Over under sideways down, when will it end?

When I first heard a couple of weeks ago that Jeff Beck died, I was sad, of course, particularly because he’d been taken by bacterial meningitis, a relatively uncommon occurrence these days. But I can’t deny that it just didn’t affect me the way I would’ve been devastated by the passing of Eric Clapton, or Jimmy Page, Beck’s fellow travelers in the British rock pantheon.

I came of age musically with Cream, and then Led Zeppelin, and for some reason I still can’t quite figure out, I never immersed myself the same way in Beck’s musical offerings. I’m not alone in this. Beck never got anything close to the worldwide fame, attention and appreciation of Clapton or Page, even though he was arguably as influential among recent generations of guitarists as either of them. They don’t call Beck “the guitarists’ guitarist” for nothing.

Beck’s death forced me to sit down over the past fortnight and finally listen closely to Beck’s catalog — his days with The Yardbirds (1965-1966), his time as leader of the Jeff Beck Group (1968-1973) and as a solo artist (1975-2023). What a revelation! Why did I wait so long?

There’s a clear reason, it seems to me, why Beck’s music often didn’t do as well on the charts as his compatriots’ albums did. Beck was far more experimental, innovative and willing to go beyond the blues or blues-rock favored by Clapton and Page. From his earliest recordings, he pushed the guitar to produce new, unusual sounds; he embraced the possibilities of incorporating jazz chords and free-form tempos in his jazz fusion period and beyond; and he spent most of his solo career recording instrumental tracks without benefit of a vocalist, pretty much a requirement if you’re going to make the pop charts.

I recall hearing Beck’s amazing blues-drenched 1968 debut album “Truth” in a record store around the same time I was snatching up the Cream and Zeppelin LPs, and I was compelled to buy it, but curiously, I didn’t listen to it all that often, and I didn’t buy any subsequent Beck albums. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that I didn’t much care for the vocals provided by a young Rod Stewart. (In fact, I’ve never liked Stewart, particularly after he converted to a more pop-oriented approach.)

After getting the advice from a few Beck fanatics (especially my friend Ira) who pointed me toward the “essential” songs in his catalog, I found myself feeling more and more foolish that I failed to give this virtuoso his due. Each album in his repertoire — especially 1975’s “Blow By Blow,” 1989’s “Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop” and 2001’s “You Had It Coming” — contains tracks that had me picking my jaw up off the floor. Holy smokes. I now hereby acknowledge, belatedly, what my electric guitar player friends have been talking about all these years.

As Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash put it, “It’s a lot easier to appreciate Beck’s guitar playing if you’re a guitar player. He just had such a natural control over the instrument. It’s the ability to make it do something that you’ve never heard anybody else do. ‘Blow By Blow’ is the album I had when I was a kid. Jeff would go from love songs to a really blistering, hard-rock, heavy-sounding guitar without ever going over the top.”

Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil added, “Jeff Beck was an incredibly proficient guitarist, but he wasn’t Mr. Pedant. The late Seventies to late Eighties were full of guitarists who were preoccupied with technique, like the guitar wasn’t a voice but a tool to be mastered. Jeff Beck wasn’t that way. He used it as a microphone. He was confident.”

When Beck was just a boy, his parents pointed him toward the piano and encouraged him to learn the classics, but when he heard the great Les Paul on the radio playing “How High the Moon,” Beck asked his mother about it. “That’s an electric guitar,” she said. “It’s all done with tricks.” He replied, “Well, that’s for me!”

He was inspired by blues guitarists like B. B. King and R&B-leaning players such as Steve Cropper, and began learning on a borrowed guitar. He even made attempts to build his own guitar using cigar boxes and fence pieces. This early inventiveness became an integral part of his adult life, as he loved to tear apart and rebuild everything from guitars to cars, marveling at how things worked and how he might alter them to make them go faster, farther, louder.

As a teen, he met Page, and began playing in a succession of regional groups, most notably The Tridents, who played “flat-out R&B, like Jimmy Reed stuff, and we supercharged it all up and made it really rocky,” Beck recalled. “I got off on that, even though it was really only twelve-bar blues.” He also did some work as a session guitarist for a couple of records, although they went nowhere.

