0.1 C
New York
February 5, 2023
NewsAltitude
Top News TOP STORIES

Jeff Beck, Guitarist With a Page in Rock History, Dies at 78

Jeff Beck, Guitarist With a Page in Rock History, Dies at 78

His playing with the Yardbirds and as leader of his own bands brought a sense of adventure to their groundbreaking recordings.

Jeff Beck performing in 1969. He was one of the most influential guitarists in rock history.Credit…David Redfern/Redferns, via Getty Images

Jeff Beck, one of the most skilled, admired and influential guitarists in rock history, died on Tuesday in a hospital near his home at Riverhall, a rural estate in southern England. He was 78.

The cause was bacterial meningitis, Melissa Dragich, his publicist, said.

During the 1960s and ’70s, as either a member of the Yardbirds or as leader of his own bands, Mr. Beck brought a sense of adventure to his playing that helped make the recordings by those groups groundbreaking.

In 1965, when he joined the Yardbirds to replace another guitar hero, Eric Clapton, the group was already one of the defining acts in Britain’s growing electric blues movement. But his stinging licks and darting leads on songs like “Shapes of Things” and “Over Under Sideways Down” added an expansive element to the music that helped signal the emerging psychedelic rock revolution.

Three years later, when Mr. Beck formed his own band, later known as the Jeff Beck Group — along with Rod Stewart, a little-known singer at the time, and the equally obscure Ron Wood on bass — the weight of the music created an early template for heavy metal. Specifically, the band’s 1968 debut, “Truth,” provided a blueprint that another former guitar colleague from the Yardbirds, Jimmy Page, drew on to found Led Zeppelin several months later.

Image

The Jeff Beck Group in 1967, including, from left, Ron Wood, Mr. Beck, Mickey Waller and Rod Stewart.Credit…Ivan Keeman/Redferns, via Getty Images

In 1975, when Mr. Beck began his solo career with the “Blow by Blow” album, he reconfigured the essential formula of that era’s fusion movement, tipping the balance of its influences from jazz to rock and funk, in the process creating a sound that was both startlingly new and highly successful. “Blow by Blow” became a Billboard Top 5 and, selling a million or more copies, a platinum hit.

Along the way, Mr. Beck helped either pioneer or amplify important technical innovations on his instrument. He elaborated the use of distortion and feedback effects, earlier explored by Pete Townshend; intensified the effect of bending notes on the guitar; and widened the range of expression that could be coaxed from devices attached to the guitar like the whammy bar.

Drawing on such techniques, Mr. Beck could weaponize his strings to hit like a stun gun or caress them to express what felt like a kiss. His work had humor, too, with licks that could cackle and leads that could tease.

“Even in the Yardbirds, he had a tone that was melodic, but in your face — bright, urgent and edgy,” wrote Mike Campbell, of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, for an article in Rolling Stone magazine to accompany a poll that named Mr. Beck the fifth greatest guitar player of all time. “It’s like he’s saying: ‘I’m Jeff Beck. I’m right here. You can’t ignore me.’”

“Everybody respects Jeff,” Mr. Page said in a 2018 documentary titled “Still on the Run: The Jeff Beck Story.” “He’s an extraordinary musician. He’s having a conversation with you when he’s playing.”

Despite the accolades, Mr. Beck never achieved the sales or popularity of the guitarists considered to be his peers, including Mr. Page, Mr. Clapton and one of the players he admired most, Jimi Hendrix. Only two of his albums achieved platinum status in the United States, including “Wired,” his 1976 follow-up to “Blow by Blow.”

“Part of the reason is never having attempted to get into mainstream pop, rock or heavy metal or anything like that,” he told the arts website Elsewhere in 2009. “Shutting those doors means you’ve only got a limited space to squeeze through.”

It hurt, too, that the mercurial Mr. Beck often worked without a lead singer, and that his groups seldom lasted long. His first band, with Mr. Stewart and Mr. Wood, stood on the cusp of superstardom, with an invitation to play Woodstock. But Mr. Beck turned down the offer, and the group dissolved shortly thereafter.

Another band he led that held commercial promise, Beck, Bogert & Appice (featuring the rhythm section of Tom Bogert and Carmine Appice, formerly of Vanilla Fudge) earned a gold album in 1973, but Mr. Beck scotched the project after less than two years. Not that he minded his status in the industry.

“I’ve never made the big time, mercifully,” Mr. Beck told Rolling Stone in 2018. “When you look around and see who has made it huge, it’s a really rotten place to be.”

