Introduction – The Yardbirds
One band that lasted six years with six different guitarists could only mean one thing…the Yardbirds! Producing some of the greatest guitar legends known to man, this British rock band had a great impact on music in a short time span. Originally started by Paul Samwell-Smith on bass and as a producer, Keith Relf as the singer, Jim McCarty on the drums and Chris Dreja as the bassist, the lead guitarist position was a revolving door. From Topham to Clapton, Beck to Beck/Page, then Page and Zeppelin these are the six degrees of the Yardbirds guitarists!
Anthony “Top” Topham
Leaving the band before any mainstream success, Top Topham helped lay the groundwork for the band as their first guitarist. Joining in 1963, Topham performed with the then “Metropolitian Blues Quartet” while they were a backup band for Cyril Davies. Later that year they changed their name to the Yardbirds after jazz saxophonist, Charlie “Yardbird” Parker, and became the house band for the Crawdaddy Club after former band, the Rolling Stones, went on to bigger and better venues. At the age of fifteen the impending fame seemed to be too much for the guitarist to take and the pressure from his family to get a “real job” so he left the band and went to college.
After Topham’s departure a local guitar player named Eric Clapton gained the spot as the second guitarists of the Yardbirds. With Clapton as an asset, the band was signed to Columbia and produced their first album Five Live Yardbirds that was recorded at the Marquee Club in London. That performance landed the band with a gig on Sonny Boy Williamson’s European tour. Eric lent a hand to the band’s first two recorded singles, “I Wish You Would” and “Good Morning, School Girl”, before they finally reached their biggest hit, “For Your Love.” This single sold over a million copies and went gold but ended up being Clapton’s ticket out of the band. As a “blues purist” he felt the band was going in a too commercial direction so he recommended a young studio guitarist, Jimmy Page, as his replacement. Page was not willing to give up the gig he had at the time so he recommended his friend Jeff Beck.
The turnaround time between Clapton and Beck was a quick one…two days to be exact. During Beck’s 20 month reign with the Yardbirds he was only present for one full album, Roger the Engineer. Although he had a short run with the band he made a big impact even being voted the #1 lead guitarist in British music by the magazine Beat Instrumental. Jeff helped the band record some of their most known hits like “Still I’m Sad”, “Farewell” and “Ever Since the World Began.” In August of 1965, Jeff Beck was at the helm of the band’s first US tour and he would be present for the next three tours across the pond as well. Almost a year after the first trip to the US, Beck became a tandem guitar duo with the help of secession guitarist Jimmy Page.
Beck & Page
In May of 1966, just weeks before Jimmy Page joined the Yardbirds, Jeff Beck met up with friends Jimmy Page, Keith Moon and John Paul Jones to record “Beck’s Bolero” giving page the idea to form a super group with this grouping of musicians. The project never got off the ground due to contractual obligations but the seed was planted for Page to use in the future.
After a show in Oxford that Page had joined the band for, Paul Samwell-Smith announced he was leaving the group and Page saw the opportunity to offer to replace him. Jimmy Page started as a bass player in the Yardbirds but switched to becoming a twin lead guitarist with Jeff Beck. In the very brief duo’s history they recorded on single “Happenings Then Years Time Ago.” During a US tour in 1966 Beck was fired from the band due to his no shows and a bad temper giving the lead guitar title over to Jimmy Page.
Only one album, Little Games, was recorded while Page was on the lead guitar. Their radio sound created in the studio was becoming more commercial but their live sound was definitely different by experimenting with a heavier less pop sound. The band was slowly declining and losing their position on the music charts. 1967 ended up being the last full year for the band who had moved back to playing all the material from the Beck led band and included covers of the Velvet Undergrounds hits. A folk singer, Jake Holmes, joined the Yardbirds for one of their US shows and played his song “Dazed and Confused.” It spoke to Page and he took the song and rewrote it, playing it at the rest of his Yardbird performances. On July 7, 1968 the Yardbirds took their final bow and Jimmy Page took his idea for a super group off the back burner.
The New Yardbirds
Yardbird bassist, Chris Dreja, stayed with Page to create a new line-up for the Yardbirds. They found an unknown singer named Robert Plant who recommended his childhood friend John Bonham as the drummer. After the lineup was created Dreja decided to pursue a career as a rock photographer so a session musician named John Paul Jones had worked with Page before so he became the fourth member of the New Yardbirds.
The new band joined Page on the already scheduled Yardbird Scandinavian tour and headed into the recording studio to create an album that would later be known to the world as Led Zeppelin. 1968 was coming to an end and Page felt that his New Yardbirds needed a name and identity change (partly because of Dreja’s cease and desist order for claiming that he had rights to the “Yardbirds” name).
Page took this opportunity for change and tapped into his memory for the time when he wanted to form a super group with a few musicians before his time as a Yardbird. When he originally pitched this super group idea to Jeff Beck, Keith Moon and John Paul Jones, Moon made a comment that the idea would go down “like a lead balloon.” These memory stuck with Page and he changed “balloon” to “Zeppelin” and changed the spelling of “lead” to “led” and the band Led Zeppelin was born!
In 1992 the Yardbirds had joined back together under their old name and debuted again at the Marquee Club. Although they had been given a second chance and included many of the original members the magic that was captured by the Yardbirds in the 1960’s will never truly happen again. The Yardbirds….a true guitar legend factory that is often overlooked for its true contribution to the history of rock.
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Photo Credits: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo