Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page may have been the stars of the Yardbirds, and are the names that most casual listeners associate with the group. But Paul Samwell-Smith was every bit the musician, if not the same kind of obvious virtuoso — if only because of the nature of his instrument, the bass — that they were, and had just as much influence on the shape of the group's overall sound, not only as a musician but also as the producer of their finest album. Born in Twickenham, Surrey, England, in 1943, Samwell-Smith reached his teens just as rock & roll was hitting England, and quickly became an enthusiast not only for that sound, but also for American blues. His first instrument was the guitar and, indeed, he was the lead guitarist in his first group, the Country Gentlemen, organized in late 1959 with school friend and future Yardbirds member Jim McCarty on drums. That group, which eventually came to specialize in Shadows-style instrumentals, broke up when the members finished school in 1962, and Samwell-Smith subsequently passed through another band, called the Strollers. He switched to playing bass around this time and joined a new band, out of Surbiton, called Metropolis Blues Quartet (some sources say the Metropolitan Blues Quartet), which included Keith Relf on vocals, and Anthony "Top" Topham and Laurie Gains on guitars. Chris Dreja, an art school classmate of Topham's, eventually came into the lineup, replacing Gains on rhythm guitar, and the band solidified in May 1963, with Relf, Topham, Dreja, Samwell-Smith, and McCarty. The band eventually took on the name the Yardbirds and turned professional, with Eric Clapton replacing Topham, and went on to make a huge splash on the London blues scene, and then as a recording act — though despite their blues-based origins, their first successful record was in a distinctly pop vein, a classic recording of the Graham Gouldman-authored "For Your Love," missing a real lead guitar part and driven as much Brian Auger's harpsichord as by the band's rhythm section; it hit number two in England and number six in America, and while Clapton didn't remain to take advantage of the hit, the band was fortunate enough to replace him with the even more flamboyant and less purist-minded Jeff Beck. They went on to tour internationally and build up a serious audience on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as in continental Europe and in Japan. Visually, Samwell-Smith was something of the odd man out in the lineup, with relatively short, neatly combed hair in most photographs and the most conventional good looks, for the time (which, in many ways, made him the most unconventional looking member of the band) — while the others had the mod-ish, long straight-haired look of most British rock & roll musicians of the time, he resembled more of a pre-Beatles-era musician, or even a blues or jazz enthusiast of the previous decade.
The Yardbirds, of course, were about music much more than image (which was one reason they never fully met the challenge of competing with the likes of rivals such as the Rolling Stones or the Animals, despite the presence in their lineup of three superstar guitarists). And as their bassist, Samwell-Smith was as much an architect of their music as anyone. He generated a distinctive sound with his bass, almost like a lead instrument on "Smokestack Lightning" and "Here 'Tis" from their classic 1964 concert album Five Live Yardbirds, and forming the foundation of the entire song on "You're a Better Man Than I," against which Beck launches a searing lead guitar break. At its best, Samwell-Smith's bass work was nearly as prominent in the Yardbirds' music as John Entwistle's playing was with the Who — indeed, just about the only reason he was never as highly regarded on his instrument as Entwistle became is because he left too soon, and because the Yardbirds didn't last too far into the era of serious rock criticism.
But once the Yardbirds moved into recording on a regular basis and started to write their own songs, Samwell-Smith began taking an even more prominent musical role in the band. He was the co-author (with McCarty) of the first original song they ever released, "Still I'm Sad," which also showed a serious advance from the basic blues they'd started with or the pop/rock they'd hit with. That three-minute song managed to embrace elements of pop, raga-rock, and progressive rock, in a manner that was not only coherent but downright appealing, for all of its oddness — despite a chorus seemingly built on Gregorian chant, it became a popular favorite as a B-side, and on the LP (Having a Rave Up) put together by the group's American label for the U.S. market. And Samwell-Smith, Relf and McCarty shared the writing credit on the single "Shapes of Things," which was a major hit for the band and pushed them not only further in the direction of psychedelia than they'd previously gone, but also into what would eventually be defined as heavy metal. And when it came time for the group to record their first studio album, The Yardbirds (called Over Under Sideways Down in America, and since renamed Roger the Engineer), Samwell-Smith served as the producer, managing the recording process and having the final word on arrangements and the overall sound of songs, in addition to writing or co-writing much of the album.
