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Jeff Beck In Memoriam: A Farewell to my Youth

I grew up with Jeff Beck as a primary guitar hero, along with Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Frank Zappa and Johnny Winter. They all represented my bridge into jazz, making it somewhat easier to absorb the more advanced expressions of John McLaughlin, Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass, Pat Martino, et al. Beck's 1968 debut as a leader, Truth , was the second album I bought with my own money. His psychedelic, wah-wah/echo inflected renditions of Howlin’ Wolf’s “I Ain’t Superstitious” and Willie Dixon’s “You Shook Me” on that landmark recording blew my 14-year-old mind (though I had already been primed the year before by Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced, the first album I ever bought with my own money).

Of course, I had actually heard Beck before buying Truth, although I didn’t realize it. AM radio was saturated with The Yardbirds’ hit single “Over Under Sideways Down” during the summer of 1966, when I was a precocious 12-year-old still under the spell of the Beatles. And the snaky, Middle Eastern guitar line on that catchy song always stood out as jaw-dropping to me, though I didn't know the player’s name at the time. I also remember hearing “Shapes of Things,” The Yardbirds’ hit single which had come out earlier that same year, but it didn't register with me the same way "Over Under Sideways Down" had. I regarded "Shapes" as catchy but no more adventurous than Paul Revere & The Raiders fare like “Just Like Me,” “Kicks” or “Good Thing," which had all come out around the same time. But nothing in The Yardbirds’ discography had prepared me for Beck's radically re-imagined, totally psychedelicized rendition of “Shapes of Things” that appeared on Truth when it was released on July 28, 1968.

Naturally, I was eager to purchase Beck-Ola when it came out the following summer, though its heavy-duty rock remakes of Elvis Presley’s “All Shook Up” (with Beck on slide guitar) and “Jailhouse Rock” seemed oddly out of step with the Aquarian Age (the fabled “3 Days of Peace & Music” at Woodstock happened around the same time as its release). Beck’s sophomore outing paled in comparison to his visionary debut, in my opinion. It seemed to be more a showcase of Rod Stewart’s rough-hewn vocals and Nicky Hopkins’s two-fisted piano playing than any kind of progressive guitar manifesto. I was similarly luke warm about 1971 Rough and Ready and 1972’s Steve Cropper-produced Jeff Beck Group, both flirtations with jazz featuring keyboardist Max Middleton, bassist Clive Chaman and drummer Cozy Powell that may have paved the way to Beck’s next recording landmark, 1975’s Blow by Blow. His full-scale headfirst dive into the fusion pool, it reflected the influence of John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra in the chops busting track “Scatterbrain,” with brilliant string arrangements from producer George Martin (aka the Fifth Beatle).

With only keyboardist Middleton returning from Beck’s previous early ‘70s projects, this strictly instrumental outing had the guitarist dealing in nasty, clavinet-fueled funk (“Constipated Duck,” “You Know What I Mean”), a touch of reggae (his one-drop remake of the Beatles’ “She’s a Woman” featuring Beck on TalkBox) and an absolutely sublime rendition of Stevie Wonder’s melancholy ballad “‘Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers” that would become a set piece of Beck’s concerts for years to come. Blow By Blow not only signaled a new creative peak for Beck, it still ranks today as one of the premiere recordings in the canon of instrumental rock music. He received similar accolades for 1976’s Wired, which featured original Mahavishnu Orchestra keyboardist Jan Hammer, bassist Wilbur Bascomb and then-current Mahavishnu Orchestra drummer Narada Michael Walden and included blazing fusion fare in Middleton’s “Led Boots,” Hammer’s “Blue Wind” and Walden’s “Sophie” as well as a tender interpretation of the Charles Mingus ballad, “Goodby Pork Pie Hat.” The guitarist returned to a vocal-heavy format on the 1985 Nile Rodgers-produced Flash, which included former singing partner Rod Stewart on a remake of Curtis Mayfield’s gospel-tinged anthem, “People Get Ready.” Beck also picked up his first Grammy Award for Beat Rock Instrumental Performance for the Jan Hammer tune “Escape.”

Beck’s next major statement came in 1989 with Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop. A power trio outing with keyboardist Tony Hymas and former Zappa drummer Terry Bozzio, it includes blistering blues-rock performances on the hard-hitting title track, the grooving “Savoy,” the throbbing “Big Block,” grinding, anthemic “Stand On It” and the revved-up, rocket fueled “Sling Shot.” There’s also a touch of reggae (a favorite detour of Beck’s throughout his career) on “Behind the Veil,” and Beck’s more lyrical side comes to the fore on his sublime “Where Were You,” which ranks right alongside Hendrix’s “Little Wing” for lyrical beauty and sheer ethereal beauty, and also on the epic “Two Rivers,” a showcase of his mastery of high pitched harmonics.

