Paul Samwell-Smith

Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page may have been the stars of the Yardbirds, and are the names that most casual listeners associate with the group. But Paul Samwell-Smith was every bit the musician, if not the same kind of obvious virtuoso -- if only because of the nature of his instrument, the bass -- that they were, and had just as much influence on the shape of the group's overall sound, not only as a musician but also as the producer of their finest album. Born in Twickenham, Surrey, England, in 1943, Samwell-Smith reached his teens just as rock & roll was hitting England, and quickly became an enthusiast not only for that sound, but also for American blues. His first instrument was the guitar and, indeed, he was the lead guitarist in his first group, the Country Gentlemen, organized in late 1959 with school friend and future Yardbirds member Jim McCarty on drums. That group, which eventually came to specialize in Shadows-style instrumentals, broke up when the members finished school in 1962, and Samwell-Smith subsequently passed through another band, called the Strollers. He switched to playing bass around this time and joined a new band, out of Surbiton, called Metropolis Blues Quartet (some sources say the Metropolitan Blues Quartet), which included Keith Relf on vocals, and Anthony "Top" Topham and Laurie Gains on guitars. Chris Dreja, an art school classmate of Topham's, eventually came into the lineup, replacing Gains on rhythm guitar, and the band solidified in May 1963, with Relf, Topham, Dreja, Samwell-Smith, and McCarty. The band eventually took on the name the Yardbirds and turned professional, with Eric Clapton replacing Topham, and went on to make a huge splash on the London blues scene, and then as a recording act -- though despite their blues-based origins, their first successful record was in a distinctly pop vein, a classic recording of the Graham Gouldman-authored "For Your Love," missing a real lead guitar part and driven as much Brian Auger's harpsichord as by the band's rhythm section; it hit number two in England and number six in America, and while Clapton didn't remain to take advantage of the hit, the band was fortunate enough to replace him with the even more flamboyant and less purist-minded Jeff Beck. They went on to tour internationally and build up a serious audience on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as in continental Europe and in Japan. Visually, Samwell-Smith was something of the odd man out in the lineup, with relatively short, neatly combed hair in most photographs and the most conventional good looks, for the time (which, in many ways, made him the most unconventional looking member of the band) -- while the others had the mod-ish, long straight-haired look of most British rock & roll musicians of the time, he resembled more of a pre-Beatles-era musician, or even a blues or jazz enthusiast of the previous decade.