A FEW MINUTES WITH… Jim McCarty of The Yardbirds
By Don Wilcock
Photographs by Arnie Goodman
“For Your Love” has long been referred to as the song that pissed off Eric Clapton and caused him to leave The Yardbirds in 1965. Not quite that simple says Jim McCarty, Yardbirds founder, chief songwriter, drummer and only original member of the British Invasion band that plays The Egg’s Swyer Theatre on Saturday night (March 16).
“Politically, Eric didn’t like it because he wasn’t seeing eye to eye with (bass player and producer) Paul Samwell-Smith at that time. So, it wasn’t just that it was a pop song rather than a blues song.”
The Yardbirds are ranked number 89 in Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time and number 37 on VH1’s 100 Greatest Artists of Hard Rock. “For Your Love” broke them big internationally in 1965. The third single released by the group was a jolting departure from the bluesy material they had been playing for two years. Singer Keith Relf and drummer Jim McCarty are backed a session musician Denny Prentice on bowed bass, Denny Piercy on bongos and organist Brian Auger on harpsichord. Clapton plays only on the middle break and left the band the day the song was released.
“He was difficult anyway,” says McCarty. “I suppose he didn’t like the way the band was going. We were looking for a hit record. We did try some of our bluesier songs, but they never really worked in the studio. We tried various things, a song Paul Jones and Manfred Mann wrote that didn’t happen either. A couple of ideas Eric
suggested, and, I dunno, nothing really came up. And so we did ‘For Your Love.’
“It was difficult ’cause there was a vibe. We were traveling around doing dates where (Clapton) would be very moody, sulking sort of thing. And the rest of us would be getting along well together, and he’d be sulking in the corner. I was quite relieved when he left.”
“For Your Love” went to No. 1 in England and was The Yardbirds’ first charting single in the United States, peaking at No. 6. More important than that, it set the stage for a series of singles featuring feedback, distortion, rhythmic flourishes and just enough jazzy special sauce to influence psychedelic rock, punk rock and heavy metal for half a century since. At the time in 1965, “For Your Love” pushed the envelope in the subsequent development of blues/rock from the only complete British band to have recorded with an American blues icon, Sonny Boy Williamson in 1963.
“I asked him if he was the real Sonny Boy,” says McCarty. “He would get angry about that. He was very funny. He seemed to like it in England. I guess it was because he was quite idolized by some of the white kids, and he used to have sort of groupies hanging around. But I heard a story about his staying with our manager Giorgio
Gomelsky, and apparently Giorgio came home one day at his apartment, and Sonny Boy was plucking a chicken in the bathtub in Giorgio’s apartment, which was really funny.”
Sonny Boy has been widely quoted as dissing The Yardbirds’ ability to play the blues. “Yeah, he did tell some funny stories, didn’t he, about the white boys wanting to play the blues so bad, and they do.”
Actually, McCarty says Williamson was very nice to the band. “But the only thing was we rehearsed all these songs with him, and when he came to the show he was really plastered. He was on Jack Daniels or whatever, and he just played a different set altogether. He just played what he wanted, and we all had to follow. That’s why the
album (sounds) so strange.” The album, Sonny Boy Williamson and The Yardbirds, was released in 1964.
Another of the group’s hits, a raucous “rave-up” called “A Train Kept A-Rollin’” was recorded in the Memphis Sun Studios of Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis fame by renowned producer Sam Phillips. “He was a special guy,” says McCarty. “He was very much in charge, and he wasn’t shy about putting his opinion in. He had a go at (singer) Keith Relf ’cause Keith was a little bit drunk.
“We had been waiting around for some time. We just actually turned up, and Sam was out fishing or something or other somewhere, and then when we finally got in the studio, it was quite late. Keith had been hanging around drinking beer and things. He was really a bit too drunk to do the session. Sam said, ‘Oh, well, you know, it’s
a good band, but you gotta get rid of the singer.’ He did the overdubs on another day, and they were OK. They all worked out fine. And it was great fun.”
The Yardbirds had several hits that are blues/rock classics including “Shapes of Things,” “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago,” “Heart Full of Soul” and “Over Under Sideways Down,” but they were always looking for that big hit, and in spite of replacing Clapton with Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, it was that search for the elusive hit that was their downfall when they made Mickie Most their producer in 1968. Mickie had helped create hits for The Animals, Herman’s Hermits and Donovan.
I asked McCarty if, in retrospect, Mickie Most was a bad idea. “A bad idea altogether! He had no idea, really. He had his way of doing things. He was a top producer when we (went with him). I think it was Jimmy Page’s idea. He was a guy who produced hits, and we needed a hit. And some of those terrible things that we recorded “Ten Little Indians” and “Ha Ha Said the Clown,” all his ideas. Also, he was so into recording and saving money that he didn’t want to spend any time recording, so he had myself and session players playing. So, on those sessions we didn’t even play.”
“The New Yardbirds” that played the Aerodrome in Schenectady in 1969 weren’t even The Yardbirds at all. By that time, the group had split up and only got back together again in the mid-’90s. “Yeah, that would have been Zeppelin because when Keith and I left the band, there was already a tour booked where they were gonna play with
Vanilla Fudge, and so Jimmy (Page) still wanted to honor the tour, and he got them – Robert (Plant) had just got together and they did it as the New Yardbirds before they thought of the name.”
I was at that show and will never forget their early take on “Dazed and Confused.” It all but ripped my young head off.
McCarty’s current group features John Idan on vocals and rhythm guitar, Kenny Aaronson on bass, Myke Scavone on harmonica, percussion and background vocals and Godfrey Townsend on lead guitar. Townsend’s background includes work with Mitch Ryder, John Entwistle, Dave Mason and Todd Rundgren and is in the tradition of Clapton, Page and Beck. If their 2007 live album is any indication, the latest “new” Yardbirds should be able to rip our heads off once again.