Today represents a significant anniversary in the evolution of blues … and, more to the point, the blues audience. It was 50 years ago today that one of the genre’s leading figures, an artist who more than anyone ignited the blues boom of the 1960s and continues to bring generations to the genre, first stepped on to the stage.
It was on this date in 1963 that Eric Clapton joined the Yardbirds.
The 18-year-old guitarist was already a stone-cold bluesphile at the time and replacing Anthony Topham in the band enabled Clapton to pool his prodigious talents and passions with a group of like-minded young Brits. The Yardbirds’ early repertoire was steeped in American blues (“Smokestack Lightning,” “Five Long Years,” “I’m A Man”) and along with contemporaries like the Rolling Stones and the Animals brought it all back home to Stateside audiences.
Clapton’s tenure in the Yardbirds was short; he parted company with the band over its pop intentions in the wake of “For Your Love.” The guitarist took solace in the purer sound of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers (that 1966 album remains a blues milestone) before all but creating blues-rock with Cream. (The band’s farewell tour, coincidentally, began on this day in 1968.)
The Yardbirds remain the most influential British band of its era in terms of building the blues audience. For that we can thank not only Clapton but the two men who followed him as lead guitarist, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page.
I had the opportunity a few years back to interview band co-founder and rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja. He took appropriate pride in both the Yardbirds’ and its guitarists’ influence.
"It's a band where guitar players can really stretch it," he said. "Our present guitarist is an absolutely amazing player and that's perfect for us."
For all its influence, it’s worth noting that the Yardbirds recorded only four studio albums in its prime – "For Your Love" (1965), "Having a Rave Up" (1965), "Roger the Engineer" (1966) and "Little Games" (1967) – and once since, “Birdland” (2003). There is also the remarkably blues-drenched concert recording, “Five Live Yardbirds” (1964).
None of the ‘60s discs charted in America, which Dreja, blamed, in part, on the group's status as outsiders among the British Invasion acts.
“We were hard to pigeonhole and very difficult for a record company," Dreja said. "They recognized the British Invasion and they tried to package (the Yardbirds) as such. But we were probably a slightly strange fruit for them. We did a lot of stuff that people, in a commercial sense, found a little difficult to get their head around. What the Yardbirds were really
about was something very eclectic and experimental."
Dreja's introduction to blues came through Topham, the Yardbirds' first, now-forgotten guitarist.
"I was at art school (with him)," Dreja said. "His father was sort of the original conduit because he had rare 78 rpms of blues music. Then we sought out one or two stores in London that were bringing in blues imports."
Dreja and Topham weren't alone. Hundreds of young people in the United Kingdom were soaking up the music of American blues giants such as Muddy Waters, Blind Lemon Jefferson and B.B. King. That passion spawned the Stones, Animals, Savoy Brown, Fleetwood Mac and dozens of other bands.
It was a Stones' performances at London's Crawdaddy Club that inspired Dreja and Topham to form their own band. Originally called the Most Blueswailing Yardbirds, the original lineup
included Chris McCarty, Paul Samwell-Smith and Keith Relf.
The Yardbirds these days features just two original members, Dreja and McCarty. The group returns to the road this spring in Europe. As in the '60s, it draws plenty of young fans just beginning to develop a taste for blues.
"We are a rock 'n' roll link in the history of things and it's great to sort of have an influence or impact,” Dreja said. “We don't want to be a history lesson. But, on the other hand, that's cool as well."
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