Jimmy Page wasn’t yet a famed session musician when The Yardbirds began tweeting around his peripheries. The band approached Page with the hope of the guitarist joining their growing group of R&B performers back in 1964, hoping that he would replace their guitarist Eric Clapton, who was taking a vacation and the performer happily turned them down, citing loyalty to his friend. Again, in 1965, after Clapton made it clear he was now keen to leave the band, they tried to snare the guitarist. However, Page once again turned them down.
Having cited friendship as his first reason, the second time the band came calling he had perhaps some even more legitimate reasons to turn them down. Firstly, his esteem as one of the finest session guitarists around was gaining pace and he was really enjoying his work. Secondly, the Yardbirds had a fearsome touring schedule that seemed to frighten the young Page, who, instead, put forward his friend Jeff Beck as Clapton’s replacement. However, by 1966, Page would join the band and turn them into one of the most sensational groups on the planet.
The opportunity arose as the band’s bassist Paul Samwell-Smith quit following a run of ugly altercations with the group’s singer Keith Relf. The Yardbirds played a show in Oxford when the bassist ripped through the curtain one day and promised to quit the band immediately. Page witnessed the whole episode as he shared some jokes with his friend Jeff Beck.
Speaking about the moment he joined the band, Page told Trouser Press in 1977: “Jeff had brought me to the gig in his car, and on the way back, I told him I’d sit in for a few months until they got things sorted out. Beck had often said to me, ‘It would be really great if you could join the band.’ But I just didn’t think it was a possibility in any way.”
Adding: “In addition, since I’d turned the offer down a couple of times already, I didn’t know how the rest of them would feel about me joining.” But with a tour stretching out ahead of them and a member down, Page decided to commit to the project and join the Yardbirds.
It seems as though just a few years working as a session musician had turned the pinnacle of Page’s ambitions into something a little grander. The guitarist had grown weary of the studio issues and was now determined to make his own work shine as brightly, Page told Rolling Stone: “[The Yardbirds Drummer] Jim McCarty says I was so desperate to get out of the studio that I’d have played drums.” It wouldn’t be such a leap of instrument for Page, however.
Rather than inexplicably picking up the drumsticks, Page put down his guitar and replaced Samwell-Smith on the bass guitar. As a result, Page would get his first opportunity to perform as a member of the Yardbirds at London’s Marquee Club on June 21st, 1966. For those lucky enough to be in attendance that night, they got the first glimpse of the iconic guitarist that Jimmy Page would become.
Soon after the first show, Chris Dreja learned the bass and transferred from rhythm guitar to the instrument so that Page could act as back-up for the astounding talent of Jeff Beck on lead guitar. It was one of the decade’s most imposing rock and roll line-ups and one which has been eulogised ever since — largely because it was so brief.
The Yardbirds would only record a few songs as this line-up, with ‘Happening Ten Years Time Ago’ arguably being the finest. In the same year, Jeff Beck was fired from the band with Page assimilating the lead guitar role, eventually becoming the band’s leader before he transformed it into Led Zeppelin. While we’re all glad that Page eventually ditched the bass in favour of his trusted axe, there’s no denying that this brief moment of the spotlight was enough to confirm Page’s suspicions: he was going to be a star.