From their phoenix-like rise from the Yardbirds’ ashes in 1968 until the death of drummer John Bonham in 1980, Led Zeppelin ruled from atop Mt. Olympus as gods of rock. The British quartet of singer Robert Plant, guitarist Jimmy Page, bassist/keyboardist John Paul Jones and Bonham defined heavy metal while dabbling widely in folk, psychedelia and pop styles. In the days before MTV and the internet, large parts of a band’s history fell below the radar. So, while Zep’s blues background may be well known, its relationship with New Orleans and 1976 track “Royal Orleans” could do with a recap.
Infamous for their ability to party, Led Zeppelin naturally fell in love New Orleans, making it a hub for regional tours. The song depicts the aftermath of a 1973 show at the New Orleans Municipal Auditorium. “Royal Orleans” and references the French Quarter hotel (now called The Omni Royal Orleans) at which the band stayed during their frequent trips to New Orleans. The lyrics harken back to a chaotic evening on Bourbon Street in May of 1973.
Rumor has it that John Paul Jones took a woman up from the hotel bar to his room, unaware that “she” was a transvestite. Subsequently, someone fell asleep while smoking and caused the room to go up in flames. John Paul Jones rejected parts of the story but relented that the room did catch fire, as firemen tore down the doors and took axes to the quaint hotel space. The lyrics joked:
New Orleans queens
Sure know how to schmooze it
Maybe for some that seems alright
When I step out, strut down with my sugar
She’d best not talk like Barry White
The band continued to enjoy the city for years to come. However, in 1977 shortly before a show at the Superdome, Robert Plant got the life-shattering news of his 5 year-old son Karac’s death from an infection. Led Zeppelin never played in the USA again with their original lineup. In the intervening 4 decades, both Page and Plant have returned to the blues for inspiration as they have often been spotted in local clubs and shops. In 1998, Page and Plant released a blues rock update called Walking into Clarksdale.
Atlantic Records promo man and Memphian, Phillip Rauls vouched for the Led Zeppelin’s blues fixation. “They always wanted to talk about blues music and Memphis music…” The remaining band members have only reunited a few times since the death of John Bonham. In 2007, they resurrected their mammoth sound to commemorate the record executive who signed them, Ahmet Ertegun with a full-length show. That lineup with heir apparent extraordinaire on skins, Jason Bonham (John’s son), might have carried on and made a bank. However, Plant has stuck to his solo career with great success including 3 grammy wins in 2008 for the T-Bone Burnette-produced Raising Sand with Allison Krauss. Page meanwhile has kept Led Zeppelin’s catalog in tip-top shape by overseeing a complete reissue series (each with a bonus album of studio and live tracks) released in 2015. The smoke from the heady days of the 1970’s may have cleared, but Led Zeppelin’s passion for New Orleans and the blues did not fade away.
Antonio Maggio was a fascinating man best known as an early creator of blues music. His song “I Got the Blues,” which became a hit in New Orleans in 1908, was the first published 12-bar blues with “blues” in the title. The dramatic events of his life, besides showing the context of his musical imagination, illustrate the unique process of becoming a New Orleanian during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Born in Cefalu, Sicily in 1876, Maggio came
to the city as a teenager, and like his father and his brothers, he was a consummate musician and multi-instrumentalist.
Though he worked at his brother’s barbershop, he was said to spend more time playing music in the streets, and was a contemporary of other notable New Orleans music pioneers; in the mid-1890s, he was playing in a string band at Poydras Market, just a couple of blocks away from Charlie Galloway’s barbershop frequented by Buddy Bolden. By the time he was 25, he had led a brass band, played background music for wild animal shows, and toured the United States with an opera company. Then, the major shattering event of his life happened: President McKinley was felled by an assassin’s bullet, and Maggio, due to his loudly proclaimed sympathies for both socialism and anarchism, was detained without trial as a suspect. Several months passed before he was released, then he returned to New Orleans to resume his musical career. For years, he was playing several gigs around town, including at Fabacher’s Restaurant, when a chance encounter on the levee changed music history. He stopped to listen to an African American man playing a guitar, and growing curious, Maggio asked the man what song he was playing, and he replied, “I got the blues.”
Maggio then went home and composed a song based on what he had heard—as he explained in an interview towards the end of his life in the 1950s—and he had not intended this as a serious composition, but nonetheless, it took off like wildfire in the city, becoming a favorite song requested by audiences in multiple venues. Led by curiosity, trusting his ear, and acting on instinct, Maggio made a contribution to perhaps the most significant musical idiom to emerge from the Deep South, the blues. The genesis of “I Got the Blues” encapsulates the long story of complex interactions between European and African American musicians, and by paying close attention to historical context, we can begin to understand how New Orleans has provided an environment where such interactions take place. Shane Lief wrote his MA in Musicology thesis at Tulane University: “Staging New Orleans: The Contested Space of Congo Square.” He is currently at work on a PhD in Linguistics, focusing on multilingualism in New Orleans and how Native American, African, and European traditions have influenced the linguistic and musical landscape of the city. Read the full story in Vol. XXV of Jazz Archivist https://jazz.tulane.edu/jazz-archivist
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