Image

Mr. Beck performing in London in 1976, where he was opening for Alvin Lee. “I’ve never made the big time, mercifully,” he told a reporter.Credit…Watal Asanuma/Shinko Music, via Getty Images

Even so, he earned eight gold albums over more than six decades. He also amassed seven Grammys, six in the category of best rock instrumental performance and one for best pop collaboration with vocals. He was inducted into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame twice, as part of the Yardbirds in 1992 and as a solo star in 2009.

“Jeff Beck was on another planet,” Mr. Stewart said in a statement on Wednesday. “He took me and Ronnie Wood to the USA in the late 60s in his band the Jeff Beck Group, and we haven’t looked back since. He was one of the few guitarists that when playing live would actually listen to me sing and respond. Jeff, you were the greatest, my man.”

Geoffrey Arnold Beck was born on June 24, 1944, in South London to Arnold and Ethel Beck. His mother was a candy maker, his father an accountant. Mr. Beck told Guitar Player Magazine in 1968 that his mother had “forced” him to play piano two hours a day when he was a boy. “That was good,” he said, “because it made me realize that I was musically sound. My other training consisted of stretching rubber bands over tobacco cans and making horrible noises.”

He became attracted to electric guitar after hearing Les Paul’s work and was later drawn to the work of Cliff Gallup, lead guitarist for Gene Vincent’s band, and the American player Lonnie Mack. He became entranced not only by the sound of the guitar but also by its mechanics.

“At the age of 13, I built two or three of my own guitars,” Mr. Beck wrote in an essay for a book about his career published in 2016 titled “Beck 01: Hot Rods and Rock & Roll.” “It was fun just to look at it and hold it. I knew where I was headed.”

He enrolled in Wimbledon College of Art but spent more time playing in bands. Dropping out of school, he began to do studio session work and in 1965 was invited to join the Yardbirds through Jimmy Page, whom Mr. Beck had befriended as a teenager and who had just turned that job down.

Though he was with the Yardbirds for only 20 months, Mr. Beck played on most of their successful songs, starting with “Heart Full of Soul,” which broke the Top 10 in Billboard and got to No. 2 in Britain. It was fired by his burning lead guitar line, which took influence from Indian music and which served as the song’s hook.

In 1966, the Yardbirds’ single “Shape of Things,” which got to No. 11 in the United States (No. 3 in Britain), included a frantic double-time solo by Mr. Beck that became one of the band’s most celebrated showcases.

Image

Mr. Beck at a rehearsal in 2010. He released a new album that year, “Emotion & Commotion,” which won a Grammy.Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

At the suggestion of his manager, Mr. Beck recorded an instrumental piece for a potential solo project in May 1966 titled “Beck’s Bolero.” It featured on rhythm guitar Mr. Page (who received writing credit on the song), the Who’s Keith Moon on drums, the future Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones and the in-demand session pianist Nicky Hopkins.

A signature instrumental with a complex, unfolding structure, the song wasn’t released at the time, dashing Mr. Beck’s hope that this lineup would comprise his next band. Instead, he soldiered on with the Yardbirds, who then added Mr. Page, first on bass and later in a dueling lead guitar role with Mr. Beck. That fleeting lineup was immortalized in “Blow Up,” the Mod-era film by the director Michelangelo Antonioni, in which they performed a manic version of their song “Train Kept A-Rollin,’” recast as “Stroll On.”

Tensions which had been brewing between Mr. Beck and the rest of the Yardbirds came to a boil on an exhausting U.S. tour that fall, compelling him to quit. He later considered this period the low point of his career.

“All of a sudden, you’re nobody,” he told Rolling Stone in 2016. “Because the band were able to carry on” with Mr. Page, “it was almost like I was airbrushed out of it.”

Even so, a single was released under his own name in March 1967, “Hi-Ho Silver Lining,” which featured a rare vocal by Mr. Beck, which he abhorred. “I sound unbearably bad,” he told Music Radar in 2021.

Still, the song got to No. 15 in Britain, and its B-side provided a home for “Beck’s Bolero.”

He found more satisfaction by forming the first Jeff Beck Group, with Mr. Stewart, Mr. Wood, and Mr. Hopkins along with the drummer Mickey Waller. Columbia Records signed them and issued their debut, “Truth,” in the summer of 1968. It boasted a new, heavier version of the Yardbirds’ “Shapes of Things,” along with “Beck’s Bolero.”

