Q: How many famous guitarists can one band have? A: Three of the acknowledged masters of the craft, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, all served their time with The Yardbirds.
This UK R&B group was formed in London in 1963 when Keith Relf and Paul Samwell-Smith joined forces with Chris Dreja, Tony ‘Top’ Topham (guitar) and Jim McCarty, following The Rolling Stones into the Crawdaddy Club as house band.
Within months Topham was replaced by Eric Clapton and the group quickly amassed a following in the fledgeling blues circuit.
Two enthusiastic singles, I Wish You Would and Good Morning Little Schoolgirl, attracted critical interest, but the quintet’s fortunes flourished with the release of Five Live Yardbirds, recorded live at the Marquee Club.
The commercial nature of their magnificent third single For Your Love proved unacceptable to Eric Clapton (despite its innovative sound) and led to his departure in 1965. As the single climbed to #1, Jeff Beck joined The Yardbirds.
Further hits were achieved with Heartful Of Soul and Evil Hearted You. Other stand-out releases included Shapes Of Things, the chaotic Over Under Sideways Down and the excellent The Yardbirds – their first studio album (1966).
Disaffection with touring led to the departure of bassist Samwell-Smith in June 1966. Respected session guitarist Jimmy Page was brought into a line-up that, with Dreja switching to bass, now adopted a potentially devastating twin-lead guitar format.
The experimental Happenings Ten Years Time Ago confirmed such hopes, but within six months Beck had departed during a gruelling USA tour. The Yardbirds remained a quartet but, despite a growing reputation on the American underground circuit, their appeal as a pop attraction waned. When Relf and McCarty announced a desire to pursue a folk-based direction, the group folded in June 1968.
Page subsequently founded Led Zeppelin while Dreja became a highly successful photographer. Lead singer Keith Relf formed a band called Renaissance with Jim McCarty and his sister, Jane Relf. The band became moderately popular in England but Keith left after only one album.
He then became part of the road band behind Medicine Head, a duo led by John Fidler.
Relf was found dead on Friday 14 May 1976 at his house in Hounslow, West London. Relf was discovered – holding a plugged-in electric guitar – by his eight-year-old son. His son called Relf’s sister, Jane, to say “Daddy’s stopped breathing”. He was declared dead on arrival at a local hospital.
A group called The Yardbirds performed at the Marquee in London on 22 July 1983 during the club’s anniversary celebrations.
Dreja, McCarty and Samwell-Smith, with help from guitarist John Knightsbridge of Ruthless Blues and Nine Below Zero‘s Mark Felton on harmonica, backed John Fidler from Medicine Head for whom Keith Relf had been benevolent overseer, producing Medicine Head’s chart debut in 1971.
Jeff Beck died from a bacterial meningitis infection at a hospital near Riverhall in the UK on 10 January 2023 at the age of 78. Original guitarist Top Topham died two weeks later on 23 January 2023, aged 75.
Tony ‘Top’ Topham