brown, Bernie Marsden (photos by Shu Tomioka)

The album kicks off mildly enough with a kind of cabaret jazz version of I Feel Free, sung by Deborah Bonham, with a lot of backing vocals going on too. Pete Brown takes over the vocals for White Room, and although his voice is not that much like Jack Bruce’s – who was, let’s face it, a superb singer – it’s uncannily close to Eric Clapton’s. Some lovely string arrangements adorn the Theme For An Imaginary Western and the excellent We’re Going Wrong, which is given a tasteful treatment with open guitar chords, carefully-placed deep reverb on Malcolm Bruce’s vocals, and deep toms, timpanis possibly.

Ginger Baker gets behind the kit for Sunshine Of Your Love, which is also the lead single, with vocals and guitar work split between Joe Bonamassa and Bernie Marsden – give it a whirl at the foot of this page. Malcolm Bruce contributes piano, guitar or vocals to every number up to now, but plays some sweet fretless bass on Deserted Cities Of The Heart. For me, the album really starts picking up in the second half, when they start rocking out to some of the bluesier numbers. Bernie Marsden gets to sing and play guitar on the classic Crossroads, with the sandpaper-edged Scot Maggie Bell taking over the vocals for Take It Back, Malcolm Bruce adding a bit of boogie piano.

Bobby Rush, close to his 90th birthday, is brought in to sing and blow the harp on the blues covers Spoonful and Sitting On Top Of The World, singing the latter as a duet with Maggie Bell, which is a treat, and possibly the best song on the album for me – the other candidate would be the next number, a decently rocked-up Badge, featuring the tremendous vocal chords of Deborah Bonham – this one is much more up her street than the fairly prosaic opener. And while we’re on great vocalists, Paul Rodgers gets to close the show with Born Under A Bad Sign.

Well it’s a celebrity-fest and no mistake, 50 minutes and 15 songs; a glance through the album credits will reveal other names I haven’t mentioned here – the late Pee Wee Ellis, for instance, lends his saxophone to Tales Of Brave Ulysses, with powerhouse Nathan James from Inglorious on vocals. When reviewing unplugged albums, it’s traditional to say how the stripped-down sound really allows the quality of the songs to shine through. In this case though, I would hesitate to make that claim – yes, it’s great to hear so many excellent musicians come together to salute Cream’s legacy; the set also stands as a tribute to the musicians themselves, several of whom, you may already have noticed, have left us in between the album being recorded and released – as hinted by the poignant miniature photo on the front cover. Heavenly Cream indeed. But in truth, these songs were designed to be played loud, in dynamically extemporaneous form, and without that psychedelic fusion jam aspect, their impact is somewhat blunted; the production seems a little claustrophobic to these ears too. Having said that, as previously mentioned, the bluesier numbers lend themselves equally to electric or acoustic format, and it’s these ones that stand out in my mind as the most successful – I have no hesitation in nominating Maggie Bell and Deborah Bonham as the stars of the show. And kudos to Quarto; one way or another, these songs deserve to be heard, close to 50 years after their original outing.

Heavenly Cream is now available on digital, CD and vinyl formats from Quarto Valley Records