Sunday, April 22, 2012


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As regular readers of The Generalist will know I am a semi-pro music promoter in my spare time and was very fortunate to be able to put on this great band on Friday. By general agreement they were one of the best bands we’ve had at our local music club. The two frontmen – guitarists Top Topham and John Idan – carried the show with their brilliant playing, twin guitar action between a Telecaster and a Gibson, a beautiful marriage of tones. They were ably backed by Jim Mercer on upright bass and Ed Spevok on drums – both seasoned session musicians.

Jim Mercer has been a member of 'Paul Lamb & The Kingsnakes'  (1994-2000 ), the Gordon Smith Band, the Shakey Vick Band and the Johnny Mars Band.  He has also performed with Pinetop Perkins, Muddy Waters and  blues and boogie woogie piano player Daniel Smith.

Ed Spevok has been a professional drummer and percussionist for over forty years, performing and recording with such artists as Cat Stevens, Jimmy Cliff, Miriam Makeba. Bonnie Tyler, Jack Bruce, Pete Brown and Van Morrison to name but a few.

The band played a wide range of classic blues tracks with great finesse, skill and, above all, feel. Superb. The dance floor was packed and there was good vibe in the house.

In preparation for the gig, I did a long EXCLUSIVE interview with Top Topham. Top, as you will read below, was the first lead guitarist with the The Yardbirds at the age of 15.  Here are the key early line-ups of the band, from Pete Frame’s excellent ‘Rock Family Trees’:

No pics of first line-up

YARDBIRDS 1: June to October 1963: Keith Relf (vocals/harp), Jim McCarty (drums), Paul Samwell-Smith (bass), Chris Dreja (guitar/vocals), Tony ‘Top’ Topham (guitar).


YARDBIRDS 2: October 1963 to March 1965: Eric Clapton replaces Top Topham on lead guitar


YARDBIRDS 3: March 1965-June 1966: Jeff Beck replaces Eric Clapton

The Yardbirds, 1966. Clockwise from left: Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Keith Relf, Jim McCarty, and Chris Dreja (front).

YARDBIRDS 4: June – Nov 1966: Jeff Beck and Chris Deja on guitars with Jimmy Page on bass. Paul Samwell-Smith leaves the band.


YARDBIRDS 5: Nov 1966- July 1968: Jeff Beck leaves. New line-up features Jimmy Page [on guitar) with Chris Dreja (bass) + Keith Relf and Jim McCarty]

This is a longer much expanded version of the article I wrote for our local monthly mag ‘Viva Lewes’. Hope you enjoy it.


Top Topham holds a unique place in rock history, namely Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page followed in his footsteps. At the tender age of 15, Top was the first of the four to play lead guitar with The Yardbirds -  one of the great R&B bands of the 1960s - from June to October 1963.

Top recalls that their first rehearsal was “unbelievably good. I don’t think anybody could believe it. It just gelled…and then it all happened incredibly quickly.” Within a couple of weeks they had their first gig supporting Cyril Davis (one of the fathers of British Blues) at Eel Pie Island followed by a gig in Harrow Wealsden.

“We were soon doing a whole evening on our own and then everywhere we went we got more and more popular. Giorgio Gomelsky (who was managing the Rolling Stones at the time) came and heard us in a pub in Richmond, signed us up  and within a couple of weeks were were playing at the Crawdaddy Club [Station Hotel, Richmond]. The Stones had left to go on tour and we took over. The place was just manic.”

[Top couldn’t remember all the gigs he played with The Yardbirds why should he, its almost fifty years ago. I found this complete Yardbirds gig listing here: It gives a slightly different chronology. Would welcome any reader feedback (particularly if you went to any of these gigs)and corrections/amendments

May 1963:  Eel Pie Island, Twickenham/ Railway Hotel, Harrow Wealdstone/ Crawdaddy Club, Richmond/Toby Jug, Surbiton/Studio 51, 10-11 Great Newport Street, London {no days given)

June 1963: Eel Pie Island.(30th)

July 1963: Eel Pie Island (14th), Railway Hotel (16th and 30th)

August 1963: Railway Hotel (6th, 13th and 20th) 

September 1963: Great Western Pub, Richmond (no day given), Railway Hotel (3rd), Studio 51 (6th, 13th, 20th, 27th and 29th), Crawdaddy Club (29th ?).

[This listing gives a different address for Studio 51, namely Leicester Square, London from this point on. I have never read of such a relocation for the club before and have been unable to confirm.]

