Behind the Band Name: The Yardbirds

Along with the Brit-invaded rock of The Animals and The Rolling Stones, by the early 1960s, The Yardbirds pulled their sound from the likes of Bo Diddley and Howlin’ Wolf and other American blues and R&B greats.

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Formed in London in 1963 with original members vocalist Keith Relf, lead guitarist Anthony ‘Top’ Topham—who was replaced shortly after that year by Eric Clapton—rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja (1943-1976), bassist Paul Samwell-Smith, and drummer Jim McCarty, the band first called themselves Blue-Sounds and had their first gig with the late blues musician Cyril Davies at the Eel Pie Island in the outer London borough of Richmond.

Shortly after, the band changed their name to The Yardbirds, a moniker likely pulled from a Jack Kerouac classic and the legendary jazz band leader Charlie Parker.

‘On the Road’

Jack Kerouac’s 1957 Beat Generation novel, On the Road, is a narrative of his frenetic adventures across the U.S. with friends. Through his collection of tales, the writer referenced individuals he found along the way, hanging around the rail yards, who he called “rail yard hobos.

In his 2018 memoir, Nobody Told Me: My Life with the Yardbirds, Renaissance and Other Stories, McCarty said that Reif was the first to use the name “Yardbird,” which he may have pulled from the Kerouac classic.

He also mentioned that early guitarist Topham pulled the Yardbird name from the great Charlie Parker.

Charlie “Yardbird” Parker

Jazz saxophonist, composer, and band leader Charlie Parker was often nicknamed “Bird” or “Yardbird.”

Parker landed his “Yardbird” nickname while on the way to a gig at the University of Nebraska with The Jay Mcshann band. Driving through a farm area, the vehicle Parker and the band were driving in hit and killed a chicken on the road. Legend has it that Parker picked up a dead chicken and took it along with them.

“Charlie told the driver, ‘Man, go back, you hit that yardbird,’” said McShann

When they arrived in Lincoln, Nebraska, Parker asked the woman running the boarding house to cook the bird for dinner.

The Yardbirds: Then and Now

Through the 1960s, The Yardbirds hit the rhythm and blues scene in England hard and even took over as the house band at The Crawdaddy Club in Surrey, England, a resident gig previously held by The Rolling Stones.

“There didn’t seem to be a huge repertoire to choose from in those days,” said McCarty in 2019. “The people that were popular were Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Slim Harpo, Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf. I do remember making a conscious choice as a band, not to play those songs that [the Stones] did, because we were doing that same gig, that same residence as they were.”

Out of The Yardbirds’ fluctuating lineups birthed three legendary guitarists—Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, and Jimmy Page, who broke off from the band to form The New Yardbirds, which ultimately became Led Zeppelin.

The band released five albums together, including their live debut Five Live Yardbirds in 1964 through Little Games in 1967. In 1994, McCarty and Dreja reformed the group and released the album Birdland in 2003, which featured contributions from Beck, along with Brian May, Slash, Joe Satriani, and Steve Vai.

McCarty is still holding The Yardbirds torch with the band’s latest incarnation, which includes vocalist John Dan, lead guitarist Godfrey Townsend, bassist Kenny Aaronson, and Mike Scavone on harmonica and percussion.

Photo by John Pratt/Keystone Features/Getty Images

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