A Romp With Cream Behind the Scenes

Cream, Winterland 1968
"Wheels of Fire" recordings

My old friend, and constant reader, Ian Bonner requested a "behind the scenes with the stars" installment, here's the one I remember best.

It was 1968, I was a year out of St. Ignatius High School in San Francisco. I worked as a young (19yrs old) salesman at Don Wehr's Music City, the hippest music store of that or any time. Don had Santana, Big Brother, the Dead, Quicksilver and anybody who was anybody as his store accounts. Don was decked out with huge mustache and the latest duds at all times.

One of the perks to being the young "guitar know it all" was that on weekends the local ballrooms, the Fillmore, the Avalon & California Hall all would rent various pieces of gear from Music City. We delivered tons of stuff in the Music City van, Fender Twins, Hammond B3's (groan) big Acoustic bass amps, the works. The after hours driver would get an extra $20 and get to stay for the show.

At the Fillmore, Bill Grahams' Ballroom, you could deliver the stuff....... and if they needed another stage hand you could not only stay for the show but be onstage & long as you behaved yourself and actually helped out. I took advantage of this generous situation when ever possible.

March 7th1968 approached and was duly noted on my calendar. My heros, Cream, were playing at the Fillmore and Winterland through March 10th. I was absolutely beside myself, I'd seen their first US tour and was impressed to death (along with every other guitar player in the world) and was getting my finances together to see how many nights I could go.

At 19 years old I had a lot going on, I was enrolled in San Francisco City College (which I attended sparsely as possible), had a steady girlfriend, had my part time job at Music City, took guitar lessons & practiced furiously, and needed to keep the smoke and mirror show going to make the parents think I was contemplating SOME form of gainful employment,..... but energy? I had energy.

About 2 weeks before their four day stand, I was at my City College Tennis class...... (hey, we all make mistakes, ok?) and the court was a bit on the wet side...and going for a wide ball (make your own jokes) I slipped on one of the rain slicked painted lines.....and kaboom!....came down on my left wrist...and broke one of the little bones in, ouch, man.

So, I get plastered up (fitted for a cast) at the doc's from my wrist, past my elbow!! Great. As the weeks wear on, little slows me down and I'm doing all my activities (sans guitar playing).

Well as luck would have it, Don Wehr comes to me, and asks if I can manage the weekend delivery to Winterland with the cast on my arm and all? I believe it was 3 stacks of Marshalls for one of the opening acts "Jeremy and the Satyrs" (horrible), they were from New York and insisted on renting Marshalls (unheard of in those days) Don had originally turned them down, but then someone waved big wads of money at a provision to the rental, Don insisted that they pay ME $20 extra a night (plus the delivery fee, we're talking $40 a night here kids) to baby sit the stuff and make sure it came back in perfect shape. Jeremy was the opener and I can't remember a single thing about him, but his name is on the famous 3 headed yellow poster of the concert (way to go Jeremy!) Also on the bill, The James Cotton Blues Band and the original Blood Sweat & Tears, quite a show for 4 or 5 dollars.

So that Thursday we loaded up the Music City Van, and I and my broken wrist was off to the Old Fillmore......and paradise. I knew all the stage hands, so getting some help with the gear was no problem. I told family and friends I would be gone as much as possible and not to worry.

Wait a said "The Old Fillmore"......then you said "Winterland"??? Stapes, you old duffer...which is it? Has one of the big carriage bolts that holds your brain in place fallen out? No kids, wacky as it seems this day in age...Cream opened their shows in San Francisco...Thursday night at the Fillmore...and then moved across Geary Boulevard to the big venue "Winterland" for Fri & Sat ...annnnd back to the Fillmore for Sunday night. Why for? Rent at Winterland was most likely the issue...Bill Graham watched every penny, very shrewd guy. The posters and biographies all say different stuff as to the venues & dates, but the most reliable sources bear out my memory of Thursday night at the Fillmore, Fri & Sat  at Winterland, and for sure...(you'll see why Sunday is indelibly etched) Sunday back at the Fillmore.

I found a friendly Fillmore stage hand that afternoon who helps me get the Marshalls upstairs (2 flights). Marshall cabinets have two big handles, one at either end, so you really only use one arm if some ones else has the other handle. I waited that afternoon, while Creams' two Roadies. Micky & Peter loaded Cream's gear first up on the stage and watched in awe as they nailed Ginger Baker's drum set to the floor!!! (fahbulous)..the other acts gear (backlines) went in front in layers that were removed as each act played,.... headliners in back.

