The Basement Vapes, Volume 10: Definitely Maybe—Jeff Beck Is Rock’s Greatest Interpreter

OK, Boomers! MAGNET’s Mitch Myers dives deep under the covers with guitarist Jeff Beck while Stevie Wonder, Syreeta Wright, Charlie Mingus and Pavarotti get totally wired

Let’s face it: Rock music and the electric guitar both peaked way back in the 20th century. Still, rock remains a viable art form, and there are plenty of folks capable of playing great guitar. Naturally, there are going to be those next level musicians who continue to defy convention—gifted players who push forward and make everything sound new again, reminding us that there are no real limits except in your own imagination. Take Jeff Beck, because there’s nobody like him. He’s a guitar virtuoso who’s been performing for more than a half century and could well be rock music’s greatest instrumental interpreter. 

Make no mistake, Jeff Beck has written and performed plenty of groundbreaking original material in his epic career, but his ability to definitively interpret other people’s music is no less creative a skill. A versatile interpreter in the truest sense, JB resonates with his chosen tunes, their histories and their composers. The strength of an interpretation is found within artists’ capacities on their instruments—and the vision to claim a song and make it their own. That’s where Jeff Beck lives. 

As recounted in excellent Showtime documentary, Jeff Beck: Still On The Run, the British-born lad became enamored with Les Paul’s guitar wizardry in the 1950s. He also was friendly with Jimmy Page when they were teenagers, and the fledgling guitarists were obsessed with reproducing the sounds of sharp American sidemen like James Burton with Ricky Nelson, Elvis Presley’s guy Scotty Moore and Cliff Gallup from Gene Vincent’s band, the Blue Caps. Beck and Page were kindred spirits, discovering the electric guitar as well as the potential within themselves, and they would impact each other in the years to come.

In 1963, a young British band named the Yardbirds got together and was swept up in the white rhythm ‘n’ blues explosion alongside groups like the Rolling Stones, Pretty Things and Animals. Making records and enjoying some success reworking old blues material with lead guitarist Eric Clapton, the Yardbirds endeavored to become more commercial and hit the pop charts with the song “For Your Love.” Blues purist Clapton exited soon after, and in 1965, Beck joined the band on his friend Page’s recommendation. The Yardbirds were already on the rise, but the infusion of Beck’s visionary style led to a real burst of creativity. His unique approach pushed well beyond the blues, and they blossomed into a bona-fide psychedelic rock ensemble. 

The Yardbirds toured relentlessly the short time Beck was a member, including a trip to America, where they recorded at Sun Studios in Memphis. He stayed with the group for less than two years, but his impact was profound. Leading an evolution in rock guitar utilizing bends, swells, reverb, distortion and Eastern tonalities, Beck plastered his innovations all over original, cutting-edge Yardbirds classics like “Heart Full Of Soul,” “Over Under Sideways Down” and “Shapes Of Things.” While Clapton was pursuing the supercharged blues thing with his group Cream, Beck had already invented a new psychedelic guitar vocabulary with the Yardbirds. 

This all was part of the first big wave of British rock, and there were pressures within the band. Pressures led to changes, which resulted in Page joining the Yardbirds. For a brief time, the two guitarists performed together, but frustrated and unhappy, Beck quit during an American tour in 1966. Even before he left the band, JB had already recorded his first instrumental cover as a solo artist. Well, kind of a cover. Page wrote “Beck’s Bolero” with a little help from Beck, but the clarion call was based on Ravel’s “Bolero,” which premiered in 1928. Fronting the ad hoc studio group that spawned Led Zeppelin, Beck was joined by Page on electric 12-string, the Who’s Keith Moon on drums, future Led Zep bassist John Paul Jones and keyboardist Nicky Hopkins. Not bad for starters.

Jeff BeckBeck’s Bolero” (1966)

In 1968, JB assembled the Jeff Beck Group, a heavy new band with singer Rod Stewart. Their first album, Truth (credited only to Beck), was a revelatory hard-rock recording. It was a guitarist’s tour de force—and Stewart’s debut was impressive—but the record was devoid of original material. Truth shared similarities with Led Zeppelin’s first LP in approach and execution by stealing old blues tunes and electrifying two Willie Dixon’s classics, “You Shook Me” and “I Ain’t Superstitious.” They did a sharp updates of the Yardbirds’ “Shapes Of Things,” Jerome Kern’s “Ol Man River” and folk singer Bonnie Dobson’s nuclear protest “Morning Dew.” Beck even performed a solo-acoustic rendering of British ballad “Greensleeves,” which dates back to the late 16th Century

Follow-up Beck-Ola (from the following year and credited to the Jeff Beck Group) added keyboardist Hopkins and showed the group stretching out on original material and instrumentals, with two covers associated with Elvis Presley: “All Shook Up” and “Jailhouse Rock.” The music was exciting, and things were moving forward, but once again Beck quit during an American tour, this time just weeks before the band was scheduled to play Woodstock. Still, those first two albums were essential late-’60s prototypes of bluesy hard rock, and they furthered Beck’s reputation as one of the leading lights on the electric guitar. 

