Imagine having three of the world’s greatest guitar players in the same band. Only the Yardbirds can make that claim to fame, although all three — Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page — didn’t all play together at the same time.
Clapton was a member of the original R&B group, which succeeded the Rolling Stones as house band at Richmond’s Crawdaddy Club. Clapton and singer Keith Relf were backed by guitarist Chris Dreja, drummer Jim McCarty and bass player Paul Samwell-Smith, all of whom co-wrote the Yardbirds’ hits. The club’s owner, Giorgio Gomelsky, became their manager and producer, and in 1964 the group signed a contract with EMI/Columbia. The Yardbirds recorded a live album and went on tour with bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson.
After two unsuccessful singles, the Yardbirds scored with “For Your Love.” Despite its success, Clapton — who was something of a blues purist at the time — objected to the move into pop music and quit the band in 1965. Within a couple of days, he was replaced by studio guitarist Jeff Beck. The Yardbirds put together an album for the US and toured the States in August 1965.
It was during Beck’s time with the group that the Yardbirds scored their biggest hits: “Heart Full of Soul”, “I’m A Man” and “Shapes of Things.” Samwell-Smith left the band in 1966 to become a record producer and another session player, Jimmy Page, took his place. Page had been Clapton’s original choice as his successor but turned down the offer.
The Yardbirds made best advantage of their two lead guitarists, allowing both to display their skills together. While they didn’t produce as many commercial hits as before, the group gained a solid reputation and toured with the another top-flight live band, the Rolling Stones.
During a US tour in late 1966, Beck was fired for missing too many shows because of illness. The Yardbirds, now a quartet, began to experiment in psychedelic music, all the while releasing commercial pop records. Band members split on their musical direction: Relf and McCarty wanted a softer sound, while Page pushed for a return to guitar-based hard rock and blues. The Yardbirds played their final concert together in July 1968.
With some touring obligations remaining, Page replaced singer Relf with Robert Plant and added other musicians. The new combination caught on, but legal issues forced Page to stop using the Yardbirds name. So the band became Led Zeppelin, which would enjoy ten years as one of the world’s biggest rock bands.
Relf and drummer Jim McCarty formed an acoustic group called Together and later a progressive rock band named Renaissance, which recorded two albums for Island Records. Relf died by electrocution, while playing an ungrounded guitar in his studio in 1976.
The Yardbirds were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992. All six living musicians who had been part of the group’s heyday, including Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page, appeared at the ceremony. Beck cracked at the ceremony: “Someone told me that I should be happy, but I’m not…because they kicked me out… f*** them! (Laughs)…”
Where Are They Now?
Bass player Paul Samwell-Smith went on to a very succesful career as a record producer, working with Cat Stevens, Jethro Tull and Carly Simon, among others. In the Nineties, he played in the Yardbirds’ reunion band called Box of Frogs.
After the Yardbirds, Eric Clapton played with John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, Cream and Blind Faith and then went on to a hugely successful solo career.
Jeff Beck has pursued a solo career, in addition to collaborating with scores of other musicians. He played guitar for Kelly Clarkson in last year’s American Idol Gives Back program, receiving a standing ovation from the audience. Also in 2007, Beck was featured at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival.
In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine ranked Jimmy Page #9 in its list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. After ten years with Led Zeppelin, Page has recorded with other musicians for the last three decades. In the mid 2000s, he joined surviving Zeppelin members to play at a charity concert in London. In September 2014, Page – who hasn’t toured solo since 1988 – announced that he will start a new band and perform material spanning his entire career.
Bass player Chris Dreja is a professional photographer. Dreja suffered a series of strokes in 2012 and 2013 and had not performed with The Yardbirds since mid-2012. In July 2013 it was announced that he had officially left the band for medical reasons and was replaced by original lead guitarist Top Topham.
Drummer Jim MCarty is the only remaining original Yardbird.
The Yardbirds Videos
“Four Your Love”, live, 1965
At the Monmouth Festival, 2007, medley The lineup: John Idan-Bass & Lead Vocals; Ben King-Lead Guitar; Billy Miskimmin-Harmonica, Vocals & Percussion; Chris Dreja-Guitar & Vocals; Jim McCarty-Drums, Vocals
Five Live Yardbirds UK Only
For Your Love
Heart Full Of Soul
Having a Rave Up with The Yardbirds (US-compilation) November 1965, US
Sonny Boy Williamson and The Yardbirds January 1966, reissued in 2003
The Yardbirds – July 1966 (a.k.a. Roger the Engineer)
Released in France and USA as Over Under Sideways Down
The Yardbirds Greatest Hits (US) April 1967
Blow Up: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack May 1966
Little Games (US) August 1967
The Yardbirds/Featuring Performances By Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page (US) October 1970,
Live Yardbirds: Featuring Jimmy Page (US) 1971 & 1976
Blue Eyed Blues 1972
Afternoon Tea 1982
London 1963 – The First Recordings! 1984
Little Games Sessions and More 1992
BBC Sessions 1999
Cumular Limit 2000
Blueswailing July ’64 (Live) 2003
Yardbirds Reunion Jam Vol II 2006
Live at B.B. King Blues Club 2007
“I Wish You Would” (1964)
“For Your Love” (1965)
“Heart Full Of Soul” (1965)
“I’m A Man” (1965)
“Shapes Of Things” (1966)
“Over, Under, Sideways, Down” (1966)
“Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” (1966)
“Little Games” (1967)
“Ha, Ha Said The Clown” (1967)
“Ten Little Indians” (1967)
“Goodnight Sweet Josephine” (1968)