History records the official live debut of Cream in 1966 taking place at the sixth annual National Jazz & Blues Festival in Windsor. But the trio’s actual first live performance was a last-minute, low-key affair two days earlier, in a club that became synonymous with Northern Soul music.
On the night of Friday, 29 July 1966, England was in the grip of expectation, nervously awaiting the biggest domestic soccer fixture the country had ever known, as the nation’s footballers prepared to take on West Germany in the World Cup Final the following afternoon.
Scotsman Jack Bruce would have been excused a certain lack of interest, but after soul star Joe Tex pulled out of his engagement at Manchester’s Twisted Wheel, Bruce, Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker suddenly found themselves being driven up north that Friday, in a black Austin Westminster driven by Clapton’s friend, keyboard player Ben Palmer.
“It was just called Cream. It wasn’t advertised,” Bruce later remembered. “Somebody had pulled out of the gig and we just took the gig up as a practice the day before doing the Windsor Jazz Festival. That was our first official concert.”
The Twisted Wheel had previously been a rhythm and blues venue in Brazennose Street, where the Small Faces made their live debut and the Hollies played a residency. John Lee Hooker played there, as did the Cyril Davies All-Stars in 1964, just after Davies’ death and with a young Rod Stewart in tow.
After a closing night at Brazennose Street with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, the club relocated to Whitworth Street in 1965, with an opening concert by the Spencer Davis Group. That summer of ’66, the Twisted Wheel became the setting for the first appearance of a new trio who had officially formed only a couple of weeks before.
All three members of the band had played the Twisted Wheel before, Bruce and Clapton both with Mayall, Bruce also with Manfred Mann and Baker with the Graham Bond Organisation. Cream soon had a deal with Robert Stigwood’s RSO and by October, were releasing their first single ‘Wrapping Paper,’ ahead of the Fresh Cream album debut in December.
But it all began in that sweaty Northern Soul setting, for a crowd that wasn’t quite sure who Cream were. They played ‘Crossroads,’ ‘I’m So Glad’ and ‘Spoonful,’ as well as the instrumental ‘Toad’ and Bruce’s ‘Traintime.’
Palmer later recalled: “I parked the car at the back of the club and Eric, Jack and Ginger went in. I went off to the nearest pub. I thought I’d give them an hour and pop back to see how they sounded. I went back an hour later and all the amplifiers were still in the car.
“Ginger said: ‘You’ve been gone a long time. Is it all ready?’ I asked him what he was on about. I said I’d not been long, just for a drink. ‘But you’re the bloody roadie,’ screamed Ginger. ‘You’re supposed to set up our gear!’ I told him I hadn’t a clue how to do it. I expected a fiver in my pocket for driving them, and ‘see you next week.’”
Fresh Cream can be bought here.