By John Rolfe / Red Hook, N.Y.
I’m sure that most people had heard of Jeff Beck before the legendary British guitarist passed away on Jan. 10 at the age of 78. I’m also willing to wager my last piaster that most were also unaware that they had actually heard him.
Beck’s most widely known work was done in the ’60s with The Yardbirds, the rock group that also launched the careers of Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, two guitar contemporaries who eclipsed Beck by going on to greater fame and commercial success.
As the leader of his own bands and as a solo artist, Beck was hailed by rock fans, critics and fellow musicians as a pioneer of heavy blues-influenced rock in the late ’60s and jazz fusion in the ’70s, and for being “the guitarist’s guitarist,” thanks to his dazzlingly unique sound and technique, constant innovation and exploration of his instrument. As Ritchie Blackmore of Deep Purple once said, “Jeff Beck is my idol ... sometimes he finds notes that I just do not have on my guitar.”
Page tweeted after learning of Beck’s death, “The six stringed Warrior is no longer here for us to admire the spell he could weave around our mortal emotions. Jeff could channel music from the ethereal. His technique unique. His imaginations apparently limitless. Jeff I will miss you along with your millions of fans.”
You can read more tributes here.
To casual listeners of mainstream music, though, Beck was overshadowed by the other stars with whom he associated. His first Jeff Beck Group launched the career of singer Rod Stewart and now-Rolling Stones guitarist Ron Wood. He played a key role in creating Stevie Wonder’s classic hit “Superstition.” But Beck had no blockbuster hit songs of his own, and it seemed like he was usually given major exposure incidentally via a movie soundtrack (his song “The Pump” was used in the Tom Cruise classic Risky Business) or his appearances with big names such as Clapton, Page, Wonder, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Sting, Kelly Clarkson and actor/musician Johnny Depp, with whom he had been touring and recording in recent years.
As a Beck fan since 1971, I feel frustrated hearing tributes that include only his biggest songs with the Yardbirds (“Heart Full of Soul”, “Shapes of Things”) and most oft-played (on mainstream radio) solo tracks (“Beck’s Bolero”, “Freeway Jam” and “People Get Ready”).
I understand that those tunes are what most people will recognize, but to those who don’t know much about him, the tributes convey the impression that Beck’s career peaked or even ended by the mid-’80s after a small handful of modest hits. Nothing could be further from the truth. He kept going as a vital artistic force — recording, touring, evolving, exploring fresh musical terrain, collaborating, winning Grammy Awards — right up until the sudden end of his life last week from bacterial meningitis.
Beck leaves behind a résumé that includes two platinum and five gold albums, eight Grammies among his 17 nominations (the most recent in 2022), and two inductions into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (as a Yardbird and as a solo artist). But most significantly, he spent nearly 60 years as an integral part of the fabric of popular music, never becoming a household name but nevertheless putting his stamp on different styles and on the work of many other major artists such as Tina Turner, Roger Waters, Mick Jagger, Kate Bush, Toots & The Maytals, Jan Hammer, Jon Bon Jovi, The Pretenders, John McLaughlin, Les Paul, Ozzy Osbourne and more.
Rock, pop, blues, jazz fusion, funk, techno, rockabilly, you name it, Beck could play it authentically and make it his own. He laid down gritty hard rock with ZZ Top and leant a lighter, playful touch to Beach Boys classics as a member of Brian Wilson’s touring band. He worked tender magic on classic pop songs like “Lilac Wine” with vocalist Imelda May and fueled gut bucket blues (“I Put a Spell on You”) with singer Joss Stone. He even cranked out politically edgy industrial rock with the band Bones UK on his 2016 album “Loud Hailer.”
Beck’s instrumental interpretations of “Over the Rainbow”, The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” and the opera classic “Nessun Dorma” (both Grammy winners), and a bird’s call (“Blackbird”) are breathtaking.
No matter what a song demanded, Beck delivered. I treasure the memories of seeing him perform live four times from 1975 and 2017. (If you haven’t guessed, he’s my favorite guitarist, and he’s one of the few musicians who has ever made me laugh out loud in astonishment.) The one constant was his unique touch and technique, best described by this New York Times concert review from 2016:
“There was something particular, specialized and unusual about pretty much every individual sound he produced: his chords, struck roughly with his thumb, framed with strange temporal relations to the beat, and then clipped off; his sparing and startling use of fast legato flourishes; his almost constant patrolling of microtonal areas, all the pitches between the notes, through the careful use of his tremolo bar in his right hand and the fingers of his left hand; his ways of making a phrase sound physical, falling and rising and pulsating. Mr. Beck is virtuosic, he’s dramatic, and he’s in a permanent state of controlled volatility, and he doesn’t ever go out of tune.”
If I had to pick one song to show someone who has never heard Jeff Beck what he was all about, it would be this version of “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” by the great jazz musician Charles Mingus. Moody and mesmerizing, Beck’s elegant rendition is loaded with superb dynamics as he plays with the melody.
For those who are unfamiliar with him, the New York Times summed up Beck’s life quite nicely in this obituary. The documentaries “Still On The Run” and “A Man for All Seasons” delve into his career in fascinating detail. And, of course, there’s much great music to explore in his 32-album discography that includes the compilation “Beckology” and the career retrospective live record “At the Hollywood Bowl” (2017).
If you’d like to watch an excellent, comprehensive concert video, check out “Performing This Week... Live at Ronnie Scott's” (2007) or “Jeff Beck’s Rock ‘n Roll Party” (2010), a wonderful tribute to the legendary Les Paul, one of his main influences.
No doubt, Beck’s creative restlessness and reclusive nature — he was willing to share the spotlight and often vanished from public sight for long periods to work on his beloved collection of classic cars — cost him commercial rewards and much wider name recognition. So did his passing up an invitation to play Woodstock and a devastating car crash in 1969 that sidelined him for two years. But he always enjoyed the freedom to do things his way and that’s how he wanted it.
"I don't care about the rules,” he once said. “In fact, if I don't break the rules at least 10 times in every song then I'm not doing my job properly."
I really don’t think there will ever be anyone quite like him again.
Some of my favorite Jeff Beck songs:
Situation: The first song I ever heard that made me aware of him, and a fan for life. From his 1971 Jeff Beck Group album “Rough and Ready.”
Where Were You: A stunningly beautiful piece from his 1989 album “Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop” that Queen guitarist Brian May says may be the finest piece of instrumental guitar ever recorded.
Another delicately lovely instrumental played with exquisite touch. From his 1999 album “Who Else!”
Loose Cannon: From his techno album “You Had It Coming” (2000), it includes the most ferocious riffs and solos I’ve ever heard.
This live rendition of a Billy Cobham fusion-rock song features Beck in full flow. I love how he gets members of the audience exchanging knowing smiles when he lets loose with his trademark mind-bending licks.
John Rolfe is a former senior editor for Sports Illustrated for Kids, a longtime columnist for the Poughkeepsie Journal/USA Today Network, and author of The Goose in the Bathroom: Stirring Tales of Family Life. His school bus drivin’ blog “Hellions, Mayhem and Brake Failure” is parked on his website Celestialchuckle.com (https://celestialchuckle.com) with the meter running.