Then at age 21, he was recruited to become the guitarist for The Yardbirds, a promising British blues band that had just scored a Top Ten pop hit in the US called “For Your Love.” Truth be told, the position became open because Clapton, who considered himself a blues purist, didn’t want to play pop music and left to join John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers (and then Cream). He suggested Page as his replacement, but Page was involved in lucrative session gigs, so he declined but instead lobbied for Beck to fill the slot, who eagerly jumped at the opportunity.

The Yardbirds in 1966 (L-R): Jeff Beck, Chris Dreja, Jim McCarty, Jimmy Page and Keith Relf

He was with the band for only a year and a half, but the work he did with them was significant. First came “Heart Full of Soul,” another Top Ten hit that featured Beck on what has been called the first use of a fuzz box to deliberately distort his guitar to sound like something else, in this case a sitar. This was followed by the #11 hit “Shapes of Things,” a cover of Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man” and the manic “Over Under Sideways Down,” all showcasing Beck’s edgy stylings. When the band lost its bass player, Page, who had grown bored with session work, agreed to temporarily take on the assignment. Once a new bass player was found, Page reverted to guitar, and for a few months, The Yardbirds boasted both Beck and Page on guitar, producing the psychedelic “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” and a heavy metal-ish remake of the jump blues tune “Train Kept A-Rollin’.”

But Beck disliked the constant touring and either left the group or was fired, depending who’s telling the story. (“They fired me,” said Beck from the podium at The Yardbirds’ induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992.) He was a self-described perfectionist with a bad temper, which earned him a reputation as being somewhat difficult to work with, but he managed to pull together a lineup of future stars to comprise The Jeff Beck Group: Rod Stewart on vocals, Ronnie Wood on bass, Nicky Hopkins on keyboards and John Paul Jones on bass and keyboards. They recorded “Truth” in 1968 and “Beck-Ola” in 1969 but then disbanded. Beck remembered, “The 1960s was the frustration period of my life. The electronic equipment just wasn’t up to the sounds I had in my head.”

Different configurations of The Jeff Beck Group came and went, as did a lineup called Beck, Bogert & Appice in which he collaborated with the rhythm section from Vanilla Fudge. Only one of the albums from this period made the charts in his native England but they all reached the Top 20 in the US.

When Beck joined up with Beatles producer George Martin in 1975, he made a significant departure from his blues-based work and reached #4 on the US album chart with the all-instrumental “Blow By Blow,” which includes the luxurious ballad “‘Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers,” the ambitious “Freeway Jam” and a bonafide Beck tour de force, “Diamond Dust.” If you do yourself one favor this month, give this record a listen. Beck’s guitar here is truly inspired.

The follow-up, 1976’s “Wired,” was a little heavy on the use of Jan Hammer’s jazz-fusion synthesizer noodling for my tastes, but Beck continued to shine with his guitar soloing, and the album again sold well in the US. He toured with Hammer’s group, released a live album with them, and also worked with jazz bassist Stanley Clarke on a few projects.

In the early ’80s, Beck was no longer the tempestuous rebel, eager to mix it up with a wide range of artists. He performed at several benefit concerts with Clapton, Page and others. He was fond of doing cover versions of well known songs (The Beatles’ “She’s a Woman” and Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” come to mind), but none was more successful than his 1985 reunion with Stewart for a scintillating new arrangement of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” which peaked at #5 on the US Mainstream Rock chart.

He contributed to records by a broad variety of other artists, from Bon Jovi to Seal, from Ozzy Osbourne to Roger Waters, from Tina Turner to Paul Rodgers, from Stevie Ray Vaughan to Robert Plant, and also worked with newer stars like Kelly Clarkson and Joss Stone in more recent years. “Who’s gonna say no when I got the call? I was proud that someone remembered I was even alive,” Beck joked in an interview in 2019. Most unusually, he recorded and performed with actor Johnny Depp, who happens to be a credible vocalist and guitarist as well. Their 2018 album “18” included reimaginings of such classics as Smokey Robinson’s “Ooh Baby Baby,” “Brian Wilson’s “Caroline, No,” Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and John Lennon’s “Isolation.”

