In January 1969 the BBC broadcast a live programme called A Happening for Lulu. Among the guests on this curious pick-and-mix hosted by the Scots singer were the Jimi Hendrix Experience, who, towards the end of the show, played “Hey Joe”. Lulu was meant to join them but Hendrix had other ideas. Midway through the song, he and his bandmates stopped dead in their tracks and Hendrix said, “We’d like to stop playing this rubbish and dedicate a song to the Cream, regardless of what kind of group they may be in.” Then they launched into a blistering version of “Sunshine of Your Love” as Lulu looked on in bewilderment and the producer tore his hair out.
It was Hendrix’s way of paying tribute, from one great rock trio to another, to the British “supergroup” who had broken up a few months earlier, and in a sense he was returning a compliment: the song was born when Cream bassist Jack Bruce saw a Hendrix gig and came away so inspired that he wrote the riff to what was to become “Sunshine of Your Love”.
Many of Cream’s lyrics were written not by band members but by the poet Pete Brown; in this instance, the lyric took a while to emerge. Bruce and Brown were locked in an all-night writing session in 1967 as Bruce played the riff on his upright bass, over and over. Finally as the sky began to lighten, Brown came up with the opening line: “It’s getting near dawn, when lights close their tired eyes.” Later Cream guitarist Eric Clapton added the chorus.
But the song was still not finished. They tried it out at live shows but bootleg recordings reveal the beat is way too fast. What happened next is a matter of dispute; when they came to record it in New York, someone — either studio engineer Tom Dowd or Cream’s drummer Ginger Baker — suggested playing the song with the drummer stressing the first and third beats in the bar, played on tom-toms in the style of Native American drums. It worked brilliantly; throughout the song, Baker barely touches his snare, giving the song a powerful, tribal pulse.
“Sunshine of Your Love” was a hit in the US and the UK and became a staple of Cream’s live shows, with a notably visceral version at their Royal Albert Hall farewell show. The tune also became ubiquitous in guitar shops as countless would-be guitar heroes bashed out the riff. (Incidentally, the first few notes of Clapton’s guitar solo on the studio version echo, note for note, “Blue Moon”.) Curiously, few rock bands — apart from Hendrix — have covered it. Instead the best-known versions come from the worlds of soul and jazz. Soon after the song’s release in 1968 an American soul singer by the name of Spanky Wilson released a blistering cover, the riff played by a super-tight horn section as Wilson’s voice soars and hollers. Ella Fitzgerald began playing it live. Footage of Fitzgerald from the 1969 Montreux Jazz Festival shows the singer on terrific form, scatting and swooping as the piano picks out the riff. There’s also a strange, noodly instrumental funk-metal version from 1992 by George Clinton.
Jack Bruce died from liver disease in 2014; last November a tribute concert was held at London’s Roundhouse featuring a host of guests including Phil Manzanera and Ian Anderson, and culminating in an all-star “Sunshine of Your Love”. Footage of the show suggests that there were about 15 musicians on stage, and it’s a testament to Bruce, Clapton and Baker that this vast tribute ensemble teeming with talent was unable to summon even a fraction of the primal, spine-tingling brilliance of Cream in their prime playing that unforgettable riff.
Photograph: Getty Images
For podcasts with clips of the songs, go to ft.com/life-of-a-song