February 8, 2023

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Jeff Beck, one of the rock era’s guitar masters, dies at 78

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Jeff Beck, one of the most innovative and certainly the most unexpected of the guitar heroes of the 60s, has died. He was 78.

“On behalf of his family, it is with deep and profound sadness that we share the news of Jeff Beck’s passing. “After a sudden attack of bacterial meningitis, he passed away peacefully yesterday,” a statement from his representative read. “His family asks for privacy while they process this extraordinary loss.”

Beck recently finished a tour with Johnny Depp, “18,” in support of his album.

He has won seven Grammys for instrumental performance and an eighth for his 2009 work on Herbie Hancock’s “The Imagine Project.”

A fleet, imaginative soloist, Beck brought powerful instrumental firepower to the British band the Yardbirds, which he joined in 1965 as a replacement for Eric Clapton. Completely at home with the group’s blues roots, he scorches their pop hits with an adventurous and virtually unprecedented use of feedback, sustain and fuzz.

After a quick exit from the Yardbirds – where he was joined by another future guitar star, Jimmy Page – he founded his own band, the Jeff Beck Group, fronted by vocalist Rod Stewart, soon becoming a solo star. The unit proved to be as unstable as the mighty and lasted for only two albums.

In the ’70s, Beck assembled a second, more R&B-oriented version of his group and briefly formed a short-lived power trio with Vanilla Fuzz and Cactus bassist Tim Bogart and drummer Carmine Appis.

He reached the potential peak of his critical and commercial success in the mid-’70s with a pair of all-instrumental albums “Blow by Blow” and “Wired” that saw him move into jazz-fusion territory. The latter LP was recorded with keyboardist Jan Hammer, formerly of top fusion act Mahavishnu Orchestra.

From the early ’80s onward, the temperamental Beck — a notorious perfectionist in the studio and a prickly bandmate — would sporadically reappear, retrench, retire, and reappear. His latter-day work ranges from tributes to rockabilly singer Gene Vincent to instrumental sets reflecting influences from techno, electronica and ambient music.

He was twice inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Recognized as a member of the Yardbirds in 1992, he said in a short speech, “They kicked me out… fuck them!” He entered the hall in 2009 as a solo performer.

Beck was born in Wallington, Surrey. He began playing guitar in his teens, on a homemade model (which he modeled after one of his heroes, the American guitarist-inventor Les Paul). His idols included Gene Vincent’s lead guitarist Cliff Gallup and American bluesmen Buddy Guy and Otis Rush.

Like many young British musicians, he was drawn to blues and R&B, and his first bands – The Night Shift, The Rumbles, The Tridents – all drew from the classic American repertoire. His break came in 1965, when Clapton, impatient with the Yardbirds’ increasingly pop-oriented, experimental turn, quit the group to join John Mayall’s purist unit the Bluesbreakers.

On the recommendation of Jimmy Page, who refused to give up his lucrative session work for a regular guitar chair, the Yardbirds hired Beck, and almost immediately he began putting his stamp on their sound.

He performed dramatic solos on several noisy Yardbirds hits of 1965–66: “Heart Full of Soul” (US No. 9), “I’m a Man” (No. 17), “Shapes of Things” (No. 11) and ” Over Under Sideways Down” (No. 13). The band’s ’66 UK album “Yardbirds” (dubbed “Roger the Engineer” after rhythm guitarist Chris Dreiser’s cover painting title) was a veritable rendition of visionary guitar technique.

Following the departure of bassist and musical director Paul Samwell-Smith in early 1966, Page eventually joined The Yardbirds on bass, but soon switched instruments with Dreja. The band’s back-page iteration lasted a few months and produced only two tracks featuring the dreaded twin-lead lineup: the single “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” and “Troll On”, a rewrite of “The Train Kept A—”. Rollin’” written for Michelangelo Antonioni’s complaint about swinging London, “Blow-Up.” The Yardbirds appeared on screen in Antonioni’s feature, where Beck destroyed his guitar on stage a la The Who’s Pete Townshend.

