As a teenager he latched onto American rhythm and blues and became influenced by the likes of Sonny Boy Williamson and the Chicago Blues scene. Relf started playing in bands around the summer of 1956 as a singer, guitarist, and harmonica player. Despite his suffering from respiratory problems, his blues harp became a key part of the Yardbirds’ sound and success, according to many, and his vocals may have been as important a contribution to the band as the trio of worldfamous guitar players that joined the band.
When people remember the Yardbirds, as the British blues-based band that came to prominence in the mid to late 60s, what they remember most is the triumvirate of guitar players that used the group as a step to stardom: Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and future Led Zeppelin founder Jimmy Page. While there is no doubt that these now world-famous guitar gods contributed greatly to the Yardbirds’ sound, another less-famous member gave the group voice, performing presence, and direction. That man was Keith Relf.
They drew their original repertoire from the Chicago blues of Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Sonny Boy Williamson II and Elmore James, including “Smokestack Lightning”, “Good Morning Little School Girl”, “Boom Boom”, “I Wish You Would”, “Rollin’ and Tumblin'”, and “I’m a Man”. Keith co-wrote many of the original Yardbirds songs “Shapes of Things”, “I Ain’t Done Wrong”, “Over Under Sideways Down” and “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago”. He also sang an early version of “Dazed and Confused” in live Yardbirds concerts, a song later recorded by the band’s successor group Led Zeppelin.
A record contract followed, and soon the band, guided by the restless and substance-friendly Relf, drifted away from R&B. Subsequent hit songs suggested beatniks with harpsichords (“For Your Love”), melancholy monks (“Still I’m Sad”), and acid-soaked Romany (“Over Under Sideways Down”). Clapton left the band, and Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page joined, pushing the group deeper into psychedelic byways of fuzztone and distortion. Although Relf persevered, his attitude towards the high-powered guitar music that defined the group began to change. Exhausted from extensive touring and suffering from asthma, Relf wanted to sing gentler, more thoughtful music. By 1968, the Yardbirds’ end was at hand.
That year Relf dissolved the group, became a record producer and sideman, and began a new stage of his musical career just before his early death.
Keith Relf’s first post-Yardbirds group was Together, an acoustic duo with fellow ex-Yardbird Jim McCarty. Their Simon and Garfunkel-inspired music failed to catch on, however, and Relf formed a new band with his sister Jane called Renaissance. The group was indeed a renaissance for Relf, allowing him to explore his psychedelic and acoustic leanings freely over the course of two albums with much singing by his beautiful sister Jane. But difficult and unrewarding touring wore them down, and Relf dissolved the first incarnation in 1970. (Led by vocalist Annie Haslam, the group’s second, more progressive incarnation became a fixture of the 70s music scene.) Relf stayed active in the early 70s as a producer and occasional player. He produced tracks for bands such as the acoustic, world music, group Amber, Saturnalia and Medicine Head, with whom he played bass guitar.
In 1975 he founded a heavy metal group called Armageddon. Energized by the group into delivering some of his best vocals on record, Relf looked poised for new success. Sadly, this was not to be. Dogged by ill health, Relf broke up the group and went home to recuperate. Instead, he met an ironic end. The man “who left the Yardbirds largely because of electric guitars” died on May 14, 1976, from being fatally electrocuted by an improperly grounded electric guitar, while rehearsing new material for the formation of his new band Illusion. He was only 33 years old.
Keith Relf was posthumously inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992 with the Yardbirds. He was represented by his widow April, and son Danny.