The Yardbirds formed in London in 1963 when Keith Relf (vocals, harmonica) and Paul Samwell-Smith (bass), both members of semi-acoustic act the Metropolis Blues Quartet, joined forces with Chris Dreja (rhythm guitar), Tony 'Top' Topham (guitar) and Jim McCarty (drums).
Under pressure from his family, the 16-year-old Topham soon bowed out and made way for a guitarist nicknamed "Slowhand"... Eric Clapton. While the Yardbirds made initial beginnings into recording as a backup band for Chicago blues boy Sonny Boy Williamson, their sound really began to take shape in 1964, when they began experimenting with the blues style in ad hoc jam sessions. The reconstituted line-up forged a style based on classic Chicago R&B and quickly amassed a following in the blues circuit. They succeeded the Rolling Stones as the resident band at Richmond's popular Crawdaddy club, whose owner, Giorgio Gomelsky, then assumed the role of group manager.
That same year, they released what was considered the best album of their early years, a live effort titled, "Five Live Yardbirds". But even as the band reinterpreted R&B, they experimented with pop music as well. Their first single, "For Your Love", went right past their blues background into the pop music realm. The single reached No. 2 on the pop charts in Britain and No. 6 in the United States.
But the very success of the single created dissension within the band. Clapton wanted to stick with the band's blues roots and, at times, refused even to play at all during "For Your Love". The conflict was never resolved and Clapton left in 1965 to join John Mayall's Bluesbreakers. Initially, the band tried to sign Jimmy Page, a British session star. Page, in turn, recommended Jeff Beck, the guitarist of an obscure band called the Tridents. With Beck on board, the Yardbirds produced further hits singles with, "Heartful Of Soul", "Evil Hearted You", and "Over, Under, Sideways, Down".
By this point, Simon Napier-Bell had assumed the band's management duties, while dissatisfaction with touring and the unit's sometimes irreverent attitude, led to the departure of Samwell-Smith in June 1966. Jimmy Page eventually relented, and was brought into a line-up that, with Dreja switching to bass, now adopted a potentially devastating twin-lead guitar format. The experimental "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago" confirmed such hopes, but within six months, Beck had departed during a gruelling USA tour, and the band began to self-destruct over a long-standing creative impasse.
The Yardbirds remained a quartet but, despite a growing reputation on the American 'underground' circuit, their appeal as a pop attraction waned. Late-period collaborations with the commercially minded Mickie Most, including "Little Games" (1967) and "Goodnight Sweet Josephine" (1968), failed to chart. They followed with two bizarre successes in America: "Ha Ha Said The Clown" and Harry Nilsson 's "Ten Little Indians".
When Relf and McCarty announced a desire to pursue a folk-based direction, the group folded in June 1968. Page continued on for a while as The New Yardbirds and subsequently founded Led Zeppelin, Dreja became a highly successful photographer, while the remaining duo forged a new career, firstly as "Together", then "Renaissance". Nonetheless, the legacy of the Yardbirds has refused to die, particularly in the wake of the fame enjoyed by its former guitarists.
Relf was fatally electrocuted in 1976, but the following decade McCarty and Dreja joined Samwell-Smith - now a respected record producer - in "Box Of Frogs". When this short-lived attraction folded, the former colleagues reverted to their corresponding careers, with McCarty remaining active in music as a member of the British Invasion All-Stars.
The Yardbirds came together for a few nostalgia gigs, including a short lived 1995 tour. Jim McCarty and Chris Dreja reunited again in 1996 on a more permanent basis and in the new millennium began working on a new album. "Birdland" was released to favorable reviews in 2003. The recording lineup included Dreja, McCarty, and new members Gypie Mayo on lead guitar, backing vocals, John Idan on bass and vocals and Alan Glen on harmonica and vocals. Jeff Beck also contributed to the track "My Blind Life". Since the release of that LP, Gypie Mayo was briefly replaced by Jerry Donahue and subsequently in 2005 by Ben King, while Alan Glen was been replaced by Billy Boy Miskimmin from Nine Below Zero fame.
In 2007, The Yardbirds released a live CD, recorded on July 19th, 2006, called "Live At B.B. King Blues Club", featuring the McCarty, Dreja, Idan, King and Miskimmin line-up. The first episode of the '07 / '08 season of TV's The Simpsons featured the song "I'm A Man" from that CD.
Both John Idan and Alan Glen played their last show with the band on April 24th, 2009 in the new Live Room venue at Twickenham rugby stadium. The pair were replaced by Andy Mitchell on lead vocals, harmonica and acoustic guitar, and David Smale on bass and backing vocals.
For The Yardbirds 2012 tour through the U.S. and Canada, the band was made up of guitarist Chris Dreja, drummer Jim McCarty, bassist David Smale, singer Andy Mitchell and guitarist Ben King. In 2015, Jim McCarty announced a new lineup which features guitarist Johnny A., bassist Kenny Aaronson, singer/harpist/percussionist Myke Scavone and guitarist/singer John Idan. The band was scheduled to wrap up a Fall tour in America before kicking off another string of shows in the UK and US lasting until October, 2016.
For more, be sure to read Gary James' interviews with Chris Dreja and Jim McCarty