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The Yardbirds: The Eric Clapton Years Part 2

The Yardbirds' following was growing as word spread among fans. No matter where they played, their devoted audience would follow — and the audience brought their own excitement.

Get Caught Up
Read Part I here.

The Yardbirds rave up

The Yardbirds - Five Live

Among the Yardbirds’ earliest faithful acolytes were the brothers Mike and Richard Vernon and their friend Neil Slaven, devout blues lovers whose enthusiasm had prompted them to launch their own fanzine, the now-legendary R&B Monthly. (Future Yardbirds manager Simon Napier Bell co-published another, Blues Unlimited).

Wherever there was an R&B club, the Vernons could be found selling their magazine on the street outside, but their favorite pitches were outside the Crawdaddy and the Star in Richmond. And their favorite events were Yardbirds gigs.

“Both places were very strong Yardbirds territory,” Mike Vernon explained, “so I got to know the band initially through going there.”

In fact, he was one of the many bystanders who sat in with the group on those all-too-common evenings when the asthmatic Keith Relf’s health prevented him from playing a full set.

“There were a lot of people who used to do that,” Vernon recalled. “Gary Farr, Rod Stewart, Ronnie Jones … Mick Jagger used to sit in sometimes, as well. And one guy who had the most ridiculous name of Hogsnort Rupert.”

Vernon usually performed one or two songs an evening, an event that Clapton quickly came to look forward to. “We’d do ‘Stormy Monday’ and ‘Goin’ Down Slow,’ good old security-blanket blues. Eric always used to complain that The Yardbirds never played any slow numbers in their set, which is why we chose those.”

Clapton still relished his nickname of “slowhand,” but as The Yardbirds’ renown grew, and musicianship blurred into a sprint for the finishing line, he was rarely granted the opportunity to justify it. Vernon’s occasional guest appearances gave him the chance to show what he was really capable of.

In terms of its repertoire, the group’s set included as many R&B favorites as any other acolytes of the age — Chuck Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business,” Howling Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning,” Slim Harpo’s “Got Love If You Want It.” But no one played them like The Yardbirds, a blur of glorious noise that reverberated off the most unforgiving walls and echoed through the most resilient stomach.

The Yardbirds’ tour de force was the mad dance they incited their audience to participate in called the Rave Up, a slice of sheer aural assault that saw them remorselessly raise the tempo of the performance by whipping up a frenzy that could not help but communicate itself to the audience. Bassist Paul Samwell-Smith kicked it off — lifting the idea from Ricky Brown, bassist in Cyril Davies’ band, he started moving up the fretboard, cueing the rest of the pack to lock into the same dizzying sequence, until each had climbed as high as they could. Then they’d come back down again, and start again even faster.

“The fans evolved this strange dance,” recalled McCarty. “[They] would take their shirts off, get on each others’ backs and just rave. It started at the Crawdaddy, but [soon began] happening everywhere we played. People had simply never heard music that would let them rip like that.”

Neither did The Yardbirds’ audience allow circumstance to diminish their brutal commitment to the rave, as Sonny Boy Williamson was soon to discover.

The Sonny Boy Williamson connection

Born in Glendora, Miss., in 1899, Williamson (as the oft-appended designation of “the second” implies) was actually the second bluesman to ply his trade under that name.

Indeed, the first, John Lee Williamson, was still active in the Chicago area when Howling Wolf’s brother-in-law, Aleck “Rice” Miller, first adopted his name in the early 1940s and began touring around the Mississippi Delta, insisting that he, and not the Chicago-based artist, was the real thing.

It was a duplicitous feat to say the least, although the only people who appear to have been confused by it were British blues fans. Both men were active songwriters, and, for many years, songs composed by the original Williamson were routinely attributed to the second, including one of the all-time classic blues numbers, “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl.”

By the late 1940s, Williamson II was a regular on local radio and an advertising icon for King Biscuit Flour, the public face of the company’s Sonny Boy brand of white-corn meal. He kicked off his recording career in 1951, with the classic “Eyesight To The Blind.” “Don’t Start Me Talkin’,” “Bring It On Home,” “Nine Below Zero” and more followed and, as the decade progressed, Williamson established himself among America’s greatest living bluesmen, at least so far as European audiences were concerned.

According to future Savoy Brown and Fleetwood Mac frontman Dave Walker, who recorded his own album-length tribute to Williamson in 2004 (Mostly Sonny), “There was a simplicity to Sonny Boy … the same as Jimmy Reed, it was just a shuffle, but it was a beautiful shuffle. Some of those old guys, you listen to the records and they’re out of tune, or you can’t understand them. But Sonny Boy’s records were so warm and so exciting.”

Reviews of the 1963 American Folk Blues festival gigs unanimously singled out Williamson, whose three-song set closed the first half of the show, as the runaway star of the evening. With that renown still ringing, Gomelsky had little difficulty in booking him a seemingly endless succession of dates around the country, with every halt offering up a new clutch of backing musicians who might ordinarily have expected to sell their souls before they could share a stage with such a legend.

In Newcastle on New Year’s Eve, Williamson was accompanied by the still-unknown Animals, the Geordie aggregation whose fire utterly consumes the live recording that Gomelsky made of the proceedings (The Animals With Sonny Boy Williamson). Other shows saw Williamson team up with the Brian Auger Trinity, to cement a relationship which grew so strong that finally, shortly before Williamson’s return to the U.S., it caused Gomelsky to put the team (plus another future Yardbird, Jimmy Page) in the studio together to cut what became the Don’t Send No Flowers album.

Williamson’s best-known partnership, however, was with The Yardbirds, thanks largely to American Folk Blues Festival promoter Horst Lippman arranging to record a couple of their earliest shows (at the Crawdaddy over Dec. 8-9), for release on his own L&R label.

The result is one of the most atmospheric of all British blues recordings, not to mention one of the precious few Yardbirds recordings that actually permits Clapton to show off everything he had learned throughout his years of practice and listening. Embellishing the gaps around Williamson’s vocals and harp, his playing on numbers like “My Little Cabin” and “Mister Downchild” prefigures any of his subsequent accomplishments on his own solo blues recordings.

Despite their obvious compatibility, however, The Yardbirds’ relationship with Williamson did not get off to the best start: “these British want to play the blues so bad,” Williamson once remarked, “and they play the blues so bad!”

“He wasn’t very tolerant,” Clapton revealed to Rolling Stone 20 years on. “He put us through some bloody hard paces. In the first place, he expected us to know his tunes. He’d say we’re gonna do … “Fattening Frogs For Snakes,” and then he’d kick it off and, of course, some of the members of … the band had never heard these songs.”

Slowly, Williamson warmed to the youngsters’ obvious enthusiasm and respect for him; “he did take a shine to us after a while,” Clapton smiled.

Stay tuned for Part 3!

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