August 25, 1966, would be a watershed day in Jimmy Page’s life. Not that he knew it at the time. By all accounts, it was a day not unlike any of the past two months: Page was playing bass in The Yardbirds, with the understanding that he would trade places with rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja once the latter felt comfortable on the instrument. They both backed up Jeff Beck, a brilliant but volatile player who had replaced Eric Clapton less than a year earlier.
Page wasn’t a stranger to the guitar: he was one of England’s top sessions musicians on the instrument and left his day job to join The Yardbirds when burnout started to take hold. The focus on guitar in sessions also began to diminish, leaving Page unsatisfied. Perhaps that’s why Page was amenable to initially playing bass. His gigs on commercial jingles and B-list singers meant that he was playing the guitar nearly twelve hours a day, six days a week.
However, on this fateful day in San Francisco, Page realised that his unique six-string skills were required. Beck had become sick, although there remain unverified rumours that it was another walkout from the lead guitarist, right before the band’s gig at the Carousel Ballroom, later to become the original Fillmore West. Dreja was a competent rhythm player but baulked at having to play lead throughout the concert. Page stepped up, and for the first time, The Yardbirds performed as a quartet with a single guitar player.
Comically, Page wasn’t even mentioned in the advertising for the concert. Due to his relatively new status in the band, promotional material for their US tour still credited original bassist Paul Samwell-Smith. Audiences who might have been expecting Samwell-Smith, or at the very least Beck, were certainly in for a surprise.
The Yardbirds’ setlist in 1966 was often short, usually consisting of a number of songs that could be counted on one hand. Often shows were part of packaged tours, like the Dick Clark Caravan of Stars tour that would be Beck’s final run of appearances later that year.
The exact setlist of the August 25 show is unknown, but one song that had a permanent place in their performances was ‘Train Kept A-Rollin’, which gave Page ample opportunity for fretboard fireworks. The song would have an important impact on Page’s next career move: the first song that the future New Yardbirds lineup would jam on. When The New Yardbirds fulfilled their touring obligations, they decided to adopt a new name: Led Zeppelin.
Here’s The Yardbirds in 1968, with Page having fully taken over on lead guitar.