Guitar Shop earned Beck his second Grammy, for Best Rock Instrumental Performance. That same year he also toured with Texas-born blues-rock guitar hero Stevie Ray Vaughan in a volatile package billed as “The Fire Meets the Fury.” I saw them on that tour at Madison Square Garden, where they played together on an encore of "Jeff's Boogie" and "I'm Goin' Down" on Nov. 11, 1989, just seven months before SRV died in a helicopter crash in Aug. 27,1990)

A true guitar virtuoso, Beck discarded the pick during the 1980s in favor of attaining independence with his five right hand fingers on the strings — flesh on steel — to realize richer chord voicings, more fluid phrasing and other-worldly tones. It’s as if each finger had an individual brain, and he had ultimately control over them, just as Zakir Hussain so expertly yet intuitively commands each of his ten fingers while playing tablas. With minimal use of effects, the sound was mostly in his hands. Along with eerie volume knob swells to eliminate the attack on his vicious string-bends — a technique most famously used on his version of the tender Stevie Wonder ballad “‘Cause We Ended as Lovers” from his 1975 album Blow by Blow — Beck also had an unparalleled command of the whammy bar (or tremolo arm) for uncannily precise articulation and liquid inflections that approximated slide guitar or even the human voice (a quality perhaps best exemplified on a lyrical showcase like “Where Were You” from 1989’s Guitar Shop).

Beck discussed his unique technique with writer Gene Santoro in an interview for a January 1985 issue of Guitar World: “It’s more like bluegrass style with rock and roll in mind. If I break a fingernail, then I have to use a pick but otherwise I never touch one. With five fingers you can do all kinds of stuff you can’t properly get at with a pick. You can do rolling figures like bluegrass, you can pick out notes of a chord and twang them, push them, bend them, anything you want. When you drop the pick, you’ve got all these fingers hanging out in the breeze. Naturally, you want to use them. Obviously, there are some very fast guitarists, like John McLaughlin, who use a pick. And I can’t even get anywhere near the speed he gets. But that’s not what I’m looking for. I’m looking to use as many notes, chordal things, bends, whatever, that you can’t really do that easily with the same articulation that you get with all separate fingers.”

Several guitarists, like Vai and Satriani, eventually cracked the code of Beck’s playing. But the seven-time Grammy winner and multiple platinum seller continued innovating and delivering passionately, and often unexpectedly, over the course of his fabled career. As he once said, “I don’t care about the rules. In fact, if I don’t break the rules at least 10 times in every song then I’m not doing my job properly.”

Born on June 24, 1944, in South London to an account father and candy maker mother, he became attracted to electric guitar after hearing Les Paul’s popular recordings with his wife, singer Mary Ford, in the early 1950s. He was later drawn to the early rockabilly and proto-rock ’n’ roll sound of Gene Vincent, and particularly the group’s guitarist, Cliff Gallup. American American blues-rock pioneer Lonnie Mack also became a major guitar influence for young Beck. In 1965, he join The Yardbirds, replacing Eric Clapton in the British rock group. Though he remained with The Yardbirds for only 20 months, his snaky Middle Eastern guitar sound and distortion-laced lines helped define the group’s early hits like “Heart Full of Soul,” “Over, Under, Sideways, Down” and “Shapes of Things,” the latter reaching No. 11 in the United States pop charts. The band was also immortalized in director Michelangelo Antonioni’s Mod-era film from 1966, Blow Up, which features a scene where the main character (David Hemming’s Thomas) enters a packed nightclub to the strains of The Yardbirds playing a grunge-laden pre-punk rendition of Tiny Bradshaw’s “The Train Kept A-Rollin.” During the song, Beck keeps slamming his guitar against his Vox amp out of frustration over a crackling cord, only to ultimately smash it to smithereens on stage before throwing the fragments of the destroyed instrument into the frantic audience (and this a full year before either Hendrix or Pete Townshend smashed their guitars during their sets at the Monterey Pop Festival).

Beck’s landmark debut as a leader, 1968’s Truth, may have cemented his place in rock guitar lore. The album’s single, “Beck’s Bolero,” penned by his Yardbirds bandmate Jimmy Page, would become a staple in Beck concerts for years to come. After applying a light, lyrical touch on the smooth ballad “Lookin’ for Another Pure Love” for Stevie Wonder’s breakthrough 1972 album, Talking Book, Beck later recorded Wonder’s “Superstition” on his own 1973 power trio album, Beck, Bogert & Appice, recorded with bassist Tim Bogert and drummer Carmine Appice from the ‘60s rock band Vanilla Fudge. With 1975’s Blow by Blow — an instrumental album produced by George Martin, who had produced the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Apocalypse the year before and presided over countless studio sessions with the Beatles before that — Beck did a deep dive into fusion waters.

