In Memoriam: Jeff Beck (1944-2023)

Jeff Beck and Buddy Guy leaned into each other shoulder to shoulder. Their fingers flew across the strings of their guitars in an extemporaneous jam that was two parts duet and one part duel. 

We were in a huge second-story photo studio deep in the heart of London’s Soho Arts District, getting ready for a guitar magazine photo shoot. They were playing electric guitars that weren’t plugged in and the sound, barely audible, cut into my brain like a snow squall on Christmas, a psychedelic high without the drugs.  

Jeff Beck
Jeff Beck at the Palace Theatre, 2013 (photo by Andrzej Pilarczyk)

Music journalists haven’t invented a word to describe what that sounded like. Imagine being in a field in 1950 with Woody Guthrie inventing a sound so fundamental it would influence Dylan and a cadre of Greenwich Village and Harvard Square folksingers a decade later, who in turn would inspire the British invasion and the Haight Ashbury clarion call to youth a few years after that: unique, primal, beyond the crunch of would-be icons. 

Waiting for the shoot to begin, Jeff came over to me and we talked about his other obsession, cars. I was in London with Buddy to attend the Eric Clapton Royal Albert Hall concert series in anticipation of writing my Buddy Guy biography, Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues. I didn’t have my usual agenda of collecting quotes for an article. Jeff and I were just two people from different worlds sharing some downtime.  

Jeff Beck, 1973

There I was, shooting the shit with a man who’d turned down the Rolling Stones’ invitation to replace Brian Jones. A man who, briefly in The Yardbirds, elevated the UK rock hierarchy above emulating an American Country/R&B/soul hybrid to produce “rave-ups” as they called them.  

If Hendrix was the American guitarist who forged a unique path among rock’s emerging hierarchy, Jeff Beck was the British equivalent.  

The Beatles may have opened the floodgates, and The Stones may have created the white man’s equivalent to a chitlin circuit Saturday night blowout, but Jeff Beck soared above them all on a guitar that knew no limits.  

(l-r) Al Jardine, Jeff Beck, Rick Bedrosian, Brian Wilson and David Marks, 2013

He had influences that were extraterrestrial. Sure, he played with everyone from Clapton to Johnny Depp, an equal opportunity partner with Buddy Guy in the musical journeys near the end of a century of artistic experimentation. He may not have been “plugged in” that day with Buddy, but they were hearing each other on another plane.  

This wasn’t a show to jack off an arena crowd of thousands. This was two human beings making musical love to each other. This was primal. And I stood 20 feet away tripping out on an intimate moment that’s burned in my memory, the high point in a lifetime of moments that lifted my soul above the harsh realities of everyday existence:  

The Jeff Beck Group concert in Washington, DC, when I was in the Army waiting to deploy to Nam.  

The Beck, Bogart and Appice performance in Syracuse just after my first son was born. 

Jeff Beck, 1989

The opening act for Stevie Ray Vaughan at the RPI Fieldhouse in Troy when I was spearheading the Northeast Blues Society. That was the show that inspired Albert Cummings to seriously take up the guitar. It took place on Nov. 12, 1989. Here’s how my friend Steve Webb, formerly the music critic for The Schenectady Union Star, remembers another stop on that tour in Albuquerque. 

“What struck me was just how ripped his right forearm was, and how everything else was possible because he was so strong picking and chording. Before that, what got me was that he played off his keyboardists better than anyone I can think of.  

“The first real sign of this for me was the Beck-Ola treatment of “All Shook Up” with Nicky Hopkins, and he did great fusion things with Jan Hammer, but the link was him and Middleton and that was what made Blow By Blow such a great album for me. To me, they were every bit as great a guitar/keys pairing as Keith Richards and Ian Stuart on the ’81 Stones tour, or Chuck Berry and Johnny Johnson on those great ’50s records and, going further, Basie and Freddie Green. You want to throw Wakeman and Howe in there, or Betts and Leavell? Fine by me.” 

James Brown died on Christmas. John Prine was the pandemic’s finest victim. Jeff Beck has been snatched from us with no warning. But his influence is beyond belief: his memories each unique to the millions of people like you and me who live for the charge we get from the arts.

1 Comment
  1. Margo Bergkotte Zijlmans says

    Are there any words for this kind off pain. I spoke to Jeff once on the phone.Something rare he said. I thanked him for being there for a friend in need. Left my adres an number.we spoke about my 25 year old who still lives home he had menigitis when he was 5 the same kind and hecasked about me i told him about the big C.he said iam speaceless but we had a laugh too.
    This is not the end ,how can that ever be worlds best guitarplayer he lives in so many hearts and most of all yours. He did speak about his Sandra and his family and his buddy Johnny.
    As i said there are no words to express the pain and emptiness your feeling now. All i can say is my condolence to you and the fam and friends. Hold eachother when you need a shoulder cry or scream he will hear you . And you know when any of you get ypur wings and you go through that light he be standing there waiting for you with arms wide open and hugs and kisses. I know i been there and my hubby stood there and my dad but they sent me back .i didn’t want to it felt likeca warm blanket and i looked down and saw the nurses and dr’s and my sons . My dad said Gootje You need to go back . So you know he is waiting for you . Lots a strength,love and light . I have candles burning for you all be strong be together. Love Margo

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