The Yardbirds: The Eric Clapton Years Part 1

Forty-five years ago, record-buyers and music fans across the U.K. were being introduced to new bands, and new heroes, every day. 1964 was the peak of the British beat boom, as a flurry of rock ’n’ rolling excitement launched so many new talents onto the scene that it is amazing that even the Top 100 had room for every one of them.

The Beatles, who ignited the frenzy, were off and running, of course, with The Rolling Stones already nipping at their heels. But The Animals, The Dave Clarke Five, The Searchers, The Hollies, The Merseybeats, The Fourmost, The Tremeloes and The Applejacks were all to make their bow this year and, for everybody who believed the entire thing was simply a flash in the fashionable pan, there were others who knew that great things were afoot. And none so much as the growing band of West London teenagers who were following a group called The Yardbirds.

2009 brings a lot of British Invasion-shaped anniversaries to the table, including a lot of very significant ones. But the arrival of The Yardbirds is one that we should never overlook. How many times, after all, are we present at the birth of God?

God comes to The Yardbirds

Eric Clapton never liked it when his fans called him that, and a lot of his peers shared his discomfort.

“When I first heard Eric with the Yardbirds, he didn’t sound all that impressive,” veteran bluesman John Mayall mused. But he also admitted that, within The Yardbirds’ own frame of local reference, the presence of the 17-year-old Clapton was a major attribute, if only because nobody knew quite what to make of him.

The rest of the band neither looked nor behaved much different to any other musicians on the circuit. Vocalist Keith Relf had a smoldering, blonde-good-looks thing going, albeit one that the Stones’ Brian Jones had already patented, but guitarist Chris Dreja, bassist Paul Samwell-Smith and drummer Jim McCarty could have been any players, any place.

And then there was Clapton, who stood out simply because he stood there. In any other band, the lead guitarist slashed and posed and made shapes for the chicks in the audience. Clapton, on the other hand, sometimes didn’t even seem aware that there was an audience, staring fixedly into a private void, while his fretboard and plectrum all but played themselves. The kids called him “slowhand,” and the name fit him like a comfortable suit.

If he seemed distanced onstage, off it he was even more reserved, an attribute that he was subsequently to transform into an artform, and which has sent a lifetime’s worth of biographers delving into the deepest recesses of his upbringing, in search of clues to his legendary detachment.

They never really found an answer, and Clapton was no more forthcoming when he published his own autobiography a couple of years ago. And besides, it didn’t really matter. What was important was, the kid could play.

The Yardbirds had already made a minor mark by the time Clapton walked into their life. With original guitarist Tony “Top” Topham, they’d garnered a loyal following around West London. Their manager, Giorgio Gomelsky, had previously handled The Rolling Stones, and when the Stones scored their first hit single and swam off for a nationwide tour, it was The Yardbirds who took over their residency at the Crawdaddy club in Richmond.

But Clapton was to take them even higher. Vocalist Relf made the call that brought the guitarist down to a Yardbirds rehearsal; according to Dreja, “he turned up and immediately fitted in. He was obviously so much more talented as a guitarist, knew a lot more numbers. The whole thing went straight into another dimension.”

With Clapton watching critically from the dance floor, Topham’s final show with The Yardbirds took place at the Crawdaddy  Oct. 19, 1963, 24 hours after the entire audience was granted a first-hand glimpse of what this blues business was really all about at the opening night of the 1963 American Folk Blues Festival.

The successor to an earlier venture that played just one U.K. date, in Manchester, the festival this time was a weeklong nationwide extravaganza littered with legends. Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Memphis Slim, Victoria Spivey, Lonnie Johnson and Sonny Boy Williamson II were all booked to appear, and Long John Baldry spoke for an entire theatre full of onlookers when he averred, “It was an enormous, great thrill. They all seemed so much larger in life than just a disembodied voice on a record groove.”

The tour kicked off at Croydon’s Fairfield Hall and, of course, The Yardbirds were in attendance that night. The following evening, however, they were astonished to discover Sonny Boy Williamson and Lonnie Johnson repaying the favor at the Crawdaddy. And Gomelsky had an even greater thrill in store for the group. When the festival outing ended in November, Williamson would be returning to the U.K. to tour in his own right. The Yardbirds were one of the bands he had selected to accompany him.

Eric Clapton’s own first date with The Yardbirds came at Studio 51, on Great Newport Street, the evening after the Crawdaddy show; that same weekend, he moved into the communal flat that the entire group, bar drummer Jim McCarty, shared in Kew, and quickly revealed that his much-vaunted shyness was equally much in the eye of the beholder. Visiting the chaotic pad on an almost daily basis, McCarty was especially struck by Clapton’s penchant for slapstick comedy, his love of custard-pie jokes, and the arsenal of comical faces and voices that he could summon up at a moment’s notice, each of whom had its own readily definable personality. “He reckoned he’d go home one day and they’d all be waiting for him,” says McCarty.

The sudden success that awaited him as a member of The Yardbirds played its own part in Clapton’s awakening. His past bands were content to play around the tiniest of local circuits, knocking out their earnest approximations of “Boom Boom,” “Hideaway” and the occasional Larry Williams number (“because you had to have the odd rock ’n’ roll number in there”). The Yardbirds’ following, on the other hand, was growing at such a pace that Gomelsky was regularly compensating the fans who were locked out of one gig by giving them free tickets for another. And so the word spread. No matter where the Yardbirds played, they brought their own devoted audience with them. And the audience brought the excitement.

Stay tuned for part 2!

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