When Beck was inducted into the Rock Hall as a solo artist in 2009, he was genuinely humble about it. “I couldn’t believe I was even nominated,” Beck said shortly afterwards. “I thought the Yardbirds was as close as I’d get to getting in. I’ve gone on long after that and gone through different musical changes. It’s very nice to hear that people have been listening.”

Page, who rarely speaks publicly about other musicians, wrote on social media last week, “The six-stringed Warrior is no longer here for us to admire the spell he could weave around our mortal emotions. Jeff could channel music from the ethereal, his technique unique, his imagination apparently limitless. Jeff, I will miss you along with your millions of fans. Rest in peace.”

Said Sir Paul McCartney about his fellow Brit: ““Jeff Beck was a lovely man with a wicked sense of humour who played some of the best guitar music ever to come out of Great Britain. He was a superb technician who could strip down his guitar and put it back together again in time for the show.”

Jeff Beck was never a prolific artist, releasing a new LP only every 5-7 years for the remainder of his life, but he made those releases count. I’ve compiled what I consider the most impressive and/or intriguing tracks from each of his albums (Dig his wondrous cover of “Over the Rainbow” from “Emotion and Commotion”!), and I invite you to revel in these selections for the first time (as I just recently did) or refamiliarize yourself with them if you’ve been away from them for a while.


I got a name, I got a name

They called it “The Name Game,” a silly, fun participation song that was all the rage in 1965, when R&B singer Shirley Ellis made it a #3 hit on the US charts.

You simply take anybody’s name, slip it into the basic format, and off you go.  Party on, Garth!  “Garth, Garth, bo-Barth, banana-fana-fo-Farth, fee-fi-mo-Marth, GARTH!”

So, as Shakespeare once asked, “What’s in a name?”  In the world of popular music, there are dozens of examples of performing artists who conjured up new names for themselves.  They did this on their own, if their ego was big enough…or an agent or record company insisted on a catchier stage name than the clunky or boring given name they’d been carrying around.

Some of the examples I’m offering up to you will be well known.  Others, you might be surprised about.  In either case, I’m here to expose these stars’ real names as part of my own Name Game.


Farrokh Bulsara


Farrokh was born in 1946 to parents from the Gujarat region of British-owned India.  He was born in the African country of Zanzibar, then a British colony, and attended a boarding school in Bombay, India, where he learned piano and focused more on music than academics.  After returning to Zanzibar at age 17, he and his family had to flee the 1964 revolution there, settling in Middlesex, England.  He earned a degree in art and graphic design, but music was his passion, and he became a member of several bands between 1968 and 1970.  Then he met guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor from the band Smile.  In time, they changed their name to Queen, and Farrokh Bulsara became Freddie Mercury, whose astonishing four-octave vocal range and flamboyant stage presence were key to Queen’s international success.

Marvin Aday


Born and raised in Dallas, Texas, by a schoolteacher and policeman, Marvin showed an early interest in music and theater arts, appearing in several high school musicals.  He was very close to his mother (who sang in a gospel quartet) and, following her death, he dropped out of North Texas State College and relocated to Los Angeles in 1969 to pursue a career in the arts, as was his mother’s wish.  When Marvin formed a band (that had some notoriety warming up for the likes of Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead and the Who), he named it after his mother’s favorite Saturday night dish, Meat Loaf Soul.  Tipping the scales at nearly 300 pounds, Marvin soon took on that name for himself, appearing in films and on stage as Meat Loaf.  By 1977, his “Bat Out of Hell” LP made him an international star.

Ellen Cohen


Ellen was born during WWII in Baltimore to Jewish parents who were children of Russian immigrants, and the family struggled there and in Alexandria, Virginia.  Blessed with a versatile voice and a knack for stage performance, Ellen appeared in several musicals in New York before becoming part of a successful singing trio called The Big 3, appearing on “Ed Sullivan” and elsewhere.  They became The Mugwumps, and eventually she lobbied hard to join a group she admired called The New Journeymen, featuring John Phillips, Michele Phillips and Denny Doherty.  By then, Ellen had begun referring to herself as Cass (short for “Cassandra”), and her incredible pipes ended up winning her a spot in the group despite Phillips’ misgiving about her obesity.  The public didn’t care about that when The Mamas and The Papas exploded on the scene with huge hits like “California Dreamin’” and “Monday Monday,” among others, carried by Mama Cass Elliott‘s soaring alto.