“Truth” got to No. 15 in Billboard and went gold, fired by its fresh mix of booming rock and emotive soul. Its follow-up, “Beck-Ola,” which subbed the drummer Tony Newman for Mr. Waller, was released a year later and mirrored the debut’s success. But the band imploded almost immediately after.

“I don’t know what happened,” Mr. Beck told Music Radar. “It was a lack of material,” he said, plus, he surmised, Mr. Stewart “wanted to see his name up there instead of mine.”

Image

Mr. Beck performing at Madison Square Garden in 2010 on a tour with Eric Clapton, the guitarist he had replaced in the Yardbirds.Credit…Chad Batka for The New York Times

In the fall of 1969, Mr. Beck tried to rally by planning a new group with Mr. Bogert and Mr. Appice, but that fell apart after Mr. Beck fractured his skull in a car accident. In the meantime, the two other musicians formed the blues-rock band Cactus.

Following a long convalescence, a new version of the Jeff Beck Group emerged in 1971, with the soul singer Bobby Tench, the drummer Cozy Powell and the keyboardist Max Middleton, who encouraged Mr. Beck to explore jazz.

Their debut, “Rough and Ready,” released in October, featured more original compositions from Mr. Beck than usual, but it barely made Billboard’s Top 50. Its chaser, “Jeff Beck Group,” which tipped toward the soulful side of their sound, did better, breaking Billboard’s Top 20 and going gold.

Again, however, the changeable Mr. Beck yearned for something new, so when Cactus broke up, he reconvened with Mr. Bogert and Mr. Appice — the rhythm section he had considered earlier — to form the power trio Beck, Bogert & Appice.

A notable track on their 1973 debut album, “Beck, Bogert & Appice,” was a version of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition.” But Mr. Beck was dissatisfied with both his band’s version of the song and the band itself, and so, during the recording of a second album, produced by Jimmy Miller, he broke up the group, although a live album, “Beck, Bogert & Appice Live in Japan,” came out afterward, in 1975 — a year that changed Mr. Beck’s career.

Daringly, Mr. Beck devoted most of the “Blow by Blow” solo album, recorded in 1974 and released in 1975, to instrumentals, inspired by the creativity of the Mahavishnu Orchestra and the soaring work of the band’s fusion guitarist, John McLaughlin.

To help capture that group’s feel, Mr. Beck hired the producer George Martin, who had overseen Mahavishnu’s album “Apocalypse” the year before (and who had achieved his greatest renown with the Beatles). Mr. Beck told The New Statesman magazine in 2016 that Mr. Martin had provided “a massive pair of wings.”

“Just knowing that somebody with such sensitive ears was approving of what was going on, you were flying,” he said.

Mr. Beck’s follow-up album, “Wired,” featured two players from Mahavishnu: the drummer Narada Michael Walden and the keyboardist Jan Hammer, expanding the fusion element in the music. Mr. Beck later toured with Mr. Hammer’s band, resulting in the album “Jeff Beck with the Jan Hammer Group Live,” which went gold in 1977.

Mr. Hammer was also instrumental in Mr. Beck’s 1980 album, “There & Back,” which got to No. 21 on Billboard’s chart. In 1985, Mr. Beck returned to working with vocalists for his “Flash” album, on which Mr. Stewart sang a version of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready.” (The video became an MTV hit.) Another instrumental recording, “Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop,” issued in 1989, became his final gold album.

Starting in the 1990s, Mr. Beck began to do prodigious session work, providing solos on albums by Jon Bon Jovi, Roger Waters, Kate Bush, Tina Turner and others. He showed the continued breadth of his style with his “Emotion & Commotion” album in 2010, which included the standard “Over the Rainbow” and Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma.” The latter track won a Grammy, and the album reached No. 11 in Billboard.

Over the next few decades, Mr. Beck continued to tour and to record, most recently yielding a collaboration album with the actor and guitarist Johnny Depp, titled “18,” in 2022.

Mr. Beck married Sandra Cash in 2005, and she survives him.

To his fans, and to himself, Mr. Beck was so deeply identified with his guitar — particularly the Fender Stratocaster — that he seemed inseparable from it.

“My Strat is another arm,” he told Music Radar. “I’ve welded myself to that. Or it’s welded itself to me, one or the other.”

He added: “It’s a tool of great inspiration and torture at the same time. It’s forever sitting there, challenging you to find something else in it. But it is there if you really search.”

Alex Traub contributed reporting.

Read More