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© Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS
It’s 20 years since they were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame; 25 years since Clapton denied he was the greatest guitarist in the world on The South Bank Show. What follows is a fond tribute to a group who were both a cradle to great soloists and an inventive, eclectic and original band almost as great as its component parts...
Formed in the summer of 1963 in the South West London suburbs by Keith Relf and Paul Samwell-Smith, who had together played in the Metropolitan Blues Quartet, they were joined by Anthony ‘Top’ Topham, Chris Dreja and Jim McCarty and called themselves Blue-Sounds, with their first gig at Eel Pie Island.
In September they switched to The Yardbirds, a mix of tribute to Charlie ‘Yardbird’ Parker the jazz saxophonist and the image of ‘hobos around the rail yards waiting to hitch a train ride’.
They built an R&B reputation on the club circuit, using material from Chicago Blues artists such as Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Elmore James, Sonny Boy Williamson and Howlin’ Wolf. It was when Topham left in October 1963 that Eric Clapton joined as lead guitarist and impressario Giorgio Gomelsky became their manager and signed them to EMI, that they really started to take off.
Crossing into the commercial pop-rock market during the 1960s, yet keeping a repertoire of traditional raw American blues, they were a great influence on other British bands of that era and beyond.