I struck up a conversation with the two British, scrappy roadies and we soon became friends, joking and getting things set up. With everything ready, I drove the Music City Van back to the store, got my car, a '65 Ford Galaxy 500, and drove out to the Sunset district,...... home to my folks house, (at 19 I still lived at home), had dinner....... jabbered away incessantly about Clapton etc, and split back to the Fillmore around 7pm, so I wouldn't miss a thing ( told'jah I had energy!).

My first interaction with any of the actual band members was with Ginger Baker. A fearsome guy at times, he could just bore holes in you with those eyes. The opening acts had played, and he was onstage with the road crew getting his drum set comfy before they went on, and turned to me.
"I want free Cokes.." He uttered in spectacular Cockney.
"I'm not sure what your arrangement, regarding beverages, is with the people here..." I began as apologetically as possible.
     "No..I want free Cokes...." He stated again with absolute command.
"Mr. Baker...if I have to BUY them'll have Cokes!" I blurted.
Exasperated, Baker turned to face me and gruffly said, "NO!....I want free Cokes! One!..Two!...'Free!"

The large light bulb usually reserved for massive realizations went on with a visible spark in my young head. Baker didn't care whether I or anyone was paying for Cokes...he merely wanted three of them! (the Cockney 'free for 'three' completely threw me.)

Without further ado I scurried off for Cokes. That night, I sat on Clapton's side of the stage! ....10 feet from him.....Marshalls singing their powerful arias....Cream at the height of their improvisational powers.....the meat of their career....I was in HEAVEN!! I tell yah. HEAVEN!

Well.....just as everything was going GREAT about 5 songs into their set.....Jack Bruce blows his 2 Marshall heads out!! Blooey!....Cream is looking around for their 2 loyal roadies (Micky& Peter) who are not to be found!! .....(off getting loaded and chasing the San Francisco girls, it turns out).

So who springs into action? That's

I quickly move to Jack's side of the stage and pull the main fuse in his Marshall 100 watt Bass Plexi, and to my horror find a fuselike length of heavy solid copper in the fuse socket. Apparently blowing fuses was something Cream frowned upon, so they just basically "hard wired" the safety fuse (everything they had was "plexi" as well (priceless, these days)...what the heck?).

(Sorry 2-second tech lecture here). A regular amplifier fuse, 3amp 4amp, will blow to protect the amplifier's circuitry from damage in case of overheating, shorting, tube failure or other circuitry malfunction. A length of solid copper in a fuse holder was something I'd seen many times before (no fuse? the show must go on!), that ,and an old blown fuse wrapped in tin foil, .....and ...if the amp wasn't workin' with one of these "hard fuses" in place... it only meant one thing...your amp was fried, brother.

So broken wrist & all I replace Jack's two heads with 2 of the 3 we were renting Jeremy & the Satyrs (in front of a packed house at the Fillmore stepping over cables and lights) and aawwwaaaay they went....... Back in business.

After the show (I am a hero) Jack Bruce comes up to me and sez, "Are you doing anything else this week?" In a lovely Scotch accent.

"Hoping to see you fellas a few more times." I replied. "Any night you'd like to come, you'll be our guest....thanks." Well of course I took full advantage of that invitation, and I was "in". And when Cream moved to Winterland Friday night I was in the fold, mate.

Not only was I now a "behind the scenes guy" at the rock event of the year, but local Recording Wizz "Wally Heider" had his huge mobile-truck-recording-studio outside, and patched directly to the stage. Recordings from these four nights would become the "live" record in the 2 album set "Wheels of Fire". Could it get any better??

Fri & Sat night were just the best, the band played superbly, light show goin' the whole deal man. Before their set on Saturday night, I was moving stuff around on stage, when promoter Bill Graham who was looking at his watch (who knew me for years as the "Music City kid")..... told ME....... to "go tell CREAM"..... that they were "on"! Now there's cool errand for yah. So I run like a rabbit though the crowd and into the backstage area. The first two dressing rooms are filled with imbibing, bedecked, revelers... some famous... some not so. In the 3rd Dressing Room......lights down one but Eric, Jack & Ginger...huddled around a small black & white TV set, Cream...glued to the they watch Paul Newman & Jackie Gleason in "The Hustler"...they'd never seen it!

