Jeff Beck, born June 24, 1944 in Wallington, Surrey, was a singular talent. He started out playing blues and R&B before helping template hard rock, heavy metal and jazz fusion.
Enamoured with Les Paul, Gene Vincent, B.B. King and Steve Cropper, he honed his craft from 1963 in The Tridents, a four-piece led by the Lucas brothers, bassist and vocalist Paul and rhythm guitarist John. They blasted their Eel Pie Island audiences with R&B future classics and, while they never released a 45, their demo tape (hear it on Beckology, see below) proved they were ones to watch.
On joining The Yardbirds as Eric Clapton’s replacement in 1965, Beck stamped his authority with psychedelic rock nuggets Over Under Sideways Down, Happenings Ten Years Time Ago and Psycho Daisies, the latter featuring Beck on lead vocals.
His 1967 debut solo single, Hi Ho Silver Lining, made the UK Top 20, proof he could achieve success as a mainstream artist should he wish. He didn’t, instead forming the Jeff Beck Group where he handed singing duties to Rod Stewart and, over two albums, 1968’s Truth and 1969’s Beck-Ola, provided the hard rock and heavy metal prototype.
Later, 1972’s Jeff Beck Group album, recorded with a reconfigured line-up in Memphis and produced by Steve Cropper, saw Beck try his hand at soul on covers including Ashford and Simpson’s I Can’t Give Back The Love I Feel For You and Stevie Wonder’s I Got To Have A Song.
After a brief sojourn in Beck, Bogert & Appice – a supergroup of sorts, with Vanilla Fudge's Tim Bogert and Carmine Appice – he launched his solo career. On 1975’s Blow By Blow and 1976’s Wired he cemented his reputation as a jazz fusionist; 1993’s Crazy Legs paid homage to Gene Vincent; 1999’s Who Else! experimented with electronica; and 2010’s Emotion & Commotion placed him in an orchestral setting. It also landed him his highest charting album in the US since Blow By Blow.
In his final dozen years he would release two more albums: Loud Hailer, aided and abetted by Carmen Vandenberg and Rosie Bones from Camden Town hopefuls Bones UK, before his final album 18 arrived in 2022, recorded with actor/musician Johnny Depp.
Beckology (Epic, 1991) (opens in new tab)
Hunt down this excellent three-CD box (released in 1991 but, sadly, currently out of print) for a comprehensive overview of Jeff Beck’s career spanning 1963 to 1989. Disc 1 covers the early years with three from The Tridents, an R&B group based in Chiswick, which Beck joined in 1963. Aligned to the Stones and Pretty Things, thanks to an authentic approach to playing the blues, their demos featured here, including Trouble In Mind, Nursery Rhyme and Wandering Man Blues capture a fledgling Beck already master of his instrument and pushing boundaries with the use of feedback.
He continues to push forward with The Yardbirds from 1965 onwards; the heavy riffing on Train Kept A Rollin’ hints at hard rock, Hot House Of Omagarashid views blues rock through a cross-continental lens; Heart Full Of Soul, Shapes Of Things and Happenings Ten Years Time Ago edge blues closer to the dawn of psychedelia.
Disc 2 continues tracing his sonic journey, cherry picking from his two Jeff Beck Group albums, 1968’s Truth and 69’s Beck-Ola: tracks are raw, gritty and thunderous: see his reconfiguring of The Yardbirds’ Shapes Of Things and the galloping Plynth, which paves the way for heavy metal.
Four songs from power trio Beck, Bogert & Appice (featuring bassist Tim Bogert and drummer Carmine Appice, both formerly members of Vanilla Fudge and Cactus), including their hit cover of Stevie Wonder’s Superstition, bring the disc to a close.
Volume 3, meanwhile, collates Jeff Beck’s solo years, and is rightly weighted towards his groundbreaking, George Martin-produced, Blow By Blow and Wired albums rooted in jazz fusion. Plus there are tracks (Big Block, Where Were You) from 1989 album Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop.
Truth (Epic, 1968) (opens in new tab)
The blues-rock blueprint. A pivotal release in the evolution of the blues, 1968’s Mickie Most-produced first of two albums by the Jeff Beck Group Mk I (featuring vocalist Rod Stewart, bassist Ronnie Wood and drummer Micky Waller) provided a template for Led Zeppelin to build on.
Rod’s vocals are soulful; the songs – from Howlin’ Wolf’s I Ain’t Superstitious, Muddy Waters’ You Shook Me, plus rewrites of Buddy Guy’s Let Me Love You Baby and B.B. King’s Rock Me Baby (retitled Rock My Plimsoul) – are explosive and heavy. Beck’s Bolero, originally recorded in 1966, features Jimmy Page, Keith Moon, John Paul Jones and Nicky Hopkins.
Blow By Blow (Epic, 1975) (opens in new tab)
The instrumental album. His first album under his own name, this 1975 outing forever altered the possibilities of blues and rock guitar with its progressive thinking and use of jazz improv. The credits are impressive, too: George Martin produces and arranges the strings, Stevie Wonder provides two of the nine songs – the beguiling ballad Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers and Thelonius, an homage to Monk, featuring Stevie on clavinet.
The band – keyboard player Max Middleton, bassist Phil Chen, drummer Richard Bailey – are tight and Beck’s soloing is some of his very best: see You Know What I Mean for proof.
Performing This Week… Live At Ronnie Scott’s (Eagle Rock, 2008) (opens in new tab)
Live magic at legendary venue. In 2007 at London’s historic Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, with the tapes rolling, Beck gave one of the performances of his life.
With a crack band comprising keyboardist Jason Rebello, drummer Vinnie Colaiuta and bassist Tal Wilkenfeld, he brings the house down with a 16-track set spanning his career – a blistering Beck’s Bolero, thrilling readings of Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers and Led Boots, and an exhilarating reimagining of The Beatles’ A Day In The Life, which earned a Grammy for Best Instrumental Rock Performance.
Yardbirds a.k.a. Roger the Engineer (Columbia, 1966) (opens in new tab)
Pioneering psych rock. Beck was rooted in the blues but after joining The Yardbirds he pushed the group forward, expanding their R&B and beat-based sound with feedback, distortion and fuzz tone to create an embryonic lysergia.
This 1966 album (aka Roger The Engineer, after rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja’s drawing of engineer Roger Cameron, which appears on the front cover) captures Beck in thrall to the call of the cosmos, laying the foundation for his mid-70s experimental thinking.
Wired (Epic, 1976) (opens in new tab)
Guitar and synth in harmony. A benchmark in instrumental jazz-rock fusion, Wired extended the parameters set by Blow By Blow, with Max Middleton’s Led Boots, an innovative tip of the hat to Led Zep and Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, Beck’s exhilarating cover of Charles Mingus’ ode to saxophonist Lester Young – both staples of Beck’s live set.
George Martin produces again, Jan Hammer provides intuitive synths and produces his own fervid Blue Wind. All eight tracks provide a springboard from which Beck takes full flight, making visionary grandstanding play with soaring solos and feedback.