My intro to The Yardbirds would be hearing the single ‘Heart Full of Soul’ for the first time in the early 80’s. I just simply loved the clever arrangement of the tune, and the voice of singer Keith Relf also cut through. My investigations into them further took me on a journey to discover more of their great music, but in those pre Google days, I was left wondering what had happened to Relf?
More on that later…
They had formed in 1963 in and around the Kingston upon Thames area, on the back of the massive interest in the Blues in the UK around that time. Relf was on harmonica as well as the vocals, Chris Dreja on guitars, Jim McCarty on drums and Paul Samuel Smith on bass. Originally called The Blue Sounds with Top Topham on lead guitar, they then became The Yardbirds, a name said to derive from a combination of the hobos who lived in rail yards as mentioned in the book ‘On the Road’ by Jack Kerouac and the nickname of jazz saxophonist Charlie ‘Yardbird’ Parker.
Early gigs were secured as back up to singer and harmonica player Cyril Davies and they then picked up the residency at the Crawdaddy Club in Richmond, after the Rolling Stones had departed there. Chicago Blues was the staple of their set with ‘Boom Boom’, Got Love if you Want it’ and Smokestack Lightning’ all to the fore.
15-year-old Topham then left to continue his degree at Art College and was replaced by a fully Ivy League’d up Eric Clapton, who gradually introduced the other band members to the clothes shop ‘Austin’s’ on Shaftesbury Avenue. Giorgio Gomelsky signed them up on management deal and soon had them touring the UK in late 1963 and early 1964.
They then signed to EMI/Columbia and recorded a list of songs at The Marquee for what was to become the live album called ‘Five Live Yardbirds.’
‘The Marquee was always a great night for us,’ remembers Dreja. ‘We did over 50 shows there. And there was this back room where we could put all the recording equipment. It was all very primitive and we caught it by accident rather than design.’
Singles were then released, such as ‘Good Morning Little School Girl’ and ‘I Wish You Would’ before hitting the charts big time with ‘For Your Love’ composed by the prolific 19- year old Graham Gouldman, future star of the band 10CC of course, and featuring Brian Auger on harpsichord. Clapton however rejected the more ‘Pop’ angle the band had taken and he left in 1965 to joint John Mayall and his Bluesbreakers to be replaced by Jeff Beck.
‘I didn’t like them when I first met them,’ Beck said. ‘They didn’t say hi or anything. They were pissed off that Eric had left; they had thought that the whole Yardbirds sound had gone.’
However with Beck on full throttle they produced the well-loved 45s such as ‘Heart Full of Soul’ ‘Over Under Sideways Down’ and ‘Shapes of Things.’
The band hit the US in the summer of 1965, going down very nicely thank you and they soon returned a couple of more times within a year. Simon Napier Bell took over the management role and Samwell Smith moved from playing to being the producer of the band.
Their only studio album followed, commonly known as ‘Roger The Engineer’ after the drawing by Chris Dreja of engineer Roger Cameron on the cover. Samuel Smith then left altogether and long time friend Jimmy Page depped as the band were then short of a bass player until Dreja got up to speed on the instrument. Page then remained and the double lead guitar line up of him and Beck was born.
The band appeared doing ‘Train Kept a Rollin’’ in the 1966 film ‘Blow Up’ by Italian director Antonioni (his first choice The Who were found to be unavailable.) Tensions in this new line up quickly grew, as Beck and Page cramped each other’s style, resulting in Beck leaving in late 1966. They finished the US tour they were then on, with Page solely on lead guitar.
Chart hits were beginning to dry up, so Mickie Most was drafted in to take over from Napier Bell in the hope he would find them some chart success. Alas it was a forlorn hope. Still they continued to tour out in Australia/ New Zealand, all over Europe and then back to the US for the rest of 1967.
Peter Grant then took over as manager as their sound become heavier and heavier. Relf and McCarty in truth had had enough but were persuaded to hang on for a bit longer.
But by the summer of 1968, they were gone. Dreja developed (sorry) his career as a photographer and he also left the stage. Page continued for a while with a new line up, working as the New Yardbirds and that slowly turned into what would become the Led Zeppelin project.
Relf and Mcarty then formed Renaissance and recorded for Island records. Sadly Keith Relf then died in 1976, the result of faulty wiring whilst playing a guitar in his home studio, though some reports said he was actually in a bath playing the instrument.
In the 80s, various members of various line-ups would get back together for reunion gigs under the name of Box of Frogs and then The Yardbirds were inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992. On the back of that, they reformed officially with McCarty on drums and Chris Dreja also in the line up. They have kept that going since with many and varied personnel changes, plus the likes of Beck and original guitarist Top Topham also showing up for gigs.
Ultimately their legacy is always told as a band that had three of the greatest guitar players of all time in their line up. But for me and many others, like Aristotle said many times down The Flying Dutchman on Sunday lunchtime ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.’
The Mumper of SE5
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