In the annals of rock-and-roll history, Jeff Beck will always be considered part of the Big Three of highly influential guitarists who came out of the UK in the mid- to late-1960s. Like the other two, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, Beck was part of The Yardbirds for a time. But unlike the other two, Beck has spent the last five-plus decades charting a career course that’s had him traveling down broader musical byways–a course that’s made it far more difficult to pin him down musically.
And he wouldn’t have it any other way. This supremely talented instrumentalist, who’s 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 related his 2016 performance at the storied venue, an appearance commemorating 50 years of a legendary–and much lauded–musical career.
This year, he’s hitting the road with Paul Rodgers (of Free and Bad Company) and Ann Wilson (lead singer of Heart) for the Stars Align Tour, and releasing 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 man himself, 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 in which the unfailingly polite and self-deprecating Beck didn’t necessarily want to participate.
“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 during a recent phone interview. “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 times, but I was, too. So what? We were young and trying to get there.”
Beck’s talents have not only allowed him to carve out quite an impressive solo career, but have led to collaboration with a wide range of artists including Kate Bush, Diana Ross, Cyndi Lauper, Morrissey, Seal, Donovan, Stanley Clarke, Les Paul and Toots & the Maytals.
Through it all, his enthusiasm and appreciation of fellow musicians are undiminished and genuine. He gets a kick out of recounting the amazing experience of 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?,’” Beck 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?’” Beck 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.”
The tour with Rodgers and Wilson (as well as gigging a few dates of his own) is just in time, as Beck was anxious to play live, having been out of commission last year after undergoing a surgical procedure. He hadn’t 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,” Beck said. “But it’s all better now and it’s all looking good. We’ll hopefully have three incredible diverse shows with Paul’s and Ann’s voices, loads of memories, loads of great new stuff–and I fit in the middle somewhere.”