BY TIM VONDERBRINK/ ONE SHOT MAGAZINE, WINTER, 1987
(This story by Tim VonderBrink originally ran in One Shot, a fanzine I published in the 1980s, with the headline “Happenings 20 Years Time Ago.” I am publishing it on my blog, with his permission, because interest in the event only grows stronger with time and he frequently gets asked about it. The May, 2020 issue of Cincinnati Magazine has a superb story about it by Lisa Murtha, a detailed and fascinating oral history of the event. The photo is from Wikimedia Commons, which maintains freely usable media files.)
IT WAS PROM NIGHT, 1968. Boutonnieres, corsages, tuxedos, the works. Guys shaving their peach-fuzzed faces, adjusting their cummerbunds and climbing into their dads’ cars to pick up their girl friends, or maybe someone they’d only talked to on the phone.
It was a prom night, in most ways like any other, except this was Cincinnati St. Xavier High School’s Junior Senior Prom. And this was the Yardbirds.
That’s right. A British-Invasion band more experimental than any of its time, one that nurtured three of rock’s most influential guitarists and who had destroyed their guitars onstage in the movie Blow-Up, played at my prom.
While most of us at St. X were thrilled (and fairly incredulous) when the prom plans were announced, the choice was not universally hailed. The Yardbirds cost $2,500 – a pittance by today’s standards, but quite a chunk of change compared with the $200-$300 that would fetch most local bands. So tickets would cost more. And after all, the critics cried, how can you slow-dance to the Yardbirds?
Tickets cost $18 (hacking off those who didn’t really care for the Yardbirds), and the usually separate junior and senior proms were made one event (hacking off the seniors) at Cincinnati’s convention center.
The Yardbirds’ amazing career had passed its peak by 1968. Hits like ‘For Your Love’, ‘Heart Full of Soul’ and ‘Happenings Ten Years Time Ago’ were part of a pyrotechnic past when Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page sharpened their skills and did some of their most influential guitar work. Shortly after their prom appearance, the Yardbirds would be no more. Perhaps we had something to do with that.
The Yardbirds were not the first choice of the prom committee. In fact, desperation had a bit of a hand in it.
Prom coordinator Rip Pelley says Cream had originally been hired, but the supergroup trio of Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker failed to pass a popularity contest.
A Jesuit priest at St. X asked ten students if they would pay $18-20 if Cream were to play the prom. Eight of them not only said no, but confessed they’d never heard of Cream – still a few months away from hitting the American charts with ‘Sunshine of Your Love’. So Cream was out.
Next came the Grass Roots, a more mainstream pop band best known for ‘Midnight Confessions’ and ‘Let’s Live For Today’. They were signed on and tickets were sold with the Grass Roots as headliners until 30 days before the prom, when the manager called to say they would have to cancel.
But the manager said he could line up the Yardbirds, who were filming a TV spot in Cleveland the night before the prom. It was too late for popularity contests. The Yardbirds it would be.
The first clue the group had that they were playing a prom is when Pelley met the group at the airport in his tuxedo. “Jimmy Page thought it was hysterical,” Pelley says.
After the more traditional dance band (hired to appease those who wanted their prom to be a bit more like the ones their parents told them about) had sauntered through the last ballad, the Yardbirds took the stage.
Looking scruffy, rebellious and nothing like a prom band, the Yardbirds soared through their classics as if they were playing to a crowd of thousands. If they were amused by the tuxedoes and formal gowns they looked out on, they showed it only with a few knowing glances between songs. These guys were pros.
While Keith Relf’s harmonica propelled ‘Smokestack Lightning’, the prom crowd stood and stared. Should we dance? The music demanded it but the gowns forbade it. At last, everyone just sat on the floor and gawked at the celebrities that somehow had been lured to a high-school dance in Cincinnati.
‘Over, Under, Sideways, Down,’ ‘Ha Ha Said the Clown’ – they played them all while we just sat and stared. In the middle of one unfamiliar song, Jimmy Page stroked his guitar with a violin bow. The sound was unearthly but quite lyrical. The song, ‘Dazed and Confused,’ would soon appear on an album by a group that Page would first call the New Yardbirds, then Led Zeppelin.
After two 45-minute sets of high-energy electric rock, the Yardbirds bade everyone good night and even thanked us for allowing them to play.
A bit dazed and confused ourselves, we filed out of the convention center, buzzing about the performance.
Pelley, now vice-president of marketing for Allied Artists, a new record label in California whose first release was Luis Cardenas’ ‘Runaway’ remake, has only praise for the Jesuits who, however grudgingly, allowed the Yardbirds to play. “After all, they let it happen,” he says.
Most of those who had wanted a “regular” prom band hadn’t changed their minds after prom night, but even they knew they’d have a story to impress friends with in years to come.
And, come to think of it, the Yardbirds might have felt the same way!
© Tim VonderBrink, 1987