I approach quietly as I could...I tell them they're "on"... Eric raises a hand (still glued to the TV) to let me know he's heard...and I tiptoe out and head back out to the main stage.

Well.......about 5 minutes later....... Bill Graham steams up to me, and sez, "Where the fuck are those guys?" As only Bill could say it. "They're watching "the Hustler".." I state as evenly and honestly as possible.

There was no actual response, .....Grahams' eyes bugged out and I knew somebody was gonna get yelled at... I was only happy it wasn't gonna be me. (Grahams temper was legendary, as we'll see). Bill bounded off stage to the dressing rooms like a track more than 30 seconds later Cream is sprinting towards the stage through the crowd... Graham hot on their heels still lecturing them sternly,......but his words are soon lost in the cheering of the crowd as they spot the band ...beautiful......they take the stage... Graham, regains his composure..... introduces them...and "Tales of Brave Ulysses" comes wah wahing out through a dancing light show that runs across the stage and crowd, just like "tiny purple fishes"...I can't really forget it, kids.

They play their hearts out,.... applause for solos, ....applause for ensemble improvisation,..... Eric plays Crossroads,...they play I Feel Free...... they do Spoonful .....Ginger plays Toad.....they do encores......they are GODS!!

Sunday morning......Eric wakes up with a beautiful woman (most likely after noon) after huge parties that rage all over San Francisco's hippest of the hip until dawn. Cream has conquered San Francisco.

The equipment needs to be moved from Winterland to the Fillmore for Sunday NIGHT. I show up around four and find Peter arguing with a caretaker at Winterland who refuses to open a roll up cargo door because of some stupid regulation, not union, not authorized,  I can't really remember.

The BIG problem is all equipment trucks and other roadies are in Sausilito, where the bands are staying. There is some big problem with the Golden Gate Bridge and traffic is snarled throughout the rest of the afternoon. There IS, however; a giant dolly (10' by 6' at least) with huge wheels, that we could move the equipment on...., but it won't fit through the side door, a regular size door, even sideways (it also musta weighed close to 600 pounds!). We need to open the freight door and get the dolly out....but we are refused.

Around 6 o'clock Eric Clapton shows up with a beautiful girl in tow, to fetch his guitar which was left backstage, in their dressing room, on a sofa.(I had waited around for hours for the equipment issue to get resolved....I explored every nook and cranny of Winterland in that time...and yes, I was in their dressing room.....and YES I played the painted SG, "The Fool" well as my cast would let me, it was just layin' there being magnificient....and I tell you I can still remember the feel of that guitar like it was played like a rocket fellas...who ever set that thing up, knew his stuff!!! )

"Mr. C" asks what's going on, Peter and I fill him in. Eric proceeds to tell us he and his girlfriend will go distract the caretaker and tells us to "break the lock" that goes though the chain of the roll up door.

"Break it with what?" Peter asks...
Eric reaches into a wooden box, that contained various shipping implements (crowbar etc.) that was by the frieght door, and sez, "This ought to do it...." And hands Peter (his trusted roadie) a nice sized hammer!

Eric and the absolutely stunning woman he's with, go off to distract the caretaker..... and Peter...well Peter takes a mighty swing at that lock ......and it breaks apart like a tea pot!! (We had hoped the lock would just 'open' as opposed to shattering, this left the 'cover up' portion of the plan obviously in question.)

We had all the equipment piled by the door in case the trucks showed we piled the stuff on the gigantic dolly rolled the door up....pushed the dolly out side....rolled the door down......and Peter and I gingerly pieced the lock back together and threaded it through the chain.....we stepped out into the afternoon sunlight through the side GINGER BAKERS 1948 LEEDY LUDWIG SNARE DRUM!!... AND TAKE OFF DOWN The STREET!!! AAHHHHH!!!

When I was a young man, before my knee got mushed I could run like a freakin deer, people. And I lit out after this kid for all I was worth....all systems go....I caught up quick and got right up behind him and grabbed his jacket collar...which is when he threw the snare drum INTO THE STREET!! (Geary Boulevard to be exact). Peter, who caught up with us, had saved it from being run over!...I was dangling the kid off the ground who was "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry...." There was a big hole in the snare drum head (perfect, can't wait to tell Ginger) ...and Peter just sez..."Let him go..." I gave him an extra shake and turned him loose...he was gone like a jackrabbit.