Richard Starkey


Little Ritchie had a rough childhood, spending most of his time in bed in hospitals.  He took to picking up pencils, pens, whatever was handy, and banging out rhythms on any horizontal surface he could find.  Eventually, his parents bought him a set of drums, and he became very proficient, at least in the circle of bands and clubs in and around Liverpool, England.  He took to wearing rings — many rings, big showy rings — on his fingers, and soon found himself with a nickname:  Ringo.  His last name could be shortened by a syllable, and Ringo would then be a Star…or, more precisely, Starr.  In any event, after a stint with Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, he was tapped by the younger lads who made up another local group, The Beatles, to replace their mate Pete Best on drums, and well, there you have it.  What a great gig for Ringo Starr.

Paul Hewson


Paul was born and raised in a north suburb of Dublin, Ireland, and was a rather rebellious kid in school, becoming more so after his mother’s death when he was 14.  He didn’t get along with his father and instead hung out with his surrealist street gang, Lypton Village.  As is the case with many gangs, everyone was given nicknames, and Paul went through several:  First came the unwieldy Steinhegvanhuysenolegbangbangbang, which was shortened to Huyseman, then Houseman.  Next he was Bon Murray, then “Bonavox of O’Connell Street,” named for a neighborhood hearing-aid shop.  That was abbreviated to “Bono Vox,” which happened to be Latin for “good voice,” which Paul liked, so it stuck…after it was shortened to just Bono.  Within a couple years, he and his mates David Evans (“The Edge”), Adam Clayton and Larry Mullens Jr. formed a band called Feedback…then The Hype…and finally, U2, who became one of the most popular bands on the planet.

Stevland Judkins


Born in Saginaw, Michigan, in 1950 and raised in Detroit, Stevland suffered from premature retinopathy, which causes the retinas to detach from the corneal wall, resulting in blindness.  He made up for this deficiency by pouring himself into all the music he heard and felt all around him — gospel, rhythm and blues, country, rock ‘n roll.  He mastered harmonica, piano and drums by age 10, and was signed to a recording contract as a child prodigy.  Stevland made his debut on the Top Ten at age 12, and maintained an enviable chart track record throughout the 1960s with a dozen Top Ten hits, more than a dozen albums and many TV appearances.  By the 1970s, his talents mushroomed, and Stevie Wonder became producer, songwriter, instrumentalist and singer, and one of the leading musical artists of all time, winning multiple Grammys and multiple Number One albums and singles.

Reginald Dwight


Raised by a free-spirited, music-loving mother, Reggie proved to be something of a child prodigy on piano, playing difficult classical pieces after hearing them only once.  Although his classical training continued, he was also drawn to the rock and roll of Jerry Lee Lewis, and soon landed a weekend gig as pianist in a neighborhood pub.  Reggie also played in a band called Bluesology, who opened for American soul bands like the Isley Brothers, and became the support group for Long John Baldry, one of the pioneers of the British blues movement.  Reg began writing songs for a music publisher, who teamed him up with a lyric writer named Bernie Taupin.  Around that time, he decided he needed a better stage name, so he combined the names of two musicians he admired — Bluesology sax player Elton Dean, and Long John Baldry — to create a new moniker: Elton John.  You may have heard of him.

Henry Deutschendorf


Henry was the son of a decorated military man, John Deutschendorf, Sr., who earned a spot in the Air Force Hall of Fame, but the father had little time for his son.  It was his mother’s mother who instilled in him the love of music and bought him his first guitar.  He lived in Roswell, NM, and Montgomery, AL, and Tucson, AZ, and Fort Worth TX, never fitting in anywhere.  Henry’s uncle, Dave Deutschendorf, was a member of the New Christy Minstrels, who encourage him to write songs and work on his guitar techniques.  New Christy member Randy Sparks told Henry to lose his last name, so Henry (whose middle name was John), adopted the capital of his favorite state, Colorado.  By the time he was 22, Henry was John Denver, replacing Chad Mitchell in The Mitchell Trio, writing his own songs and dreaming of a solo career.  His song, “Babe I Hate to Go,” was picked up by Peter Paul and Mary, retitled “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” and became the #1 song in the country in late 1969, the first step in a hugely successful solo career.