October 1963: Studio 51 (4th, 6th, 13th and 20th), Crawdaddy Club (6th, 13th, 19th, 20th)

Top comments: ‘We played several gigs [at Studio 51] but the one I remember was an all-nighter with Jimmy Powell and the Five Dimensions. Rod Stewart was their vocalist. We used to do alternate 45-minute sets all through the night.”

I didn’t even have a proper electric guitar at the time, just an acoustic with a pick-up. Then I went and bought an electric guitar and then a Gibson amplifier, which cost me nearly a hundred quid, from Bell’s in Surbiton. You could have almost bought a house for that. We bought it on the HP and my father signed for it. When I left the band they didn’t return the amp and there was a bit of a do about it. I think a solicitor’s letter might  have been sent. When it came back it had to go back to the shop.”

Top left the band due to parental pressure to pursue a career as an artist, which was his father’s ambition for him. There seemed little chance at the time that an inexperienced blues band could turn professional and earn a living.

I was very, very talented at painting. I’d been on a scholarship from the age of 13 and had met Clapton at a school in Surbiton. When I left I walked straight into the adult class at art school..

“When I stopped playing I have to say  it was a blow. The carpet was just ripped away.  I probably went into quite a state of depression at that time…but I did throw myself into my work and I absolutely bowled people over. They put me up for the Slade when I was 16.”

There were other good things happening once I’d got over the initial blast of it. Duster Bennett was an old friend of mine from the age of eight when I met him in the Sea Scouts. He was always a bit of an odd guy. We had jug bands at art school and we played country blues all the time.

Then I had Chris Dreja turning up every five minutes. The Yardbirds were playing literally every night for a month non-stop. He was exhausted and in a terrible shape. He’d say I’ve got no friends, I’m so lonely and I can’t bear it. He was living with Clapton at the time. He  used to roll up in his new Mini with a brand-new Gibson 335 in the back looking terribly wealthy – which he was. He bought a home and invested in a business on the back of The Yardbirds and he was just a year older than me.”

Top did play occasionally with a band called The Grebbels but it was his friendship with Duster Bennett that, in the 1970s, led him back to serious playing and recording on Mike Vernon’s Blue Horizon label.

Duster was an incredible musician who could play a bit of piano and guitar but also played Bach on his harmonica. I lent him that record ‘Bye Bye Bird’ by Sonny Boy Williamson and he came back in three weeks able to play the whole thing. We were always people who were seeking the ultimate blue note, the ultimate experience from that feel.”

  Duster Bennett, the original one man band

Source: 1001 Songs

I can remember we stood in a [record shop] booth in Richmond and listened to B.B. King’s ‘Live at the Regal’ – the single most important blues record ever brought out. It was literally the most awesome piece of music and we just stood there and cried it was so unbelievable.

We later met B.B. at the airport with our records when he first came to England and he was so kind and generous to us. He got us into the Albert Hall that afternoon. We were on Blue Horizon then but we were still like little teeny boppers. God that was a concert and a half, the most amazing concert. I had Janis Joplin sitting next to me on one side and Peter Green’s mum and dad (he was a postman) on the other. Everybody who was anybody was at that thing. BB King couldn’t believe it. He was in tears. I’ve never heard playing like it even now. It was out of this world.

Tracks 1 to 12 are "Ascension Heights", his only album released on Blue Horizon Records 7-63857 in January 1970 (recorded in London at CBS STUDIOS in October 1969)  The album "Ascension Heights" has always been a £100+ vinyl rarity

Top played on some of Duster Bennett’s records for Blue Horizon and signed up with the label. He made a Christmas single  - ‘Christmas Cracker’ which features Mike Vernon singing on the B-side - and then recorded in two days a fine instrumental album of mainly his own compositions called ‘Ascension Heights’ (which is brilliant, incidentally). Amongst the musicians on the album are Herbie Flowers, Alan Skidmore and Pete Wingfield from Jellybread.

Top recalls: “I didn’t even know who most of the musicians were in my state of complete ignorance. I was pretty young and inexperienced and to suddenly go into a studio with all these horns, fiddles and other instruments… my knees were knocking. As I’m not a reader of music, I worked with an arranger and sang the parts to him that I wanted the horns to do.”

At around the same time as this, Top did six months on the road with the Christine Perfect band on the back of her big hit ‘I would Rather Go Blind’ and her being voted Britain’s No 1 Female Vocalist by the Melody Maker. “It was an awful band. Dreadful. It was like how to strangulate the soul out of blues music in one easy lesson.”

