Sunday, December 17, 2006

A tribute to Ahmet Ertegun

This news originally appeared in an edition of the newsletter "On This Day In Led Zeppelin History."

Ahmet Ertegun, cofounder of Atlantic Records and close personal friend to the members of Led Zeppelin, died Dec. 14 at the age of 83. A fan of music until the very end, he had been in a coma since Oct. 29, when he slipped backstage at a Rolling Stones concert. The Turkish-born legend died at a hospital in New York with his family by his side.

It has often been said that Ertegun was more than just a label boss. He was also a companion and guide to the many musical artists he signed and whose careers he helped to nurture over his six decades in the industry. Ertegun's sustained influence on the members of Led Zeppelin was particularly evident in a number of ways, most clearly with the mutual support they fostered during the band's dozen years of existence and extending into the ensuing 26 years afterward.

Led Zeppelin's relationship with Ertegun began in 1968, when band manager Peter Grant closed a monumental record deal that November with Ertegun and his partner, Jerry Wexler, then vice president of Atlantic Records. With a simple handshake, the band was signed -- sight unseen -- to a generous five-album contract of previously unheard proportions.

Grant reflected on this time during a two-day interview in 1993 with Tight But Loose editor Dave Lewis. "The good thing was," said Grant, "in those days you weren't dealing with giant corporate companies like now. The Ertegun brothers [Ahmet and Neshui, who preceded his brother in death in 1989] owned the company and we shook on a deal. That's how it was back then."

One stipulation in the Atlantic deal gave the band complete creative control over its musical releases. This provision was tested in 1969, when Phil Carson, the head of Atlantic in the United Kingdom, wanted to issue "Whole Lotta Love" as a single in the country. The band objected. Grant told Dave Lewis in 1993 that it was Ahmet Ertegun who came to the rescue, asserting that the label had no right to issue anything without the band's approval.

Ertegun often traveled with Led Zeppelin, and in May 1973, while the band was soaring high across America on the strength of four Platinum LPs and a new one called Houses of the Holy, Ertegun threw a party for the album-oriented rockers in New Orleans. This grand reception was held at a place in the French Quarter, and many local musical attractions performed, including Ernie K-Doe, the Meters, and Roosevelt Sykes, also known as Honeydripper.

Led Zeppelin returned the favor to Ertegun the following year by inviting him to the launch party for the Swan Song record label on Halloween 1974. The band had formed Swan Song under a new contract with Atlantic, under which Ertegun's company would continue to distribute records by Led Zeppelin -- and all others on the start-up label. "Ahmet was the finest record man of all time," Grant said, "and every time we negotiated and he said, 'Peter, shake on it,' you knew it was done."

While Led Zeppelin toured Europe in 1980, the group would soon be due to sign another contract with Atlantic. Ertegun met up with Grant along the way, during a stop in Frankfurt, West Germany, and the two made a verbal agreement for renewing their contract. "We did many a deal with Ahmet on trust," Grant said in 1993, "and the paperwork would follow many months later." That plan in the summer of 1980 had been for Led Zeppelin to hash out a new deal with Atlantic within a year, but that plan had obviously fallen through by the end of 1980, after John Bonham died and the group disbanded.

The promise was not forgotten, however. In fact, Led Zeppelin still had one more album to deliver under its existing contract, and so a new plan was developed in 1982 to release a posthumous album. "Ahmet was great and paid an advance," said Grant, "even knowing that it was substandard and [if] we couldn't find enough material for a decent set, then the advance would be refunded." The surviving members got to work and assembled Coda. This album of eight tracks, representing all eras of its existence, placated Ertegun and offered what would be the final record from Led Zeppelin for the rest of the decade.

Grant went through what he called a "period of darkness" in the 1980s, which by some estimates lasted about four years after Bonham's death. In 1993, he credited Ertegun as being the sole person who wanted to lure the former Led Zeppelin manager out of his self-imposed withdrawal. Grant said, "It's interesting that Ahmet was the only one who has ever said to me that I mourned too long over John. Maybe he was right."

In 1988, the year after Ertegun was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a celebration was organized in New York to recognize the 40th anniversary of Atlantic Records. The former members of Led Zeppelin took to the stage at the May 14 event with Jason Bonham on drums, in only the second reunion of Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones.

This year, a special tribute show just for Ertegun took place on June 30 in Montreux, Switzerland, and Plant was again in attendance; Page's planned appearance had been sidetracked by surgery.

During this tribute, which ended up being one of Ertegun's final public appearances, he was photographed onstage with a scruffy-looking Plant and guitarist Nile Rodgers. It was a reunion of sorts for the three; in 1984, they had co-produced an EP of rhythm and blues covers from the 1950s and 1960s. It was Volume One, the only studio set ever released by Plant's big-band side project, the Honeydrippers (yes, named after Roosevelt Sykes, good memory). Two of the EP's five tracks, each with Plant's golden voice, earned a fair amount of success on radio and television.