The next edition of the Jeff Beck Group was jazzier and more soulful with singer Bobby Tench, and they made a progressive pair of rock records to usher in the new decade. 1971’s Rough And Ready contained all original material, but 1972’s Jeff Beck Group was produced by Steve Cropper in Memphis and revealed Beck’s growing interest in soul music. They did striking covers of Dylan’s “Tonight I’m Staying Here With You,” Don Nix’s blues anthem “Going Down” and Stevie Wonder’s “I Got To Have A Song.” “Definitely Maybe” (Beck’s own instrumental composition) contained three interlocking guitar melodies, while his interpretation of “I Can’t Give Back The Love I Feel For You” (by Motown songwriters Nickolas Ashford, Valerie Simpson and Brian Holland) was originally performed by Stevie Wonder’s future wife, Syreeta.

Rita WrightI Can’t Give Back The Love I Feel For You” (1968)

Rita “Syreeta” Wright recorded “I Can’t Give Back The Love I Feel For You” in 1968. She was a Motown office worker at the time, but they let her take a crack at a tune that was ready-made for Diana Ross & The Supremes. Released on Motown subsidiary Gordy, Syreeta nailed it, exceeding versions that followed by Dusty Springfield and even Miss Ross herself. Beck’s rendition is on a totally different level, evoking Wright’s unique vocal performance and the song’s grand dynamic structure. Beyond his affinity for the music of Syreeta and Stevie Wonder, Beck’s showcase-driven instrumental work signaled an even larger musical turning point.

The Jeff Beck Group I Can’t Give Back The Love I Feel For You” (1972)

Beck was deep into Motown and actually played on Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book. Wonder also wrote “Superstition” for JB, which appeared on 1973’s Beck, Bogert & Appice alongside two more Nix covers and Curtis Mayfield’s “I’m So Proud.” That power-trio album was something of a hard-rock anomaly, but it did set the stage for his next pair of groundbreaking recordings, 1975’s Blow By Blow and 1976’s Wired. Both instrumental albums, they are considered electric-guitar classics and remain high-water marks in the realm of jazz fusion.

Esteemed Beatles producer George Martin was at the helm for Blow By Blow and he highlighted Beck as the album’s featured performer. Martin put orchestral strings behind the guitarist on two tracks, and they even recorded a cover of the Fab Four’s “She’s A Woman.” Front and center as lead instrumentalist without the burdens of a rock group or lead singer, Beck transformed into a fusion guitar hero. Borrowing riffs from electric Miles Davis and Mahavishnu guitarist John McLaughlin, JB added his searing rock sensibilities to the mix and captured the jazz-rock zeitgeist.

Syreeta “Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers” (1974)

Blow By Blow featured another Syreeta Wright cover, this one written by her by-then-ex-husband Stevie Wonder. “Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers” first appeared on 1974’s Stevie Wonder Presents Syreeta. Again, Beck was inspired by Syreeta’s aching performance, and his anthemic interpretation echoed her vocal and song’s bittersweet poignancy. Beck dedicated his version of the tune to fellow guitarist Roy Buchanan, and he mimics Buchanan’s tone and trademark volume swells on the song’s haunting introduction. The album includes another, funkier Wonder composition called “Thelonius,” but “Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers” will be remembered as JB’s ultimate Wonder cover. 

Jeff BeckCause We’ve Ended As Lovers” (1975)

This was a new threshold in jazz-rock fusion, and it provided a distinctive identity for JB. A pioneering rock guitarist with great nuance, tone and loads of technique, Beck had an instrumental approach that was incredibly fluid, melodic, imaginative and risk taking. His guitar had a distinctive voice, and it was singing more than ever. 1976’s Wired was an extension and a refinement of the context established on Blow By Blow. Martin was again the producer, Mahavishnu keyboardist Jan Hammer lent his talents, and the band was tough, deep and funky. Beck’s exquisite playing was especially transformative on his deft handling of classic Charles Mingus instrumental “Good Bye Pork Pie Hat.” 

