From the first chord of the first song, the debut album by Cream was something new. Eric Clapton’s power chord gave way to handclaps and Jack Bruce’s humming, then Clapton returned in tandem with Bruce’s heady vocals and Ginger Baker’s mighty percussion. “I Feel Free” was up and running, and so was one of the most exciting debut records of the 1960s. Fresh Cream was released on December 9, 1966. It entered the UK chart on the 24th and made its corresponding US debut on May 13 the following year.
The album was a brilliant combination of the blues, jazz and rock resumés of all three members, in a line-up that introduced and defined the concept of the power trio. Except that the word “power” always threatens to overshadow the great subtleties, deftness of touch, and sense of humor in Cream’s music.
Fresh Cream landed in the public consciousness in December 1966, a couple of months after the band had made their entrance with the non-album single “Wrapping Paper,” and with “I Feel Free” landing as a single at the same time as the album. The debut long player may have included a track called “Sleepy Time Time,” but “I Feel Free” was actually a wake-up call to a singles market that had almost nodded off: in the week of the album’s release, the Top 3 was populated by Tom Jones, Val Doonican, and the Seekers.
Blues, rock, light and shade
Cream were by no means a singles band, but “I Feel Free” was a definitive 45 of the era, on an album that oozed authentic, robust blues but was also full of light and shade. This was a trio of all talents, Bruce, Clapton and Baker all contributing to the songwriting (as did Bruce’s first wife Janet Godfrey and his frequent collaborator Pete Brown), in addition to which they had a collectively trained ear for adapting the music of their heritage for the modern-day rock audience.
Hence new songs such as Bruce’s “N.S.U.” and “Dreaming,” and Baker and Godfrey’s “Sweet Wine” But here also were Clapton’s modernisations of “Four Until Late” and “Rollin’ and Tumblin,’” from the repertoires of two of his heroes (Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters respectively) and expert readings of Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful” and Skip James’ “I’m So Glad.” They were comfortable with instrumental formats too, as with the traditional “Cat’s Squirrel” and Baker’s theme piece “Toad.”
The album made the UK charts in the week leading up to Christmas, initially at a cautious No.39, when the sort of Cream that many record buyers favourites was the Whipped Cream & Other Delights of Herb Alpert And The Tijuana Brass. But the British trio’s debut climbed throughout January 1967, coming to a rest at No.6 in early February. In May, Fresh Cream tiptoed onto the US chart at No.198, going on to reach No.38. It’s a record that sounds as fresh now as it did then.
Buy the Fresh Cream: Deluxe Edition, which expands the album to include both the mono and stereo mixes, plus alternate takes, early recordings and live performances. Available in both 3CD+Blu-ray and 6LP editions, it offers the fullest picture yet of a stone-cold classic.