Peter & I push the giant dolly across Geary Boulevard and up to the doors of the Old Fillmore. We begin loading all the gear up the front steps....we are pretty beat by this time...but...the show must go on.

We're half way though the load-in when Bill Graham himself comes out of his office, walks up to us, and wants to know what's going on. We tell him there's no trucks and all the other road crews are stuck in Sausilito,...... it's just us...moving it all. Graham then asks.."Is there anything I can do to help?"

Let me take a second to say that Peter, Cream's roadie, goes about 5'6" maybe a 150 pounds of absolutely solid muscle. He grew up working on the docks in Liverpool, has nice cloths, shoulder length hair and a good mustache and is a very nice bloke.......until.....

Peter, sweating his way though his satin shirt sez, "Well, could you give us a hand then?"

Graham. who's tough-guy-hair-trigger-temper, is famous, FLIPS! "Really? It's not enough I pay you people, promote the shows, fly you over from England, collect the money and pay the fucking acts... NOW you'd Like ME to Help Load the Equipment IN???" He's screaming at Peter now.

Peter, who doesn't like being talked to like this....and grabs Graham by his shirt front and lifts him to his toes, saying... "Look PRICK! ASKED all friendly like, if you could PISS OFF before I knock your soddin' bloody teeth out!"

Having seen Graham berate artists and support people alike, with great gusto I might add,..... I relished the sight of him, terrified of this little British dynamo. Waving his open hands like white flags in front of his face, he backed down immediately repeating "It's's cool man!"

Peter released him and he scurried into his office and slammed the door (presumably locking it behind him). We loaded the rest of the gear in and finished around 7pm, when a bunch of support people showed up and helped out. We were beat. I had brought my dad's Kodak instamatic camera the night before and had taken a bunch of pictures. I was spending my last night with my new friends and it turned into quite a doozy. Cream had sold out every night, and Graham was mostly pleased.

The lock? Well when Micky, Cream's other roadie finally showed up with the trucks from Sausalito.... along with the other acts and their crews....they went up to the freight door and tried the chain pull....just as the maintenance guy walked up.....and the security guy showed up...and the lock Micky barely touched it!!

Micky, was read the riot act, chapter and verse...he was absolutely aghast that he was taking the wrap for our vandalism...but he never blamed anyone else...he just denied any wrong doing and took it.

A lock was bought, the lock was replaced, order was restored. Micky knew who must have broken the lock, but he said nothing......until he caught up with US.......... but.... when he saw all we'd been though...let it go......mostly since he hadn't been arrested!

Robert Stigwood, Creams' manager, was given all the information regarding the roadies' adventures... including Peter threatening to knock Bill Graham's teeth out. And was giving Micky & Peter a stern talking to back stage at the Fillmore as Eric and his girlfriend came by....Eric at first gave Micky & Peter a look that said "I could save you...." and kept his credit he came back and said to Stigwood, "I told 'em to break the lock, ok?" and breezed off.

Stigwood still had a few choice words for Peter, for threatening Graham and all, but it was mostly for looks, as Graham had snubbed Stigwood when he had asked Graham for seats onstage, so Stigwood stood onstage throughout the concerts. I tell yah, folks, what all goes on.

The cast on my arm? I had everybody autograph it, Eric, Jack, Ginger, Mike Bloomfield...and yes...I still have it! I got a great shot of Eric that night with my dad's camera (see below) and Eric gave me one of the giant tortoise shell picks he used at that time,......... plus a nice big autograph, which are framed on my desk, as I write this.

Jacks broken bass heads were tossed in the back of the equipment truck prior to Saturdays' show, where 2 more were pulled from a STACK of Marshall heads...there musta been 10 of 'em, extra cabinets too.

Ginger was pretty good natured about the broken snare drum head (we never told him the drum was stolen, he'd have killed us!) his other head had been nice and broken in, he wasn't exactly pleased......but, I had the guts to ask him to autograph the broken one! Which he did ...(imagine)...... and yes, that's on the wall in my den. Quite a weekend for a nineteen year old, I don't know if I ever got over it really...... OK, Ian?

The first shot is my fave:
Eric and the painted SG, taken by me, Micky has his back to us.

In the second picture note the recording mics, and just over Ginger's cymbals is a figure in a suit...Robert Stigwood

A Romp With Cream Behind the Scenes
© 2007 Billy Stapleton. All rights reserved.

"Keep pickin’ ... "
- Billy Stapleton