A co-founder of Cream, he also played with Blind Faith, Hawkwind and Fela Kuti in a long and varied career.
His style combined the lyricism of jazz with the crude power of rock. One critic said watching him was like witnessing "a human combine harvester".
But he was also a temperamental and argumentative figure, whose behaviour frequently led to on-stage punch-ups.
Nicknamed Ginger for his flaming red hair, the musician was born Peter Edward Baker in Lewisham, south London, shortly before World War Two.
His bricklayer father was killed in action in 1943, and he was brought up in near poverty by his mother, step-father and aunt.
A troubled student, he joined a local gang in his teens and became involved in petty theft. When he tried to quit, gang-members attacked him with a razor.
His early ambition was to ride in the Tour de France but was forced to quit the sport when, aged 16, his bicycle got "caught up" with a taxi. Instead, he took up drumming.
"I was always banging on the desks at school," he recalled. "So all the kids kept saying, 'Go on, go and play the drums', and I just sat down and I could play.
"It's a gift from God. You've either got it or you haven't. And I've got it: time. Natural time."
The strong legs he'd developed on long bike rides helped him play the double bass drum set-up he favoured and Baker soon talked his way into his first gig.
He played with jazz acts like Terry Lightfoot and Acker Bilk but his style - fragmented and aggressive, but articulate and insistent - was often an odd fit.
Instead, he gravitated towards London's burgeoning blues scene and, in 1962, joined Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated on the recommendation of Charlie Watts - who was leaving to join the Rolling Stones.
Contributors marvelled at his talent, but little else. "He influenced me as a drummer, but not as a person," recalled Free's Simon Kirke, who toured with Cream.
In later years, he was beset by ill health, breaking most of his ribs and subsequently being diagnosed with a degenerative spine condition and the onset of emphysema.
"God is punishing me for my past wickedness by keeping me alive and in as much pain as He can," he told Rolling Stone at the time.
The musician fought osteoarthritis to record his final album, Why?, in 2014. Two years later, he underwent open heart surgery and announced his retirement from touring.
"Just seen doctor… big shock… no more gigs for this old drummer... everything is off," he wrote on his official blog.
"Of all things I never thought it would be my heart."
Baker's death will see him feted as one of rock's most influential musicians, but he scoffed at such accolades, insisting: "Drummers are really nothing more than time-keepers."
He told Rhythm magazine: "It's the drummer's job to make the other guys sound good."