Declan McManus


Declan’s father, Ross MacManus, was a London-based jazz trumpeter and singer with The Joe Loss Orchestra, a popular British Big Band act from the 1940s through the ’60s.  He instilled a love of all types of music in his son, even after a divorce which sent Declan and his mother to live in Liverpool.  Declan formed a folk duo there when he was just 16, then returned to London in the mid-’70s and fronted a pub rock band called Flip City.  His father had performed under the name Day Costello and, in tribute to him, he adopted the name D.P. Costello around that time.  He continued writing songs and pursuing a solo recording career, and was eventually signed to the new upstart independent label, Stiff Records, who focused on punk and New Wave acts.  His manager, Jake Riviera, suggested Declan make the bold move of adopting Elvis Presley’s sacred first name, and Elvis Costello went on to become one of the most celebrated and respected musicians to emerge from the British New Wave movement.

Vincent Furnier


Vincent was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, the Motown City, but the R&B bug didn’t really bite, and at age 14, Vincent and his family moved to Phoenix, Arizona.  He and his fellow cross-country teammates won the school talent contest miming Beatles songs, which inspired them to buy and learn how to play guitar, bass, drums and so on.  Vincent liked being the lead singer, but he recognized he and the band needed to find a way to stand out from all the other bands out there.  Hey, how about controversial, shocking, perverse?  It’ll attract lots of press coverage, even though it was just an act.  OK, cool, but what shall we call ourselves?  Something completely opposite of the outrageous image they envisioned…  Hmmm…  How about we pick a character from the wholesome family sitcom “Mayberry RFD,” a neighborly woman named Alice Cooper?  Perfect.  The band, formerly The Spiders, became Alice Cooper, and Vincent himself pretty much became the perverse persona soon known worldwide as Alice Cooper, with snakes, bats, guillotines and other gruesome props as part of his shtick.  In fact, once the band broke up in 1974, Furnier successfully sued to adopt the Alice Cooper name as his own.  Not sure what his IRS tax returns say…

* * * * * * * * *

There’s a rather long list of name-changing recording artists who make my “honorable mention” list, and some of their stories are interesting enough to inspire me to do another blog post someday.

Steven Georgiou evolved into Cat Stevens (and then Yusaf Islam);  Walden Cassotto was renamed Bobby “Mack the Knife” Darin;  The Police and solo star Sting was born Gordon Sumner;  Malcolm Rebbenack became known as Dr. John the Night Tripper;  Ernest Evans morphed into Chubby Checker;  country star Crystal Gayle started out as Brenda Webb;  even as a teenager, McKinley Morganfield was known as Muddy Waters;  a youngster named Perry Miller ended up better known as Jesse Colin Young;  we know a girl named Judith Cohen as Juice Newton;  British boy Paul Gadd was eventually Gary Glitter; and Ray Sawyer was “on the cover of Rolling Stone” as Dr. Hook.

Some stars changed only their last names:  Francis Castellucio (Frankie Valli);  Edward Mahoney (Eddie Money);  Dominic Ierace (Donnie Iris);  Carol Klein (Carole King);  LaDonna Gaines (Donna Summer);  Cherilyn Sarkisian (Cher);  Georgios Panayiotou (George Michael);  John Ramistella (Johnny Rivers);  Hugh Cregg III (Huey Lewis);  Richard Penniman (Little Richard);  Peter Blankfield (Peter Wolf);  David Jones (David Bowie);  Robert Zimmerman (Bob Dylan);  Ray Robinson (Ray Charles);  Patricia Holt (Patti LaBelle);  Martyn Buchwald (Marty Balin);  Patricia Andrzejewski (Pat Benatar);  Priscilla White (Cilla Black).

And this tradition goes on well past the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.  Just about every hip-hop artist of the last 30 years has a made-up name…  And we really need look no further than Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, the young lady born in 1986 in New York’s Upper East Side.  In 2006, when the aspiring singer arrived at the studio, her first producer used to greet her with a few lines from his favorite Queen song “Radio Ga Ga.”  In a text message he sent to her one day, “radio” auto-corrected to “lady,” and Lady Gaga was born.