Keith Relf (March 22, 1943 – May 14, 1976) was lead vocalist for the Yardbirds. He fronted the group through its entire lifespan, from 1963 until 1968. During this period, the group had many big-selling and influential hit records. Relf dissolved the group in 1968, became a record producer and sideman, and had begun a new stage of his musical career just before his early death.
Contribution to Rock
When people remember the Yardbirds, the British blues-based band that came to prominence in the mid to late 60s, what they remember most is the triumvirate of guitar players that used the group as a launching pad to stardom: Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and future Led Zeppelin founder Jimmy Page. While there is no doubt that these now world-famous guitarists contributed greatly to the Yardbirds’ sound, another less-famous member gave the group voice, performing presence, and direction. That man was Keith Relf.
Early Days and Initial Success
Born in London in 1943, William Keith Relf latched onto American rhythm and blues as a teenager. Influenced by the likes of Sonny Boy Williamson, Relf began to play harmonica in school. In 1963, he formed the Yardbirds, a group specializing in a then-exotic repertoire of American R&B. Joined by Eric Clapton, the Yardbirds soon established themselves as the fiercest of the scene’s many R&B cover bands. Their version of Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man” was typical – they played the plodding original at a furious, propulsive pace, ending in a blur of scratching guitars and wailing harmonica. This tendency towards high speed and increased volume, dubbed “the rave-up,” became one of the group’s distinguishing features.
New Directions and Final Days
A record contract followed, and soon the band, guided by the restless and substance-friendly Relf, drifted away from R&B. Subsequent hit songs suggested beatniks with harpsichords (“For Your Love”), melancholy monks (“Still I’m Sad”), and acid-soaked Romany (“Over Under Sideways Down”). Clapton left the band, and Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page joined, pushing the group deeper into psychedelic byways of fuzztone and distortion. Although Relf persevered, his attitude towards the high-powered guitar music that defined the group began to change. Exhausted from extensive touring and suffering from asthma, Relf wanted to sing gentler, more thoughtful music. By 1968, the Yardbirds’ end was at hand.
After the Yardbirds
Keith Relf’s first post-Yardbirds group was Together, an acoustic duo with fellow ex-Yardbird Jim McCarty. Their Simon and Garfunkel-inspired music failed to catch on, however, and Relf formed a new band with his sister Jane called Renaissance. The group was indeed a renaissance for Relf, allowing him to explore his psychedelic and acoustic leanings freely over the course of two albums. But difficult and unrewarding touring wore them down, and Relf would dissolve its first incarnation in 1970. (Led by vocalist Annie Haslam, the group’s second, more progressive incarnation became a fixture of the 70s music scene.)
Relf stayed active in the early 70s as a producer and occasional player. In 1975, he founded a heavy metal group called Armageddon. Energized by the group into delivering some of his best vocals on record, Relf looked poised for new success. Sadly, this was not to be. Dogged by ill health, Relf broke up the group and went home to recuperate. Instead, he met an ironic end. The man who left the Yardbirds largely because of electric guitars died on May 14, 1976, from playing an improperly grounded electric guitar. He was only 33 years old.
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