Thinking about vocalists who made an impact in rock music, the Yardbirds’ original lead singer may not always be the first to mind.
Keith Relf is the voice you hear on hit songs like Heart Full of Soul and For Your Love. His contribution to the sound of the 1960s shouldn’t go unnoticed.
Read on as we look at an influential 60s band and learn more about the singer behind their hit songs.
The Story of the Yardbirds
The Yardbirds got their start in 1963 in London, England. Their original lineup included vocalist Keith Relf, drummer Jim McCarty, rhythm guitarist and bassist Chris Dreja, and bassist Paul Samwell-Smith.
Original lead guitarist Anthony “Top” Topham was only with the band a few months before departing for other endeavors. The following five years, the Yardbirds would see Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page fill the lead guitar role.
Eric Clapton was with the band from 1963 to 1965. The first song that became a commercial success, For Your Love, was released in 1965. Clapton wasn’t happy with the mainstream path the Yardbirds were heading down and decided to leave the band. But not before recommending Jimmy Page fill the role.
Page declined the offer since he was finding the session work he was doing at the time to be satisfying. He then recommended Jeff Beck to the band. Beck accepted the offer and played his first gig with the Yardbirds just two days after Clapton left.
Beck and Page Join the Band
The Jeff Beck era with the Yardbirds proved successful with several chart-topping hits released. He introduced a unique style of guitar playing that blended well with the band’s British beat music.
At a gig in Oxford, England, in the summer of 1966, bassist Samwell-Smith suddenly quit the band. Jimmy Page happened to be in the audience and agreed to fill in on bass until Chris Dreja, currently on rhythm guitar, could take over.
The Yardbirds then embarked on a tour, playing in the UK before hitting the US. Jeff Beck became ill near the end of the tour when they were in San Francisco and checked into the hospital. With Dreja now on bass, Jimmy Page took over on lead guitar for the remainder of the tour.
Fortunately, Beck’s illness was short-lived, and he reunited with the band in London soon after the tour ended. Collectively, the band decided to keep Beck and Page in the lineup playing dual lead guitar.
The Beck-Page era lasted only a few months before Jeff Beck abruptly left the band and returned to the US. The end of 1966 saw Jimmy Page as the sole guitarist along with original members Relf, McCarty, and Dreja.
Keith Relf remained the Yardbirds lead singer throughout these lineup changes until they broke up in 1968.
Between 1963 and 1968, the Yardbirds released eight albums. Their innovative musical style inspired generations of musicians that followed after them. In 1992, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted them as a testament to the legendary music they created.
What Happened to the Yardbirds Original Lead Singer?
After the Yardbirds disbanded in 1968, lead singer Keith Relf went on to form another band, Together, with drummer Jim McCarty. The duo played acoustic rock music for a few months before starting another band with three other members called Renaissance.
Relf remained with Renaissance for about a year before deciding he needed a break from touring and left the band. He stayed active in music for the next couple of years as a producer for other bands.
In 1974, he formed his next band, Armageddon. During this time, Relf’s long-time issue with asthma had developed into emphysema, making it difficult for him to perform. Keith’s declining health and management issues caused the band to dissolve in early 1976.
Soon after Armageddon broke up, Relf was at home practicing his guitar when he was electrocuted. The guitar was ungrounded, and when he stepped on a gas pipe, electrical currents shot through his body. Sadly, his eight-year-old son found him dead on the floor of their basement.
The 33-year old former Yardbirds lead singer died doing what he loved, though, playing music.
The Yardbirds Best Known Songs
Happenings Ten Years Time Ago
An early heavy metal tune with psychedelic overtones, this 1966 single features Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page on guitar. Additionally, John Paul Jones, who would become Led Zeppelin’s bassist, can also be heard on this track.
Dazed and Confused
Before it became known as a Led Zeppelin song, the Yardbirds regularly played it live throughout 1968. They also recorded a studio version for their album Yardbirds ‘68. Jimmy Page first heard the tune performed by folk singer Jake Holmes who originally wrote it in 1967.
Shapes of Things
Released in 1966, this is one of their most well-known songs. Considered to be one of the first psychedelic hits of the 60s, the lyrics express anti-war sentiments shared by many at the time. Guitarist Jeff Beck provides a solo mid-song with the first known use of feedback in rock guitar.
I’m a Man
The Yardbirds recorded this cover of Bo Diddley’s hit song in 1965. It was only released in the US and became a commercial success. Even Bo Diddley praised this high-energy version of his song.
Did the Yardbirds Become Led Zeppelin?
In a manner of speaking, the Yardbirds did eventually become Led Zeppelin.
After the Yardbirds split up in 1968, Jimmy Page and bassist Chris Dreja wanted to form another band. They were introduced to the unknown but extremely talented singer, Robert Plant, and asked him to be the vocalist. Still needing a drummer, Plant suggested his childhood friend John Bonham who he thought would be a great addition.
Dreja decided not to continue with the band, so they had to find someone to fill his spot. Bassist and keyboardist John Paul Jones had worked with Jimmy Page on some musical projects, so they added him to the band.
Initially, this lineup called themselves The New Yardbirds and did a tour in Scandinavia in the fall of 1968. After the tour ended, the four-piece returned to the UK and began work on their first album titled Led Zeppelin.
The rest, as they say, is history!
There Can Be Only One Yardbirds Original Lead Singer
The Yardbirds reformed in the 1990s with founding members Chris Dreja and Jim McCarty. The lineup has changed considerably since they regrouped, with only McCarty remaining as the original member.
But Keith Relf will always be considered the original and, to many, the only lead singer of the Yardbirds. His vocals on their early hit songs stand out as part of the distinctive sound of this English rock band.