In and of itself, one man leaving one band in the middle of the 1960s might warrant little more than a historical footnote. But what makes the departure of Eric Clapton from the Yardbirds on March 13, 1965, more significant is the long and complicated game of musical chairs it set off within the world of British blues rock. When Clapton walked out on the Yardbirds, he did more than just change the course of his own career. He also set in motion a chain of events that would see not just one, but two more guitar giants pass through the Yardbirds on their way toward significant futures of their own. And through the various groups they would later form, influence, join and quit, these three guitar heroes—Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page—would shape more than a decade’s worth of rock and roll.
Eric Clapton was only 18 when he joined the Yardbirds in 1963, just after the group took over for the up-and-coming Rolling Stones as the house band at London’s Crawdaddy Club. Like many English musicians of his generation, Clapton was primarily interested in American blues, and he was enough of a purist about it to quit the Yardbirds when they drifted from the blues toward experimental pop with their early 1965 hit “For Your Love.” Clapton recommended as his replacement his friend Jimmy Page, then an enormously successful session musician, but Page declined. That led to the Yardbirds’ hiring Jeff Beck, who would serve as the group’s lead guitarist during its most successful and influential period. In 1966, when another of the Yardbirds’ original members quit, Jimmy Page finally agreed to join the group, teaming with Beck in a twin-guitar attack for a brief period before Beck was fired later that same year. Page would be the final lead guitarist for the Yardbirds, who essentially disbanded in 1968.
To follow the movements of Clapton, Beck and Page subsequent to their departures from the Yardbirds is to trace a convoluted path through the history of 1960s and 70s British rock. Eric Clapton went on to join John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers and then to form Cream—the first rock “supergroup”—before passing through Derek & the Dominos and Blind Faith and then going solo. Jeff Beck went on to form the Jeff Beck Group, for which he hired two relative unknowns who would go on to much bigger things: a bassist named Ronnie Wood and a vocalist named Rod Stewart. And Jimmy Page would go on to form arguably the most important hard-rock group in history, Led Zeppelin, which began when Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and John Bonham joined Page in the final incarnation of the Yardbirds in 1968.