Pete Brown, countercultural poet, singer and Cream lyricist, dies aged 82

<span>Photograph: Avalon/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Avalon/Getty Images

Pete Brown, a cult figure in British poetry, rock, psychedelia and rhythm and blues who wrote lyrics for many of Cream’s classic songs, has died aged 82. He had been living with what he recently described as “various forms of cancer” for a number of years.

The family of his long-term late collaborator Jack Bruce wrote on social media: “We are extremely saddened to learn of the death of Jack’s long term friend and writing partner Pete Brown who passed away last night. We extend our sincere condolences to Pete’s wife Sheridan and Pete’s children as well as all his family and friends. Love from the Bruce family.”

Brown will perhaps best be remembered for his longstanding creative partnership with Bruce, which began in 1965 and lasted until the latter’s death in 2014. Brown was invited by drummer Ginger Baker to help finish the debut single by Cream, the psych-rock band also featuring Bruce and Eric Clapton. Brown would go on to write lyrics for Cream songs such as their first Top 20 hit I Feel Free, the hippy anthem Sunshine of Your Love, and White Room, its darkly tripped-out lyrics a source of fascination to generations of listeners. Dance the Night Away, meanwhile, was inspired by “sex and dancing [which] anchored me a great deal and got me through that time when I was having panic attacks” in the wake of a bad drugs experience, he later explained.

Pete Brown performing in 1970.
Pete Brown performing in 1970. Photograph: Philippe Gras/Alamy

Brown remained Bruce’s go-to lyricist for most of his solo albums after Cream disbanded in 1968, from his acclaimed debut Songs for a Tailor, a UK Top 10 hit in 1969, to Silver Rails in 2014.

But Brown’s career long predated Cream and he would go on to have numerous separate creative projects. Born in Surrey in 1940, he began writing poetry in his teens, and became an important proponent of British beat poetry, including in a partnership with Mike Horovitz – they recited their work at the Royal Albert Hall in 1965 alongside beat poetry icons such as Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso. Brown started to combine his work in live performance with musicians, including a group with Horovitz, New Departures; another partner was folk guitarist Davey Graham.

Brown formed the First Real Poetry Band in the early 1960s, delivering poetry in front of a quartet of jazz musicians who included guitarist John McLaughlin (later one of British jazz’s most esteemed figures for his work with electric-period Miles Davis), and held down a jazz poetry residency at London’s Marquee Club. After his work with Cream, and an increasing embrace of singing, came a new band playing psychedelic jazz and blues, Pete Brown and the Battered Ornaments, though he was edged out of the lineup after the 1969 album A Meal You Can Shake Hands With in the Dark.

Next came the band Piblokto!, lasting from 1969 to 1971 with a shifting lineup, resulting in two LPs much-admired by fans of British psychedelia: Things May Come and Things May Go but the Art School Dance Goes on For Ever, and Thousands on a Raft.

Brown connected with British rhythm and blues bandleader Graham Bond, resulting in the album Two Heads Are Better Than One. 1973 solo album The Not Forgotten Association paired his beat poems with musical backings, played by the likes of Vivian Stanshall.

Brown drifted away from the music scene after the mid-70s and focused on script writing – his credits include the screenplay for children’s film Felix the Cat: the Movie in 1988. But he took work in the 1980s as a singer and percussionist with musicians such as jazz pianist Mervyn Afrika and the Barrelhouse Blues Orchestra, and his creative partnership with Bruce endured, as did another with Phil Ryan, a Piblokto! member he reconnected with: the pair released four albums together between 1991 and 2013.

In 2010 he wrote a memoir, White Rooms & Imaginary Westerns, and wrote lyrics for Procol Harum’s final album Novum in 2017. Earlier this year he completed sessions for a planned solo album, entitled Shadow Club, featuring Eric Clapton and others.

Martin Scorsese was among his many admirers, deploying Brown-penned Cream songs in films such as Goodfellas and Casino. “Pete was a great songwriter,” he said in the trailer for an as-yet-unreleased documentary about Brown. “Whenever the lyrics are repeated in my head … these images stay with me.”