He subsequently won Best Instrumental Rock Performance Grammies in 2001 for “Dirty Mind” from You Had It Coming, 2003 for “Plan B” from Jeff, 2009 for “Day in the Life” from Performing This Week…Live at Ronnie Scott’s, 2010 for “Hammerhead” from Emotion & Commotion. He also won Grammies in 2010 for Best Pop Instrumental Performance for his stellar rendition of Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma” from Emotion & Commotion and Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals for “Imagine” from Herbie Hancock’s The Imagine Project.

The guitar great did prodigious session work through the ‘90s, providing signature solos on albums Jon Bon Jovi, Roger Waters, Kate Bush, Brian May, Tina Turner, Paul Rodgers, Buddy Guy, Stanley Clarke, John McLaughlin and Will Lee. While 1999’s Who Else! and 2003’s David Torn-produced Jeff represented a detour into techno/electronica, he returned to classic form on 2008’s Live at Ronnie Scott’s with drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, bassist Tal Wilkenfeld and keyboardist Jason Rebello playing exhilarating interpretations of Billy Cobham’s “Stratus,” “Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers,” Scatterbrain,” “Led Boots” and “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.” Beck showed continued breadth of style with 2010’s Emotion & Commotion, which included an interpretation of “Over the Rainbow” and earned him separate Grammies for Pop Instrumental (Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma”) and Rock Instrumental (“Hammerhead”).

Beck’s 2011 album, Rock ’n’ Roll Party: Honoring Les Paul, was a salute to his seminal guitar influence. Performed to a select audience at the intimate Iridium nightclub in NYC’s Times Square, this live outing featured faithful renditions of Gene Vincent’s “Crusin’,” Eddie Cochran’s “Twenty Flight Rock” and the rockabilly staple “Double Talking Baby” as well as faithful renditions of Henry Mancini’s “Peter Gunn Theme,” Santo & Johnny’s “Sleep Walk,” The Shadows’ “Apache” and the Les Paul & Mary Ford hits “How High the Moon,” “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise” and “Vaya Con Dios.”

Beck's final album, 18, was a collaboration with actor-guitarist-singer Johnny Depp. That July 2022 release featured Beck’s signature lyrical licks on renditions of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” Brian Wilson’s “Caroline, No” and Smokey Robinson’s romantic ballad “Ooo Baby Baby,” along with a taste of electronica on “The Death and Resurrection Show,” a touch of darkness on Lou Reed’s “Venus in Furs” and a bit of catharsis on John Lennon’s “Isolation.” The two celebrities made a successful tour of the States together in October and November of 2022. Depp was reportedly at Beck’s hospital bedside when the guitarist passed.

Tributes came pouring in throughout the social media landscape shortly after the passing of guitar great Jeff Beck on January 10 at age 78, due to a bout with bacterial meningitis. So many were so effusive in their praise of the UK six-string legend, including from some of the biggest names in music. Paul McCartney paid tribute to the “lovely man with a wicked sense of humour who played some of the best guitar music ever to come out of Great Britain” while Jimmy Page, Beck’s former bandmate in The Yardbirds, weighed in with: “The six-stringed warrior is no longer here for us to admire the spell he could weave around our mortal emotions.”

John McLaughlin, whom Beck had once called “the greatest player around,” stated on his official Instagram account: “You are the Greatest!!! I love you forever. RIP.” Brian May of Queen called Beck’s loss “incalculable,” adding: “Jeff was completely and utterly unique. And I was absolutely in awe of him. He was only a couple of years older than me and came from the same area where I came from, but he was a hero to me all along, doing things which I kind of dreamed of doing. He brought an amazing voice to rock music which will never, ever be emulated or equaled.” May added, “He was wild, he was unquantifiable and extraordinarily difficult to understand, but one of the greatest guitar geniuses the world has ever seen and will ever see.”

Modern day guitar heroes Steve Vai and Joe Satriani, both of whom had devoured landmark Beck albums like Truth and Blow by Blow while growing up on Long Island, each paid moving tributes to their idol. “In the pantheons of guitar players, Jeff Beck was the chosen one,” wrote Vai on Instagram. “He left us with so much beauty and light in our music world. I can’t imagine the landscape of contemporary guitar playing if he had never been here, but as everything comes and goes in this world, his contribution reshaped our imagination of what the guitar can do forever.” Added Satriani, “Jeff Beck was a genius, a stunning original. He was an astounding guitar player with more ways to make you go ‘WTF was that?’ than anybody else. He was profoundly talented, and never stopped innovating on the instrument. He had an enormous impact on my guitar playing, my musicianship and my soul.”

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