By Jay Luster
“On behalf of his family, it is with deep and profound sadness that we share the news of Jeff Beck’s passing. After suddenly contracting bacterial meningitis, he peacefully passed away yesterday.” Beck Publicist, Melissa Dragich
This past July, Jeff Beck released his 14th, and final, studio album entitled “18.” While, it’s mostly covers of songs first recorded by John Lennon, Marvin Gaye, The Miracles, and The Everly Brothers, as with all of Beck’s music, the songs are as fresh and unique as the original productions. The album also features songs by Beck with his latest collaborator, Johnny Depp. If all you know about Depp is his star-making role as Captain Jack Sparrow, and his recent turn as plaintiff during the celebrity trial of the century, then you are in for a treat. Having been one of the founders of The Hollywood Vampires, along with Alice Cooper and Joe Perry, Depp comes to the recording process and stage with some serious rock and roll cred. The seemingly odd couple met at a Beck concert many years ago, and as Jeff came to respect Depp as a musician, he was soon invited to join the 60’s guitar God onstage at The Royal Albert Hall. With that, a rock and roll partnership was born.
Still, why would someone believed by many to be the greatest guitar player of all time even consider collaborating with someone whose primary claim to fame is playing a drunken pirate on the big screen? As it happens, Beck, since his earliest beginnings, has always found inspiration in musicians with abilities that seem at odds with what is normally expected of a bluesman, and rock and roller. In this case, not only was it the music itself, but both Beck and Depp have a love of restoring old cars. The actor and the musician bonded, not just in the recording studio and on-stage, but also in the garage over gears and gasoline.
In the early 1960s, driven by the music of guys like Muddy Waters, and Bo Diddley, young British musicians became intensely interested in American blues, and R&B music. Bands like John Mayall’s Blues Breakers, The Rolling Stones, and even the earliest iterations of Fleetwood Mac and Jethro Tull, all began as blues bands. Among them is a 1992 entrant into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame called The Yardbirds. Playing on their earliest records was an up-and-coming blues guitarist named Eric Clapton. Their first recording called, “Five Live Yardbirds,” included songs by Chuck Berry, and Howlin’ Wolf. When their version of Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightnin,” became a minor radio hit, it raised the band’s profile, and expectations, with the London blues crowd. However, as the band began migrating towards a more commercial sound, Clapton decided to move on. Before he left, he recommended a young session guitarist named Jimmy Page as his replacement. Page, later of Led Zeppelin fame, reluctant to leave a steady paying studio gig, declined the invite. In his place, he recommended another young upwardly mobile guitar player named Jeff Beck.
Beck, unsurprisingly passed the audition, and the band quickly began fulfilling the promise of their early success with hits like “For Your Love,” and “Over Under Sideways Down.” Beck steered the future Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band towards a more psychedelic sound. Along with George Harrison of the Beatles, Beck became interested in Sitar master Ravi Shanker’s work. He soon, through the clever use of amplification and distortion effects, found a way to emulate the sitar sound and The Yardbirds song “Heart Full of Soul ” became a hit. Those three songs are still in regular rotation on oldies, and classic rock radio stations everywhere in the world. Eventually, Beck, like Clapton before him, decided he wanted to take his music in a different direction and when he left, the band replaced him, ironically, with the guy who recommended him to begin with, Jimmy Page. By the end of the 1960s, both Clapton and Page reached international superstardom. Beck, the least well known of the three at that time, emerged as the most respected. With his ability to play any style of music, he became known as a consummate bluesman, a jazz fusion virtuoso, and one of the primary architects of psychedelia.
In general, the greatest guitarists are recognized because of their originality and mastery of a specific style. For example, Stevie Ray Vaughan is best known for his expertise playing within a template recognized as the Texas blues. That does not mean he couldn’t play other styles, he did, and he excelled at it. However, his core audience always clamored for “Pride and Joy,” and he never stopped finding innovative ways to play within that mold. Beck, on the other hand, has defied being defined by genre or style. His embrace of effects and his unique string bending style has allowed him to continue innovating within whichever template he chooses. For example, his cover of The Beatles singular “A Day in the Life,” is a mind-warping instrumental journey, which he himself reinterprets nightly.
The Jeff Beck Group
In 1967, Beck joined forces with Ronnie Wood and Rod Stewart to form The Jeff Beck Group. The band had a few minor hits, including a song which pointed the way forward called “Beck’s Bolero.” Bolero was originally recorded in 1966 prior to Beck’s newest band, with a studio supergroup which included Nicky Hopkins on Keyboards, John Paul Jones on bass, Keith Moon on drums, Jimmy Page on guitar, and Beck laying down what became a concert staple in a career which spanned 60 years. A bolero is a slow, and sexy, Latin dance beat, which wasn’t a rock and roll staple back then, and still isn’t today. That fact alone is enough to make it unique in the annals of rock and roll history. Outside of Dick Dale, Booker T. & The MG’s, and a few Brian Wilson offerings, pure instrumental rock songs were atypical in the mid-1960s. It was released as the B side of the song “Hi Ho Silver Lining,” which dented, but did not break the music charts. However, within the music industry, Beck’s Bolero opened eyes, ears, and minds. After that, young musicians like The Allman Brothers, and Jimi Hendrix, and dozens of others frequently featured instrumentals both on record and on stage.
During the last decade, headlines were made, and tongues wagged, when Beck teamed up with Brian Wilson, the founder of the Beach Boys, for a concert tour. This pairing, on the surface, does seem odd. After all, what could the King of Surf Rock, and the guitar GOAT have in common? It turns out, a lot. In 1966, The Beach Boys released Pet Sounds, and like most everyone else within the music industry, it blew Beck away. He found Wilson’s melodies intriguing, and his experimental approach in the studio liberating.
With Bolero already in the can, it was just the encouragement Beck needed. Soon he began writing inventive, genre, and mind-bending songs in earnest, which would eventually garner him eight Grammys, and the respect from everyone in the music industry from pop music to prog rock. After each had their solo set, the two would combine forces for a few of Wilson’s biggest hits. Beck would add fun leads on songs like “Fun, Fun, Fun” and “Surfin USA.” However, it was his string bending take on Beach Boy’s classics like “Surf’s Up,” and “Don’t Talk” which also appears on “18,” that were every bit as intriguing as his cover of “A Day in the Life.” Ten years later, both songs are still nightly staples on Beck’s set-list. Along with his love of old cars, Beach Boys car songs, like “Little Deuce Coupe ” were another bonding point with Johnny Depp.
Johnny Depp visited Jeff Beck’s ‘bedside’: He is ‘totally devastated’ by his death. “They had a really tight friendship, they were extremely close,” a source told People Magazine of Johnny Depp and Jeff Beck
“Jeff Beck was on another planet. 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. Thank you for everything. RIP” –Rod Stewart
“The six stringed Warrior is no longer here for us to admire the spell he could weave around our mortal emotions. Jeff could channel music from the ethereal. His technique unique. His imaginations apparently limitless. Jeff I will miss you along with your millions of fans. Jeff Beck Rest in Peace.” –Jimmy Page
“Now Jeff has gone, I feel like one of my band of brothers has left this world, and I’m going to dearly miss him. I’m sending much sympathy to Sandra, his family, and all who loved him. I want to thank him for all our early days together in Jeff Beck Group, conquering America.” –Ronnie Wood
“I’m so sad to hear about Jeff Beck passing. Jeff was a genius guitar player, and me and my band got to see it close up when we toured with him in 2013. One of the highlights we did was ‘Danny Boy’ – we both loved that song. Love & Mercy to Jeff’s family.” –Brian Wilson