Charles Mingus “Good Bye Pork Pie Hat (1959)

Mingus composed “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” in homage to late saxophonist Lester Young. Originally performed in 1959 on Mingus A Um, the ruminative elegy contained ample space for improvisation and was an ideal jazz standard for Beck to record. As a set piece, JB hit all of his marks. He mastered the moody melody, stating and restating the themes, and he solos with great urgency and virtuosic skill. This spectacular interpretation of Mingus’ rich jazz tune was another peak recording for Beck, and he still plays the tune in concert to this day. 

Jeff BeckGood Bye Pork Pie Hat” (1976)

Beck pursued the fusion trend but gradually absorbed his jazz inclinations into a larger whole. He showed conviction in his artistic choices and used a rotating cast of fine supporting musicians. For 1985’s Flash, Beck and producer Nile Rodgers devised a glossy rock album with singer Jimmy Hall. One of the tracks created without Rogers reunited Beck and Rod Stewart for an outsized version of Mayfield’s “People Get Ready.” The original 1965 performance by Mayfield and the Impressions was an undeniably inspirational message. The gospel-like ode was also a righteous vehicle for Stewart’s soul-driven rasp, and Beck’s chiming counterpoint amplified Mayfield’s song of hope and anticipation. 

Near the end of the 20th century, Martin assembled an all-star tribute album of Beatles songs called In My Life. Considering Martin’s sterling pedigree as producer of John, Paul, George and Ringo, he couldn’t have found a more appropriate stylist to interpret “A Day In The Life.” Beck, a true contemporary of the Beatles, performed a majestic instrumental rendition of the immortal tune framed by Martin’s 64-piece orchestra. Telling the story as expressively as any singer, JB knocked this one out of the park with his guitar. Again.

George Martin With Jeff Beck “A Day In The Life” (1998)

Beck always followed a uniquely personal musical course. In 1993, he made an album of jumping rockabilly celebrating the music of Gene Vincent and his Blue Caps guitarist Gallup. In 2010, Beck made a live recording at the Iridium Jazz Club in NYC called Rock ‘N’ Roll Party Honoring Les Paul, which was comprised of old vocal standards and vintage instrumentals like “Peter Gunn,” “Apache” and “Sleep Walk.” Beyond artistic connections to his original heroes, the guitarist was open to all kinds of music and found equal value in contemporary trends and modern rhythms. 

Nitin Sawhney “Nadia” (1999)

On 2001’s You Had It Coming, Beck adapted a dance-floor track by British Indian musician Nintin Sawhney entitled “Nadia” featuring Swati Natekar singing in the Brij dialect of Hindi. Beck’s approximation of the vocalist’s Eastern-styled microtones utilized the guitar’s tremolo bar, intense string bending and volume swells to replicate her acrobatic vocal scales and unique leaping from note to note. Much like his devoted emulations of Syreeta, Beck embraced this electro-world vocal performance and turned it into an instrumental for the ages.

Jeff Beck “Nadia” (2001)

It’s been one long victory lap, and JB can do whatever he wants. Sometimes, it almost feels like he’s showing off. In 2010, Beck released an album filled with ambitious covers. Emotion & Commotion contained vocal tracks like “I Put A Spell On You” (featuring Joss Stone) and evergreen show tune “Lilac Wine” (with Irish singer Imelda May). The LP included a stunning instrumental rendition of that age-old interpreter’s favorite, “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.” Beck also chose Middle English hymn “Corpus Christi Carol” by way of singer Jeff Buckley’s own remarkable version. And then there’s “Nessun Dorma.”

Luciano Pavarotti “Nessun Dorma”

“Nessun Dorma” (“let no one sleep”) is from Puccini’s opera Turandot and one of the classic tenor arias of all time. It was popularized by Luciano Pavarotti’s many performances as well as renditions by Plácido Domingo. Pavarotti performed it at the World Cup in 1990, and then again as part of the Three Tenors in 1994, 1998 and 2002. Pucinni’s score allows for holding long sustained notes at the very top of the tenor range. Pavarotti certainly did this, and as one might expect, Beck’s fearless guitar work reaches for those dramatic high points in grand fashion.  

Jeff Beck “Nessun Dorma” (2010)

Almost all of the cover songs featured here remain alive in Beck’s performance repertoire. These tunes are more than just guitar showcases, because as an interpretive artist, JB continues to make them his own. Almost all of these awesome interpretations can also be found in aforementioned documentary Jeff Beck: Still On The Run. All of which invariably leads me to hereby state—for the record, officially—that Jeff Beck is rock’s greatest interpreter.

After so many cover tunes, we thought it only fair to include an original Beck composition. When deciding on which song to feature, there was only one clear answer: “Definitely Maybe.”

Jeff Beck “Definitely Maybe” (1972)