In the annals of rock and roll history, Jeff Beck will always be considered part of the Big Three of highly influential guitarists that came out of the UK in the mid- to late-1960s. Like the other two, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, Beck served time in The Yardbirds. But unlike the other two, Beck has spent the past five-plus decades charting a career course that’s found him traveling down broader musical byways that has made it far more difficult to pin him down musically. And he wouldn’t have it any other way.
This supremely talented instrumentalist, who is considered a “guitarist’s guitarist” has seen his schedule ramp up considerably in the past two years. In 2017, Beck released Live at the Hollywood Bowl, which chronicled his 2016 performance at this storied venue that commemorated 50 years of his musical career.
This year not only sees him hitting the road with Paul Rodgers (Free/Bad Company) and Ann Wilson (Heart) for the Stars Align Tour, but the release of Still On the Run: The Jeff Beck Story, a documentary that does a deep chronological dive into the life of this notoriously private British musical icon. Featuring testimonials from the likes of Rod Stewart, Slash, Jan Hammer, Ronnie Wood, Clapton and Joe Perry, along with plenty of insight from the film’s subject, it shines a light on the hot rod-loving Brit and his quest for new and different creative challenges that have added up to such a unique musical career. Not surprisingly, it was a project the unfailingly polite and self-deprecating Beck didn’t want to necessarily be a part of.
“I turned it down, probably twice or three times. But they kept coming back and they were so sweet and said they were going to do the best job they could. It was really touching for me too when I saw it. I wondered where the money went—maybe it was in bribes,” he said with a laugh. “Eric Clapton said such generous things that were so touching to me. There was always this almost unhealthy acid feeling in The Yardbirds where [the narrative was] that he hated me because I replaced him. The stories in the band were that he was a moody, aggressive young guy who would knock you off. Then I met him for the first time. I’m not saying he wasn’t without mood at sometimes, but I was too. So what? We were young and trying to get there.”
Beck’s talents have not only found him carving out quite an impressive solo career, but led to his working with a wide range of artists including Kate Bush, Diana Ross, Cyndi Lauper, Morrissey, Seal, Donovan, Stanley Clarke, Les Paul, Kate Bush and Toots and the Maytals. Through it all, his enthusiasm and appreciation of his fellow musicians is undiminished and genuine. He gets a kick out of recounting seeing Jimi Hendrix play in England for the first time as a relative unknown and sharing his impression with Pete Townshend, who was coming in to see Hendrix’s second show as Beck was leaving from the first one.
“I saw maybe one of the first or second shows [Hendrix] ever did [in England] at Queensgate. I’ll never forget it. It was a funny thing because nobody knew who he was and it was just a bunch of models there—mostly girls wearing Carnaby Street stuff. And he comes on and starts ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and playing the guitar with his teeth and I thought, ‘What am I going to do tomorrow?,’” he recalled with a laugh. “I was coming out of that show and saw Pete Townshend, who asked, ‘What’s he like?’ I said, ‘He’s like you, without the arm swing.’”
Another favorite anecdote focused on pressuring his label, Epic Records, to have him record with Stevie Wonder.
“I refused to do anything until they hooked me up with him. I was pretty adamant that I wanted to play with Stevie. They said he was doing supper clubs and singing songs like ‘For Once In My Life.’ I had that For Once In My Life album, which is fantastic. I thought, ‘How is this going to work?,’” he said. “I was told if they wrote a song and played on his album, then it would be fair [for him to do the same]. I go over there and—what an education. I can’t explain it, but the music just poured out of him. He’d sit at the clavinet, sing gibberish lyrics and all of a sudden a song was born, right in front of me. Just to watch him play, the way he did. And that was the arrangement between Motown and Epic. That’s how they got me out of the garage.”
Currently on the road with Rodgers and Wilson, Beck was anxious to play live having been out of commission last year after undergoing a surgical procedure and not having been in the studio for 18 months.
“I didn’t want to be two years off the road, which is the last time we toured and I played the Hollywood Bowl. I had to sit out last year because I had a shoulder operation. It was over in a day, but it was a year of agony. I couldn’t put a T-shirt on for six months. I could get it over my head, but I couldn’t pull it down. So I just sat by the pool and it was a brilliant summer,” he said. “I was thinking that I should be doing something, and I really understood what it was like to be challenged. I couldn’t even push myself off the chair, but it’s all better now and it’s all looking good. We’ll hopefully have three incredible diverse shows with Paul and Ann’s voices, loads of memories, loads of great new stuff and somewhere I fit in the middle.”
Jeff Beck will be appearing on Aug. 14 with his Stars Align Tour with Paul Rodgers and Ann Wilson at Northwell @ Jones Beach Theater, 1000 Ocean Pkwy, Wantagh. Visit www.jonesbeach.com or call 800-745-3000 for more information.