In a southwest suburb of London in the year 1963, vocalist-harmonica player Keith Relf and bassist Paul Samwell-Smith formed The Metropolitan Blues Quartet. After recruiting guitarist Chris Dreja, drummer Jim McCarty and guitarist Anthony "Top" Topham they changed their name to The Blue Sounds and a couple of gigs later settled on the name The Yardbirds. This name was either a reference to an expression that described hobos hanging around railyards or saxophone legend Charlie "Yardbird" Parker, depending on who happens to be telling the story. At first performing as the backup band for British blues pioneer Cyril Davies, they soon gained their own following as part of the burgeoning blues scene in the U.K. In september of 1963 they took over as the house band for The Crawdaddy Club in Richmond, succeeding The Rolling Stones, drawing their repetoire from the best of the Chicago blues artists such as Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Bo Diddley and Sonny Boy Williamson II. Songs like "Rollin And Tumblin'", "I'm A Man", "Smokestack Lightning" and "Boom Boom" became theirbread and butter.
Topham left the band and at this point the group began its role, among other things , of exposing legendary guitarists to the world at large. This was started by replacing Topham with Eric Clapton in October of 1963.
The band's first manager was Giorgio Gomelsky. Under Gomelsky's guidance the group signed to EMI's Columbia Records and released their first LP, Five Live Yardbirds, recorded at the legendary Marquee Club In London. After releasing two singles, "I Wish You Would" and "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl" it was the third single, the Graham Gouldman-penned "For Your Love" that gave the band its first hit. Selling over a million copies, it was awarded a gold disc.
For Clapton, this was all well and good, but the young man was a blues purist and was none to pleased at the distinctly un-blueslike direction the band seem headed in. He quit the band to join John Mayall's Bluesbreakers. Gentleman that he was, Clapton suggested prominent studio guitarist Jimmy Page as a replacement. Page declined, preferring the relative financial security of session work, but made a recommendation of his own, friend Jeff Beck. Beck took the job and performed his first Yardbirds gig a scant two days later. Clapton, blues enthusiast as he was, probably should have hung around another couple of years in light of the fact that the group would in 1966 record an album with none other than Sonny Boy Williamson II. Well, hindsight and all that.
Jeff Beck was one to experiment. His usage of distortion, controlled feedback and fuzz tone pedals fit in well with the increasingly raw British beat music in general, as well as The Yardbirds' experimentation in particular. Various European and Asian elements and even Gregorian-style chants began to appear in songs like "Still I'm Sad", "Hot House Of Omagarashid" and "Over Under Sideways Down". Though the band's commercial appeal was spotty, Beck himself gained more and more of the critical acclaim that would make him a future guitar hero.
In June of 1966 Paul Samwell-Smith left the band to concentrate on producing. Jimmy page agreed to sign on as bass guitarist while Chris Dreja learned how to play bass properly. The Beck-Page guitar tandem is heard on the studio version of the psychedelic-tinged "Happening Ten YearsTime Ago" with future Led Zeppelin member JohnPaul Jones, also a respected session musician at the time. Eventually Dreja switched to bass full-time and for a while the band used the dual guitar line-up featuring Beck and Page.
The Yardbirds recorded very little in the studio with the two guitar line-up and no live recordings. They did however, appear in Michaelangelo Antonioni's 1966 film Blow Up, where they mimed to a track they recorded called "Stroll On" which was basically a cover of the blues classic "Train Kept A Rollin'" with a title change. In this appearance Jeff Beck smashed his guitar, a cheap Hofner model supplied for the purpose of destruction.
In late October of 1966 Jeff Beck was fired for missing gigs, starting fights and other random acts of Beck-ishness leaving Jimmy Page as remaining guitarist and the band carried on as a quartet for the rest of its existence. Their commercial fortunes began to decline as "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago" made it to only #30 on the U.S. charts and barely cracked the top 100 in England. Not even a partnership with hitmaking writer Mickie Most seemed to help. The Most-penned single "Little Games" flopped so badly in the U.K. that EMI didn't release another recording there until after the band broke up. The Yardbirds spent most of 1967 touring the U.S. with new manager Peter Grant. The band's final official gig was on July 7, 1968 at The Luton College Of Technology in Bedfordshire, England.
Relf and McCarty became interested in doing music that was more folk and classically oriented. they left to form Renaissance which included Relf's sister Jane. Later, in 1975 Relf and McCarty formed a hard rock quartet named Armageddon which released two albums that went widely unheard but of fine quality nonetheless. Jimmy Page, still wanting to go the heavy rock route, recruited vocalist Robert Plant and drummer John Bonham. In time Chris Dreja left the band to pursue photography as a profession. He was replaced by session ace John Paul Jones. They remained The Yardbirds until the end of 1968 when prompted by a cease and desist order filed by Dreja, claiming rights to "The Yardbirds" name. As anyone who has been paying even the slightest attention would know, the band changed its name to Led Zeppelin and began creating a whole other rock legend. Singer Keith Relf unfortunately was killed in an electrical accident in his home on May 14, 1976.
The Yardbirds were inducted into The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1992. All the surviving members including Beck and Page attended, with the exception of Clapton who was touring at the time. Keith Relf''s wife April and son Danny accepted the induction on his behalf.
The band re-formed in 1992 with Dreja, McCarty and new members Gypie Mayo on guitar, John Idan on bass and lead vocals and Alan Glen on harmonica and vocals. The band still are active as The Yardbirds performing occasionally with guest artists such as Steve Vai, Brian May, Slash, Jeff Beck and on one gig were actually joined onstage by original guitarist Anthony "Top" Topham.