Keith Relf, the lead singer of the 1960s British white man’s blues group The Yardbirds, which showcased guitarists like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page, and who died tragically in a freak accident in his home in 1976, would have celebrated his 70th birthday today.
With the high profile memory of The Yardbirds still etched in a lot of people’s minds, mainly because of the revolving door stints of Clapton, Beck, and Page, the memory of Keith Relf and his contributions to the band and to helping the amplification of blues music in general, remains unfortunately somewhat stilted and dimmed to many contemporary audiences. But there’s no denying that as a front man, and a mean harmonica player to boot, Keith Relf indeed has earned his place in rock and roll history.
With his slightly shaggy cropped blond mop of hair, cool demeanor, and sly stage presence, not to mention his vocals, which were mid-range and fit the band rather complementary, Relf was part of an early phenomenon of British rock/blues music in the 1960s that had little to do with what The Beatles and the other bands of The British Invasion were conjuring up. They were more on the side of The Rolling Stones camp, the camp that threw a little bit more reckless attitude into what they were doing, mining the American Southern Delta for 33 and a third and 78 rpm records, cueing up the best of the blues, and turning up the heat, throwing some Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran into the mix, adding a little bit of electric swing, a dash of rock and roll, and creating an end result which was part of a movement that became an absolute boom in England during the late 1960s, as scores of bands started their own electric blues ensembles and started a genre unto itself.
With shuffle beats out of the Bo Diddley songbook, fuzzed up guitars, crashing drums, and kick ass vocals, The Yardbirds blazed their way across the charts and the English homeland and to further continents, with songs like “Shapes of Things,” “For Your Love,” “I’m A Man,” (which again paid homage to Diddley as he had penned the tune), and “Over Under Side Ways Down” to name a few. After the success they found in the mid-1960s, the band went their separate ways by about 1968, with Jimmy Page taking over the reins and first calling the new lineup of musicians that played with him “The New Yardbirds,” and then finally, Led Zeppelin, which became one of the biggest groups in the history of recorded music.
And for Keith Relf, he did a complete 180 and unexpectedly formed an acoustic duo with ex-Yardbird bandmate Jim McCarty called Together. After that experiment, he then helped form Renaissance, a progressive rock group, which was standard genre fare for many bands in England in the early 1970s and which featured Jane Relf (his sister) on vocals. By the mid 1970s, he threw himself into an early prototype heavy metal unit called Armaggedon, which had some blisteringly strong songs and it looked as if, even if the band wouldn’t have achieved the kind of success that The Yardbirds had, they seemed destined to remain a large scale cult unit, with Relf at the forefront.
It all unfortunately came to a screeching halt about a year later, when Relf electrocuted himself at his home playing his guitar through an improperly grounded amplifier on May 14, 1976. He was also in the midst of resurrecting Renaissance at that time, to now be known as Illusion.
Time has not forgotten Keith Relf, however, as he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992 as a member of Yardbirds. The songs of the Yardbirds live on to this day and are still considered prototypes for many heavier rock and roll/blues hybrids that were to follow, all of them directly or indirectly giving a nod to Keith Relf. If he was around today, even at 70, he’d probably still be reaching, far reaching, singing, playing harp, and exploring different genres of music, which is the benchmark of any great artist and the solidification of any great legend.
Shapes of Things – The Very Best of the Yardbirds, a 22-song Yardbirds compilation album is on sale right now in MP3 format for only $5.99 and contains memorable tunes like “Shapes Of Things,” “Heart Full Of Soul,” “I’m A Man,” “Train Kept A – Rollin’,” “For Your Love,” and many more.
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