ANTHONY “TOP” TOPHAM WAS A VERY REAL— if overlooked—character in the development of one of the most inventive British Invasion bands of all time. As the original guitarist for the Yardbirds, he preceded the 6-string troika that would virtually rewrite the language of the instrument. Succeeded by Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page, Topham would never shake, rattle, or roll the guitar world the way those legends did. But in 1963, Top was there and he had the best seat in the house. —Steven Rosen
How did you know Eric Clapton?
Clapton was at the same school I went to and so was Chris Dreja. I introduced Chris to the blues and played with him. Even though Clapton was older, we played with him too. He used to come around to my parents’ house on Saturday mornings, and we’d listen to records together. My father had records by Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Leadbelly, and Big Bill Broonzy.
Was Clapton playing great in those days?
Eric used to wander around with two strings on an acoustic! One thing he did have was this ability to work and work at one thing until he got it absolutely right, even if each part of the solo was lifted from different people.
What kind of relationship did you have with Beck and Page?
I didn’t know of Jeff at all until he was brought in after Eric left. He was a wild guy. I knew Jimmy from an earlier time. I did see the two of them play together in the Yardbirds for that short period. It was pretty awesome. They were doing real driving stuff like “Train Kept ARollin’” and “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago.” Jeff was very angry all the time, but when the two of them got up there, it was happening.
Later I saw Jimmy working with Jeff on the “Beck’s Bolero” track. I remember he said, “What we need is a hunting horn thing,” and Jeff just did it. It wasn’t like a second take or anything. He just got it absolutely right. I’ve only seen two people ever do that. One was Peter Green and the other was Jeff. Jimmy and Jeff were just sort of bantering back and forth but Jimmy was very much in control in the studio.