That album was a success, critically and commercially, but it also marked the end of Samwell-Smith's tenure with the band. He had tired of the grind of touring, and also of some aspects of other members' behavior on the road. Even before serving as producer on The Yardbirds, he had produced a single, "You Stole My Love" b/w "Skat Skat," by the Mockingbirds, a Manchester-based band whose ranks included composer Graham Gouldman, for Immediate Records. His experience producing the album had only confirmed the desire to move into that area of the business, and he had left the group by the time The Yardbirds was released. His exit created a gap that was extremely difficult to fill — really good bassists weren't easy to find, especially as permanent members, and his instrument had always played a big role in their sound. Session guitarist Jimmy Page — who'd previously turned down the chance to replace Clapton — was brought in and played bass initially, but it soon became clear to all concerned that his real forte was the guitar, and the four-stringed instrument was an awkward fit for him. Finally, Chris Dreja switched from rhythm guitar to bass (which, it turned out, he actually preferred playing) and Page took his place alongside Beck in a double lead guitar configuration that lasted for a short (but glorious) time before the latter's exit.
Meanwhile, Samwell-Smith jumped into producing with both feet. Among his earliest productions was a single by fledgling folk-rocker Al Stewart, "The Elf" b/w "Turn Into Earth," the latter a cover of a song that Samwell-Smith had written for the Yardbirds and used on their album. He also produced recordings by Barry Mason ("Over the Hills and Far Away" b/w "Collection of Recollections"), the Washington D.C.'s ("Seek and Find" b/w "I Love Gerald Chevin the Great"), and ex-Manfred Mann lead singer Paul Jones ("And the Sun Will Shine" b/w "The Dog Presides," on which he also played bass, while Paul McCartney played the drums and Jeff Beck sat in on guitar). He returned to work with his former bandmates Relf and McCarty, producing their post-Yardbirds group Renaissance. And by 1970, he had emerged to the front ranks of his field, working with Cat Stevens, then a pop singer-turned-folkie — starting with Mona Bone Jakon (1970), and through this breakthrough records Tea for the Tillerman and Teaser and the Firecat, both of which were huge hits around the world and yielded a string of hit singles, he handled the production on all of Stevens' work across the boom years of the latter's career, up to and including Buddha and the Chocolate Box (1974) (co-produced with the artist). Samwell-Smith subsequently worked with such top-ranked talent of the time as Carly Simon (Anticipation, Spoiled Girl) and Jethro Tull (Broadsword and the Beast), as well as up-and-coming acts such as Amazing Blondel (Evensong). His other credits during the 1970s and 1980s included singles for Murray Head and Kate & Anna McGarrigle. And in 1983, Samwell-Smith returned to playing with Box of Frogs, a reunion of the core Yardbirds lineup that yielded an album and a fair amount of international press. He also periodically worked in films, producing the music for Postcards from the Edge (1990) and the mini-series Relative Strangers (1999). Throughout the 1970s, '80s, and '90s, Samwell-Smith took an active role in the licensing and reissue of The Yardbirds and related recordings that were still owned by the members of the band — as distinct from their earlier recordings, which ended up in the hands of Charly Records, and their subsequent sides, which were the property of EMI Records. It was partly as a result of the desire by Samwell-Smith and the others to protect and secure the part of the group's legacy that they controlled, that their particular end of their catalog was better represented — and generally in better quality — than any other part of their history. He was not part of the 2002 Birdland album recorded by the re-formed Yardbirds, but he was acknowledged, along with Clapton, Beck, Page, et al., in the dedication. ~ Bruce Eder