It is difficult for me to write this. Music has been my special interest since I was a child and as someone who was born toward the end of the baby boom, I have experienced the passing of many of my favorite musicians. It was certainly a shock when so many died at a young age in the 1960s and early 1970s – Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Jimi, Janis, Brian Jones, Jim Morrison, Blind Owl Wilson, Duane Allman, Berry Oakley, I could go on and on. However, I think I am touched more deeply now as I contemplate my own mortality.
I first heard Jeff Beck on the Yardbirds‘ single Heart Full of Soul in 1965. I was already familiar with the band from their first hit For Your Love. While I didn’t know the particulars at the time of Clapton being replaced by Beck on Heart Full of Soul, I knew that I really liked the Eastern-sounding guitar riff. Then came Over Under Sideways Down with another unique fuzzy riff. It seems to me that Beck always wanted to surprise and delight his listeners. His first love wasn’t the blues, unlike his peer Eric Clapton or old friend Jimmy Page, he was first influenced by rockabilly guitarist Cliff Gallup and jazz/pop “trick” guitarist Les Paul. This is what made his approach to playing unique. Where Clapton was serious Beck was playful. And yet Beck could really play the blues.
As I later turned my attention from top 40 radio and singles to albums, I heard Rice Pudding from Beck-Ola. This track got a lot of play on WNEW-FM in New York despite being over seven minutes long. This instrumental begins with a heavy-sounding guitar and bass motif that kind of smacks you in the face, then eases into a mellow slide guitar solo backed by Nicky Hopkins’ elegant sounding piano before returning at the end to the heavy riff and a rave-up which cuts off abruptly rather than fading out. I bought the album and its predecessor Truth. I was not disappointed. Both albums feature Rod Stewart on vocals, Ron Wood on bass, and Nicky Hopkins on piano. Truth is the more blues-oriented of the two and contains Beck’s Bolero, featuring one half of Led Zeppelin – former fellow Yardbird Jimmy Page on 12-string electric and John Paul Jones on bass, as well as The Who’s Keith Moon on drums and Hopkins on piano. Beck-Ola is a heavier affair with drummer Mick Waller replaced by Tony Newman.
Jeff’s next album, 1971’s Rough and Ready featured an entirely new group with a very different sound. Pianist Max Middleton brought a jazz feel to the group while the rest of the rhythm section, bassist Clive Chaman, and drummer Cozy Powell were funky and tight. I remember the sound being compared to Motown at the time. Singer Bob Tench, who later worked with Van Morrison, brought a soul vibe to the album. My only complaint was that I felt Jeff’s guitar was too low in the mix.
Another album with this band followed in 1972, simply titled Jeff Beck Group. Although the powerful Going Down was the concert favorite from this record, my favorites are the instrumentals I Can’t Give Back the Love I Feel for You and Definitely Maybe.
When I finally saw Jeff live in 1972, I was at first disappointed. Beck was late for the concert and since there was a live music curfew, he only had about an hour left to play. Next, the only member of the Rough and Ready ensemble with him was Max Middleton. This was the beginning of his next chapter with Beck, Bogert, and Appice. Tim Bogert (bass) and Carmine Appice (drums) were alumni of heavy rock bands Vanilla Fudge and Cactus, so the sound changed dramatically. With the exception of Middleton’s jazzy keys, the band sounded more like it did on Beck-Ola
The biggest disappointment was vocalist Kim Milford. Milford was a Broadway singer who was in the original cast of Hair and the touring company of Jesus Christ Superstar. He “looked” the part of a rockstar, but that was the problem. He seemed to be playing a part. Rather than bringing his own style to the songs he was imitating Tench and Stewart, both of whom could be a bit over-the-top at times but they could pull it off. Nevertheless, Jeff Beck did not disappoint. When I recently listened to an audience recording of the gig, I heard someone remark that Jeff seemed to be “making up for being late by playing his ass off”.
We all know that after this Jeff Beck went on to the jazz fusion of Blow by Blow and Wired and that his musicianship never diminished. His incredible musical tone just flowed from his fingers. He never tried to coast or drift into middle of the road, easy listening music. If you want to see for yourself, check out his Live at Ronnie Scott’s video or any of his performances at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Festivals. I’m just sorry that I didn’t get to see him live again. I will always, however, cherish his music.