Led Zeppelin's Blues Roots Led Zeppelin created the blueprint for heavy metal, but much of the Brit rock band's hard-hitting sound was based on American blues. Farai Chideya talks with Led Zeppelin biographer Stephen Davis about how blues music influenced the iconic rock and roll band.

Led Zeppelin's Blues Roots

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If your band is heavily influenced by this…

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. Robert Johnson (Guitarist, Singer): (Singing) (Unintelligible).

CHIDEYA: Then how in the world do you end up sounding like this…?

(Soundbite of song, "Dazed And Confused")

Mr. ROBERT PLANT (Singer, Led Zeppelin): Soul of a woman was created below…

CHIDEYA: Seventies British band Led Zeppelin laid the foundation for an explosive style of rock and roll called heavy metal, but the rock superstars would've been nothing without American blues. Guitarist Jimmy Page closely studied blues greats like Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson and Leadbelly.

Sometimes their influence on Zeppelin's music was subtle, and sometimes it was right in your face.

(Soundbite of song, "Since I've Been Loving You")

Mr. PLANT: (Singing) ...working from seven to eleven every night…

CHIDEYA: It's been 40 years since the members of Led Zeppelin started making rock together. Ever since the group's reunion show last fall, rumors have been swirling about an international tour. As fans chew on that, we wanted to know about the blues music at the heart of Zeppelin's massive rock sound.

Joining me now is Stephen Davis, author of "Hammer of the Gods: The Led Zeppelin Saga." Welcome.

Mr. STEPHEN DAVIS (Author, "Hammer of the Gods: The Led Zeppelin Saga"): Thank you.

CHIDEYA: So first give me some context. It's the mid-1960s in England. The Beatles are all over the place. How did these four guys, who formed Led Zeppelin, get exposed to the blues?

Mr. DAVIS: Well, Led Zeppelin is descended from one of the original London beat groups, the Yardbirds, who formed right after The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.

The difference was that when American blues stars would come to London, they were backed up - they needed backing bands, and it was usually the Yardbirds who backed them up. And so Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, these great guitarists from the Yardbirds, all were sort of mentored by these geniuses coming through from Chicago: Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters. They backed them up and made records with them.

(Soundbite of song, "You Shook Me")

Mr. DAVIS: So when it was time a few years later to form Led Zeppelin, Jimmy Page was in a hurry for material. He didn't have time to write a lot of new material, so they decided to appropriate, as it were, a lot of old blues songs and take credit for them, and that's pretty much the first two Led Zeppelin albums.

CHIDEYA: Let's listen to a little bit of the song "You Shook Me."

(Soundbite of song, "You Shook Me")

Mr. PLANT: (Singing) You know, you shook me, you shook me all night long…

CHIDEYA: Why did that song end up on their first album? What made it sing for them?

Mr. DAVIS: Well as I said, they needed material quick, and they decided to use a lot of blues songs, with which they were very familiar because they were blues scholars, but they couldn't do them as blues songs because in 1968, the psychedelic movement was at its height, and they wanted to make sort of an atomic blues, and that's where Led Zeppelin and these very heavy, heavy blues acts come from.

They were trying to make a blues-based music for the nuclear age, as it were, and so you have this incredible reserve and very heavy four-on-the-floor drumming, and you know, it was bombs away with the blues, more or less.

(Soundbite of song, "You Shook Me")

Mr. PLANT: (Singing) I have a bird won't do nothin', aah-ah, oh-whoa.

CHIDEYA: Explain to me how you would describe the guitar in that cut.

Mr. DAVIS: Yeah, well, it's a psychedelic blues guitar. Instead of sounding like the human voice, which is what a blues guitar wants to do, it sounds instead like a siren. You have to remember that Jimi Hendrix was at the same time improvising on blues changes, and this was Led Zeppelin's competition and inspiration in many ways.

CHIDEYA: Now a lot of times there's talk about blues being just one of many African-American-inspired or generated musical idioms, and rock and roll is considered another one of those. So when you say blending blues and rock, just explain where one stops and the other begins.

