Free as a bird

Dave Woodhall talks to Jim McCarty, a founding father of the British blues boom.

Jim McCarty is an original member of the Yardbirds, that great British blues institution famous for featuring at various times Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. Still playing regularly, they are currently on the Ultimate Rhythm & Blues Tour which opened this week and will play Symphony Hall on 25th February. Jim told us how the night lines up.

“The Animals are opening. They’ve got John Steel on drums, Micky Gallagher on keyboards and Pete Bardon singing. He’s got an amazing voice. Then there’s Maggie Bell singing some stuff, then Dave Berry, who’s had to replace Spencer Davis. Spencer was due to fly over from LA for the tour but he’s not well so he can’t make it. Then we come on, the Yardbirds, and the Zombies finish off the night. Pretty good isn’t it?”

It sounds that way. Some of these type of packages are a bit like cabaret but I’ve seen most of these acts, particularly the Zombies and the Animals lately and they’re still as authentic as they ever were, and still performing some blistering sets.

“Yes, particularly us. We’re into rock n roll. We get everyone standing up, just like we did on the opening night in Aylesbury.”

That might sound a strange place to namecheck, but it’s always had a strong reputation for a thriving live scene. In fact, it’s odd that the blues, a music which originated and was first popularised by poor blacks in America should, have found its heartland on this side of the Atlantic in the prosperous towns of the Home Counties.

“Yes, it was big amongst the middle class suburbs. We were from Twickenham, the Stones got together in Ealing. It’s strange, just one of those things.”

The Yardbirds were formed and started to make an impression around 1964. Have you been doing anything to mark this anniversary?

“Yes, it’s just passed. We did a show last April in Twickenham, which is close to our roots. That went very well, we got some of our former members involved. None of the great names, it was mainly the lads who’ve played with us since we got back together again, but it was a nice gig.”

Are there any signs that the big three might play with you again?

“Not really. Jimmy Page has been talking about re-mixing our old live recordings. He prevented them from coming out for a long time but he’s doing a re-mix of them with Zeppelin’s sound engineer although when that’s going to happen, nobody knows. It might lead to something live – the last tour we did with the Zombies he turned up one night so he may well do that.

“We don’t have much to do with the others. I was in contact with Jeff for a while but he changed his manager a couple of times and I haven’t seen him for a few years. We’re playing in his neck of the woods at Tunbridge Wells so he might turn up. Jeff’s started to become a lot more appreciated lately, he’s made a big effort and he’s back working again now. He used to do about six shows a year but now he’s playing something like fifty.”

The ongoing blues resurgence has led to some remarkable new talent on the scene and in particular one band who are heavily influenced by the Yardbirds, namely the Strypes.

“They’re the young Irish band aren’t they?  They’ve been in touch with us and they’re a very good group. I’ve heard the 45s as well and they’re good but the Strypes though, they’re very good.”

But will they still be playing in 2064?

“Hmm, it’s a long time isn’t it? We never thought we’d go for so long. We always thought it would be a very short thing and not last very long. If I’d known different I might have been a bit more careful about what I’d done and I might have held onto stuff a bit more. Some of the memorabilia is worth a lot of money. Bill Wyman was the one. He kept everything, he was very clever.”

So after fifty years on the road, and still doing lengthy tours, what’s the difference between then and now?

“I’ll probably tell you at the end if I’m still alive. I think the major thing is the sound quality. These venues are very nice, very comfortable and the acoustics are superb. Symphony Hall is incredible, Bridgewater Hall in Manchester, we’ve got some great venues on this tour. The quality of the PAs is so much better and the audiences are more well to do. They’re a bit older, they can afford the tickets and the t-shirts and they want a good night.”

The Ultimate Rhythm & Blues Tour plays Birmingham Symphony Hall on 25th February. For tickets visit