Professionalism and physical and mental health problems precipitated Beck’s departure from the Yardbirds in 1966. (Leaded by Page, the group, with new members, would become Led Zeppelin two years later.) In early 1967, Beck recorded the British hit “Hi Ho Silver Lining” — which he rejected almost immediately — and ex-Steampack vocalist Stewart, guitarist -Formed a new group with bassist Ron Wood and drummer Mickey Waller. Session pianist Nicky Hopkins also took a prominent role in the studio.

Billed solely by Beck, Storm’s debut album “Truth” (1968) was a potent concoction of hard rock, blues and folk that provided the basic blueprint for heavy metal to come. Its successor “Beck-Ola” (1969), billed to Jeff Beck Group (instead of Tony Newman Waller) and featuring two crunching Elvis Presley covers and the searing instrumental “Rice Pudding”, was even stronger. The group, minus Stewart, backed Brit Folkie Donovan on his rocking single “Big Bang”. But the act proved to be as volatile a mix as the Yardbirds, and Stewart and Wood left in mid-’69 to join the Faces (a reformed version of mod group The Small Faces).

After Beck declined an invitation to replace Brian Jones in the Rolling Stones, a December 1969 car accident put the guitarist’s proposed trio of American Bogart and Apis on the back burner. At the turn of the decade, guitarist Jeff Beck founded a new quintet version of the group that leaned heavily on Max Middleton’s jazzy keyboard work. Although the band’s album “Rough and Ready” (1971) and its self-titled 1972 follow-up performed respectably, they were considered inferior to the records originally produced by the Stewart-Wood lineup.

Released from their obligations to Cactus, Bogart and Apis joined Beck in 1972 for a tour appearance. By the end of that year the unit had been whittled down to the power trio of Beck, Bogart and Appis. Act released his only album in 1973; Reaching number 12 in the US, it featured a hammered rendition of “Superstition”, which was custom-written for Beck by its writer, Stevie Wonder.

Beck later adopted a stylistic about-face that would more or less define his approach for the rest of his career. Parting ways with Bogart and Apis before finishing a sophomore album, he cut an all-instrumental set on “Blow by Blow” (1975) with longtime Beatles producer George Martin. The Lean Quartet Session, a showcase of the leader’s considerable qualities, peaked at No. 4 in America and eventually certified a million sales.

Martin also produced the instrumental sequel “Wired” (1976), which featured keyboardist Hammer and fusion drummer Narda Michael Walden; It reached No. 16 and preceded a popular Beck-Hammer tour. The guitarist toured Japan in 1978 with a unit that included former Return to Forever bassist Stanley Clarke. Hammer returned for “There and Back” (1980), another instrumental set that hit number 21.

In the early ’80s, Beck limited himself to the benefit of concert appearances. He returned to the studio in 1985 for “Flash”, a large instrumental produced in part by Chick’s Nile Rodgers; The collection includes Beck’s only charting single, a No. 48 version of the Impressions’ “People Get Ready,” which reunited him with Rod Stewart. The set also produced his first Grammy winner, the rock instrumental “Escape.”

Suffering from tinnitus, Beck was sidelined for several years. He recorded the hard-rocking “Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop” (1989) with keyboardist Tony Hymus and ex-Frank Zappa drummer Terry Bozzio. The predominantly instrumental collection earned a second Grammy in the Rock Instrumental category.

His discography slowed further in the 90s. After the 1992 soundtrack “Frankie’s House”, Beck only issued “Crazy Legs” (No. 171, 1993), featuring lead vocals by Mike Sanchez and lead work by Hot Beck, and “Who Else!” Includes new renderings of Jean Vincent’s repertoire. (No. 99, 1999), a collaboration with former Michael Jackson guitarist Jennifer Batten.

Neither “You Had It Coming” (No. 110, 2001) nor the non-charting “Jeff” (2003) was a major commercial hit, but both titles featured tracks honored by the Recording Academy.

Beck’s acclaimed “Emotion and Commotion” (2010), his first album in seven years, became his highest-charting release in 35 years, peaking at No. 11 domestically. At the following year’s Grammys, the original “Hammerhead” and a rendition of Puccini’s aria “Nessun Dorma” won awards for Best Rock Instrumental Performance and Best Pop Instrumental Performance, respectively; The guitarist also took home a Best Pop Collaboration trophy for his work with India.ari on Hancock’s “Imagine.”

In later years, Beck filled his time restoring classic Ford hot rods.

He is survived by his wife Sandra.

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