Eric Clapton was the most famous musician in the band Cream, though Jack Bruce supplied more of the voice and the music. In rock and roll, fame can apparently be a fickle mistress.
The band lasted 18 months and made four albums, which were good enough for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, which makes Cream the Sandy Koufax of its genre.
Bruce did 14 solo albums, the last just seven months ago, and collaborated with countless big-names with differing styles. Yet most of the news of Bruce’s death this weekend focused on his time with Cream or his place among bass guitarists, which was pretty high. Folks who wouldn’t know a bass guitar from an air guitar said Bruce was the best ever, although Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, who knows a thing or two about bass guitar, said Bruce was “the most gifted bass player who’s ever been,” according to Rolling Stone. That’s credible.
But Bruce could leave his bass in the corner, as he does on the link above, play the piano, put music to Pete Brown’s words and produce a beautiful song.
That his weren’t as popular as Clapton’s, or a lot of lesser musicians, is one of the disconnects of art. Popularity often has little to do with quality.
“Bruce slowly disappears from rock history over the following decades,” wrote Neil McCormick in a appreciation of Bruce for the Telegraph. “He made a lot of music in a lot of different set ups, but none of it made much of a commercial impact. … He was probably too esoteric for his own good, shifting his musical attention too often, never really pinning his flag to any particular post.
“In a way, he was too famous and too restlessly creative just to become a bit player in another band, but too musically complex for the mainstream.”
Away from the mainstream can be a fertile place to listen. Songs For a Tailor, Harmony Row and Out of The Storm were all quality work, done in the aftermath of Cream’s breakup (Harmony Row, if I had to pick one, without conviction; Bruce cited it as his favorite in the liner notes of the 2003 re-release). Folk Song, the link above to a solo Bruce performance of it, is from Harmony Row.
From Joe Viglione’s allmusic.com review of the album: “Harmony Row is the album that combines many flavors of Bruce’s experimentations, making it courageous, adventurous, and hardly the product for a mass audience. “Folk Song” is barely a folk song; it is a progressive pop tune with that elegant, Procul Harum-like, sweeping, mystical statement. … it’s a song which should have made him the darling of underground FM radio.”
It didn’t make him a darling, and it barely made him an acquaintance. Songs for a Tailor, which was released first, reached No. 55 and Out of The Storm No. 160, but Harmony Row barely sold any at all; it didn’t even crack the charts (I’m sure my copy came from the discount bin with a cutout in the side and the store was happy to get$1.99 or $2.99 instead of nothing at all).
And maybe that’s why it was Bruce’s favorite. It wasn’t popular to a wide audience, but it was wildly so for the small one it reached.
From JackBruce.com on the album’s cover: “‘Harmony Row’ was a street of slums, now demolished, close to where Jack spent part of his childhood (in Glasgow). The building pictured was famous for being the longest unbroken tenement in Europe, at just over one mile long.”