This UK R&B group was formed in London in 1963 when Keith Relf (born 22 March 1944, Richmond, Surrey, England, died 14 May 1976; vocals/harmonica) and Paul Samwell-Smith (born 8 May 1943; bass), both members of semi-acoustic act the Metropolis Blues Quartet, joined forces with Chris Dreja (born 11 November 1944, Surbiton, Surrey, England; rhythm guitar), Tony Topham (guitar) and Jim McCarty (born 25 July 1944, Liverpool, England; drums).
Within months Topham had opted to continue academic studies and was replaced by Eric Clapton (born Eric Clapp, 30 March 1945, Ripley, Surrey, England). The reconstituted line-up forged a style based on classic Chicago R&B and quickly amassed a following in the nascent blues circuit. They succeeded the Rolling Stones as the resident band at Richmond’s popular Crawdaddy club, whose owner, Giorgio Gomelsky, then assumed the role of group manager. Two enthusiastic, if low-key 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 during their tenure at the Marquee club, the set captured an in-person excitement and was marked by an exceptional rendition of Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘Smokestack Lightning’.
Clapton emerged as the unit’s focal point, but a desire for musical purity led to his departure in 1965 in the wake of a magnificent third single, ‘For Your Love’. Penned by Graham Gouldman, the song’s commerciality proved unacceptable to the guitarist despite its innovative sound.
Jeff Beck (born 24 June 1944, Surrey, England), formerly of the Tridents, joined the Yardbirds as the single rose to number 1 in the UK’s New Musical Express chart. Gouldman provided further hits in ‘Heartful Of Soul’ and ‘Evil Hearted You’, the latter of which was a double-sided chart entry with the group-penned ‘Still I’m Sad’. Based on a Gregorian chant, the song indicated a desire for experimentation prevailing in the rage-rock ‘Shapes Of Things’, the chaotic ‘Over Under Sideways Down’ and the excellent ‘Yardbirds’. By this point Simon Napier-Bell had assumed management duties, while disaffection with touring, and the unit’s sometimes irreverent attitude, led to the departure of Samwell-Smith in June 1966.
Respected session guitarist Jimmy Page (born 9 January 1944, London, England) was brought into a line-up which, 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. Despite late-period collaborations with the commercially-minded Mickie Most, singles, including ‘Little Games’ (1967) and ‘Goodnight Sweet Josephine’ (1968), failed to chart. The disappointing album ‘Little games’ was denied a UK release but found success in the USA. They followed with two bizarre minor successes in America; ‘Ha Ha Said The Clown’ and Harry Nilsson’s ‘Ten Little Indians’. When Relf and McCarty announced a desire to pursue a folk-based direction, the group folded in June 1968.
Nonetheless, the legacy of the Yardbirds has refused to die, particularly in the wake of the fame enjoyed by its former guitarists.
The Yardbirds are mostly interesting for Kim Wilde fans for their original rendition of Putty in Your Hands.