Posted on 04 October 2014.
Led Zeppelin Meets Elvis, 40 Years Ago
40 years ago today the band began to play.
And it was out with the old– and in with the new.
The Los Angeles Forum played host to some of the greatest shows Led Zeppelin ever put on. It was also the place where, on May 11, 1974, the band came face to face with their legendary childhood hero for the first time.
Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Bonham were in Los Angeles for the launch of their own record label, Swan Song. The night after the raucous launch party at the Bel Air Hotel, the band– minus bassist John Paul Jones– decided to attend Elvis Presley’s concert at the Forum.
Elvis was alerted to the presence of the rock group in the audience. During the show, taped and later released as Live in L.A., he said to his band, “Wait a minute… If we can start together, fellas; because we’ve got Led Zeppelin out there. Let’s try to look like we know what we’re doing, whether we do or not.”
Jerry Weintraub, their mutual promoter at the time, took Jimmy Page and Robert Plant up to Presley’s Las Vegas hotel suite following the concert.
For the first few minutes, Elvis ignored them.
Jimmy Page, who had first picked up a guitar after hearing Elvis’ Baby Let’s Play House on overseas radio in 1955, began to wonder and fidget. What was going on? Did he really want to meet them? Should they say something?
Elvis finally turned to them.
“Is it true,” he said, “these stories I hear about you boys on the road?”
Robert Plant amiably answered, “Of course not. We’re family men. I get the most pleasure out of walking the hotel corridors, singing your songs.”
Plant also offered his best Elvis impersonation, breaking the ice. He reminisced that Jimmy Page also joked with Elvis by adding that, “We never sound checked, but if we did, all I wanted to do was sing Elvis songs,” Plant said.
“At that meeting, ‘Elvis thought that was funny. He asked me, ‘Which songs do you sing?’’”
“I told him I liked the ones with all the moods, like that great country song ‘Love Me’: ‘Treat me like a fool, treat me mean and cruel, but love me…’
For a moment Elvis Presley eyed them both very carefully. Then he burst out laughing. Then his bodyguards burst out laughing.
For two hours he entertained them in his suite. He had never heard their records, he said, except for when his stepbrother played him Stairway to Heaven.
“I liked it,” Presley said.
Later, walking down the hallway from the hotel room, Page and Plant were still stunned, congratulating themselves on a two-hour meeting with the King.
“Hey,” came a voice from behind them. Plant recalled what happened next.
“So when we were leaving, after a most illuminating and funny 90 minutes with the guy, I was walking down the corridor. He swung around the door frame, looking quite pleased with himself, and started singing that same song, ‘Treat me like a fool…’
“I turned around and did Elvis right back at him. We stood there, singing to each other.”
Plant later wrote about his impressions of Presley: “I met Elvis with Zeppelin, after one of his concerts in the early ’70s. I sized him up. He wasn’t quite as tall as me, but he had a singer’s build. He had a good chest– that resonator. And he was driven.”
Elvis’ and Zeppelin’s paths would cross two more times during the ‘70s.
The next meeting took place at Presley’s home in Memphis. Jerry Schilling, a noted member of Elvis’ ‘Memphis Mafia’, wrote about the encounter in his book, Me and a Guy Named Elvis.
Elvis said it would be okay for them to come by the house.
Schilling was there on the night of the planned meeting and was surprised to see that Elvis was in his pajamas and robe– he and Sheila Ryan were getting ready to go upstairs. Schilling reminded Elvis that Richard Cole, Led Zep’s band manager, and bassist John Paul Jones were coming. Elvis remained downstairs to wait for them.
“From the moment Richard stepped into the house, he was loud and profane, packing an amazing number of f-words into everything he said.
‘You know’, Elvis said to him. ‘I’d appreciate it if you’d watch your language in front of my lady.’ Things got very quiet. Everybody sat down.
And it stayed quiet. Then Elvis decided to break the ice, and asked if he could see the fancy watch that Richard was wearing. Richard handed the watch over, and when Elvis put it on, Richard quickly said that if Elvis wanted the watch, he could keep it.
‘Does it have any special meaning to you?’ Elvis asked.
‘Well, a bit. Atlantic Records gave them to the group’, said Richard.
‘OK, thanks’, said Elvis.
I don’t know if Richard expected to lose his watch that easily, but about twenty minutes later Elvis went upstairs and came back down with another watch, a real piece of jewelry, covered in diamonds– a wristwatch you could trade in for a car. Maybe a couple of cars.
‘Here’, he said to Richard. ’Take this one’.
A very stunned Richard accepted. From then on the night was nothing but fun, with a lot of laughs and a lot of quoting Monty Python routines (Elvis was the first Monty Python fanatic I ever knew).
Elvis and Richard obviously shared a sense of humor. And I could tell Elvis also liked the much quieter John. At one point, Elvis excused himself, went back upstairs, and returned with an equally impressive watch for the bassist.
Before the evening was over, Elvis said he wanted to make another exchange. He was out of watches, but had another bit of fashion in mind.
So he stood, eyed John, and said, ‘Let’s swap pants’, while simultaneously, in expert Python fashion, let his pajama bottoms drop beneath his robe.
The loud Richard was shocked into silence, while the usually quiet Sheila and John burst out laughing.
Nobody accepted Elvis’ offer, but it was a great note to end the night on.”
The final meeting between Zeppelin and Elvis took place on the Baltimore airport tarmac while both were on tour in 1977.
Presley’s stepbrother, David Stanley, later recalled the encounter:
“The other time the Presley tour ran across the band was while out on the road. It was at the Washington-Baltimore airport.
We (the Presley tour) were playing in Washington and Led Zeppelin was playing at the Capital Centre. We arrived on the Lisa Marie, Elvis’ private jet, and Led Zeppelin arrived on the Caesar’s Chariot.
It was a hell of a sight to see these two private jets, sitting side-by-side, on the private tarmac.
I asked Elvis if I could go with the band that night for their Led Zeppelin concert. He just looked at me and said ‘No.’
When I asked him why, he said, ‘look at the bottom of your paycheck.’
As I entered the limo with Elvis I said ‘they sure have a nice jet.’
Elvis leaned over and reminded me that ‘they lease their jet from Caesar’s Palace, I own mine.’”
Elvis Presley inspired many of the greatest rock and roll acts of the ‘60s, ‘70s and beyond. Led Zeppelin, too, was no exception, and when their paths crossed it was a thrill for both the band and the King himself.
By August of 1977, Led Zeppelin was sailing at the top of the rock ‘n roll charts as the biggest gig in the nation.
The King, his popularity waning, became a shadow of his former self. Overweight, his mind and speech dulled by the pharmacopia he ingested daily, and suffering from glaucoma, high blood pressure, migraines, an enlarged colon, liver damage, paranoia, and abbreviated concerts, would be found dead in his bathroom at Graceland at the age of 42.
Each had taken their own separate stairway to heaven.
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