I knew Christine from years before. She was a chambermaid at a hotel in Swanage in Dorset and we got quite friendly and used to play a bit of music in the evening. Then later I came up to London and one night went to see this band called Chicken Shack and she was on keyboards. She nearly fell of the seat and I just couldn’t believe it.

Of course Christine’s absolute interest in life above anything was to get into Fleetwood Mac and she got married to John McVie. That was her way in.”

Top had got back in the game – then it all fell apart as he was seriously ill for almost two years. “Duster and I had plans for a fantastic band with people he’d found in America when playing with John Mayall but I was too ill and couldn’t do it in the end. So we went our own ways and of course he was killed which was terribly sad.”

[According to Wikipedia: ‘After performing with Memphis Slim on 26 March 1976, Bennett was driving home in a Ford Transit van in Warwickshire when he apparently fell asleep at the wheel. The van collided with a truck and Bennett was killed.’]

Top moved to Wales, dropped out of sight, and didn’t even own a guitar for 17 years until events took another turn.

“I was living in Brecon and had this sort of niggling feeling about music again and various things happened like meeting John Peel in Brecon High Street and Jeff Beck mentioning me in an article and I thought that’s interesting.

BOB BRUNNINGThen I went to America and went to a Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown gig down in St Petersburg in Florida. In the interval this guy got up and started playing Professor Longhair sort of stuff on the piano and I went up to him afterwards and he spoke in a Yorkshire accent. It was Diz Watson and when he found out who I was he said oh you’re in the Bob Brunning book [See Left] that’s just come out and he showed me a copy of it the following night.

“Then I found this paper about record collecting called Goldmine and in it was this advert for a Yardbirds’ World Convention in Cowley, nr Oxford, England [August 1987]. I thought that’s strange and when I got home I contacted Dreja’s mother and found he was actually working in Fulham. Within a few hours the phone was buzzing because everybody thought I was dead.”

At the Convention, Top met The Yardbirds drummer Jim McCarty and they got together and wrote some songs and recruited bass player Louis Cennamo from Renaissance, a progressive rock band formed by Yardbirds’ vocalist Keith Relf.

(Relf died at his home on the 14th May 1976 at the age of 33. He was electrocuted while playing his improperly grounded electric guitar.)

We were looking for a singer and I was doing a part-time job at Andy’s guitar shop in London and this American kid came in and playing some rather nice Freddie King licks on the guitar and we talked. Somebody yelled out ‘Top’ and he said ‘You’re not Top Topham are you?’ So we met afterwards for coffee and I never thought any more of it. John was from Detroit and had been stranded in England because his Playboy model girlfriend had run away or some terribly dramatic story like that.

“Anyway he phoned me from America a couple of weeks later and said if you’re looking for a singer I’d like to come for an audition and I’ll pay for everything. He was a kid of 22 or something with a voice like Howlin’ Wolf. So he became our singer and guitar player and we started rehearsing and then gigging at the Station Tavern in Latimer Road off Ladbroke Grove and we were there every Wednesday for quite a number of years [late 1988 to 1991]. Everybody raved about it, it was the place to go – an amazing blues venue  running eight gigs a week. “

They band also toured abroad but Top left when he felt it was becoming too commercial. “I wasn’t interested in playing Yardbirds’ numbers which Jim was pushing me to do. It was what he wanted to do more than anything. He couldn’t use the name though because it was owned by Jimmy Page. Anyway they started doing Yardbirds’ numbers and Chris Dreja hopped in when he saw the opportunity and they formed The Yardbirds Mark II.

“John  stayed with them for 12 years or more and they toured all over, made albums and did their thing. It never really did anything sadly. They recorded on Steve Vai’s label with every sort of hot-shot guitar player on the planet but even that didn’t sell anything.”

[ Top is referring to the Birdland album which, according to Rolling Stone had guest appearances from a string of guitar players including Slash, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Brian May and even Jeff Beck on the song "My Blind Life." The group released a performance album four years later, Live At B.B. King Blues Club. ]

I went off doing really interesting things – played acoustic guitar all over the place, went to America and recorded and toured there. I had a good time.

Subsequently John and Top kept in touch and met and played once or twice a year, with Ed and Jim. This year unusually they are doing eight gigs which is quite new for them – as Top puts it, “something slightly organised”.

If you’re quick you can catch them at four gigs in the coming week: Eel Pie Club (25th), Keighley Blues Club, Keighley, Yorkshire (27th), Trading Boundaries, Sheffield Green,Nr Fletching, East Sussex (28th) and with Roger Barnes and Jive Alive at The Waggon and Horses,Twyford, Berks. (29th)



Top Topham

John Idan





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