Mr. DAVIS: Well, blues - to my way of thinking, you know, there's country blues, which sort of stops at the end of World War II. That begat rhythm and blues, and rock and roll came along and was the music of young, Southern whites but obviously deeply indebted to R&B, rhythm and blues. And you know, you played before - you played "You Shook Me."

Well, that was written by Willie Dixon in Chicago and sung by J.B. Lenoir, but when it came out on the first Led Zeppelin album, I think it was credited either to Jimmy Page and Robert Plant or to Led Zeppelin, and the problem many people had with Led Zeppelin was that it took too long to credit the people who actually wrote these songs, and in Willie Dixon's case, he didn't receive any royalties on any of the many songs that Led Zeppelin copied for 20 years or so.

CHIDEYA: Let's go through a little bit more of this series of influence. One of Zeppelin's most-popular songs based on the blues is called "When the Levee Breaks." Let's hear the original 1929 version of the song by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie.

(Soundbite of song, "When the Levee Breaks")

Mr. KANSAS JOE McCOY (Singer): (Singing) If it keeps on rainin', levee's goin' to break. If it keeps on rainin', levee's goin' to break.

CHIDEYA: And here is the song Zeppelin-ized.

(Soundbite of song, "When the Levee Breaks")

CHIDEYA: So how do you get from Point A to Point B?

Mr. DAVIS: Well again, it's bombs away with Led Zeppelin. You have this delicate, filigreed, Memphis Minnie guitar lick from 1929, and let's see, 42 years later, they unchained Led Zeppelin's drummer, John Bonham, and what happens? It's blues for the atomic age. It's a psychedelic reconfiguration of, you know, a simple, Delta blues.

(Soundbite of song, "When the Levee Breaks")

Mr. PLANT: (Singing) If it keeps on rainin', levee's goin' to break. If it keeps on rainin', levee's goin' to break. When the levee breaks, have no place to stay.

CHIDEYA: Now let's listen to another tune that you say is a good example. It's called "Whole Lotta Love." I think a lot of folks are going to know that. So it's based on the Muddy Waters tune "You Need Love." Here's Muddy's song.

(Soundbite of song, "You Need Love")

Mr. MUDDY WATERS (Guitarist, Singer): (Singing) You've got yearnin' and I got burnin'. Baby you look so sweet and cunning.

CHIDEYA: And here's Led Zeppelin's translation.

(Soundbite of song, "Whole Lotta Love")

Mr. PAGE: (Singing) You need coolin', baby I'm not foolin'…

CHIDEYA: So tell us what about this song is blues-like, and what is rock?

Mr. DAVIS: "You Need Love" was originally written by Willie Dixon and sung by Muddy Waters, and Led Zeppelin takes this Muddy Waters old blues and adds some cannon fire, some explosive, just incredible singing and this repetitive riff and turns it into this very hypnotic, heavy-metal anthem, probably one of the most exciting things the band ever did.

(Soundbite of song, "Whole Lotta Love")

Mr. DAVIS: And when you looked at the credits on "Led Zeppelin II," sure enough, you know, the composer's credits were Jimmy Page and Robert Plant and the other two guys in Led Zeppelin. So again, it took Willie Dixon years and years and many lawsuits - and remember, these - Led Zeppelin, at the time these records came out, were - ruled the booming record industry of the 1970s as its biggest act. Millions and millions of dollars were made off these songs, and the composers saw nothing until they had to sue, much, much later.

(Soundbite of song, "Immigrant Song")

CHIDEYA: Thanks a lot, Stephen.

Mr. DAVIS: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

CHIDEYA: Stephen Davis is author of "Hammer of the Gods: The Led Zeppelin Saga." An updated fourth edition of the book comes out in April, and he joined me from the studios of WGBH in Boston.

(Soundbite of song, "Immigrant Song")

Mr. PLANT: (Singing) We come from the land of the ice and snow, from the midnight sun where the hot springs flow. The hammer of the gods will drive our ships to new lands. To fight the hordes, singing, crying - Valhalla, I am coming… On we sweep with threshing oar, our only goal will be the western shore.


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