Ertegun's Honeydrippers production credit is marked by the backwards spelling of his last name -- Nugetre, the same pseudonym with which he is elsewhere credited in writing some songs. He had always longed for a sequel to Volume One, but it never surfaced, despite rumors of other existing studio tracks -- namely Roy Head's "Treat Her Right" and Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put A Spell on You." Newly released live Honeydrippers material is now available on Plant's new box set, Nine Lives, which also includes footage of a recent interview in which Ertegun comments on Plant's solo career.

Thursday, November 9, 2006

Robert Plant to release 'Nine Lives' box set with unreleased material

This news originally appeared in an edition of the newsletter "On This Day In Led Zeppelin History."

Nine Lives
, a box set combining nine of Robert Plant's post-Zeppelin albums with perfectly tailored bonus tracks, is set to be released later this month on the Rhino Records label. His eight solo albums and the Honeydrippers' EP Volume One have all been remastered for Nine Lives, each matched with at least one bonus track from the era, consisting of unreleased songs, rarities, live cuts, and remixes. The box set also includes a DVD with 20 music videos from Plant, plus interviews with him and several friends and musicians.

The first official DVD of Robert Plant and the Strange Sensation was released last month by Rounder Records. It includes their appearance on the PBS television show Soundtage, recorded in September 2005. There are two versions of this DVD available; one is being sold on the PBS Web site, and the other, sold in stores, includes a cover of Bob Dylan's "Girl from the North Country" that is not available on the PBS version.

Plant has reportedly been busy inside studios on both sides of the Atlantic recently. For one thing, he is said to have recorded a load of new material with the Strange Sensation in England. For another, he was in Nashville, Tenn., recording late last month with Alison Krauss. I happened to be in town on Oct. 29 to read a report about Plant by celebrity columnist Beverly Keel in that day's edition of The Tennessean. "He's been recording a duets project with Alison Krauss that's bring produced by T-Bone Burnett," she writes. "Take a moment and imagine how amazing our bluegrass angel is going to sound with rock's golden god."

Tuesday, August 8, 2006

Tribute to Arthur Lee

This news originally appeared in an edition of the newsletter "On This Day In Led Zeppelin History."

"I feel like I've seen just about a million sunsets
She said if you're with me I'll never go away
That's when I stopped and I took another look at my baby
She said if you're with me I'll never go away
Because everybody's gotta live
And everybody's gonna die
Everybody's gotta live
Before you know the reason why"
So wrote Arthur Lee in the song "Everybody's Gotta Live," which is included on his 1972 solo debut, Vindicator.

Arthur died of leukemia this past Thursday. During his 61 years, he became a musical hero to many -- not the least of whom is Robert Plant. Arthur managed to inspire, to captivate and to influence the Led Zeppelin singer and lyricist, leading the band Love, for which he notably penned much of Forever Changes, the 1967 album Plant frequently calls his all-time favorite record.

It was in 2006 that Arthur Lee learned he had leukemia, a news account from states. "After three rounds of chemotherapy failed," it continues, "Lee underwent a bone marrow transplant in May, and was the first adult in Tennessee to undergo the procedure using stem cells from an umbilical cord, according to The (Memphis) Commercial Appeal."

Concert promoter Steve Weitzman put together a show in June to benefit Arthur Lee, who was facing not only an uncertain future but also overwhelming medical bills without any insurance coverage. Weitzman said he pitched the idea to Robert Plant that he should come to New York City to play at the concert. Weitzman said Plant readily and eagerly agreed to do it, insisting he would cover his own travel expenses and play with anyone who would be there. Saving production costs for the concert, including not flying over Plant's entire band from England, meant there would be more money for the cause, to benefit Arthur. As a result, Plant played with members of Ian Hunter's band and performed a full set combining five Love songs, four Led Zeppelin numbers, and a few other cover songs -- all on only two days' worth of rehearsals with the unfamiliar backing band. Weitzman said Plant and Hunter (formerly of Mott the Hoople) were old friends and that they enjoyed catching up and performing onstage together for the first time.

Weitzman said the concert raised about $50,000 toward Arthur's medical bills, which were reported to be about $100,000. Because these medical expenses still present an ongoing burden for Arthur's wife Diane and other surviving loved ones, contributions to the Arthur Lee Tribute Fund are welcome and should be addressed care of Wells Fargo Bank, 14855 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, CA 91403. The routing number for the fund is 122000247, and the account number is 6503287200. Arthur's estate also benefits from the sales of Love albums such as Forever Changes and the multi-disc retrospective Love Story 1966-1972. In addition, Weitzman said he is working to release recordings of live performances from the four-hour New York benefit concert, to continue aiding Arthur's grieving survivors.

Plant has long been vocal about his appreciation for the music of Love. The band was a product of the psychedelic music scene on the U.S. West Coast, and it managed to make a big impression on that singer from the British Midlands. Plant often speaks fondly of that style of music, recalling, for one, a Love concert he and Roy Harper caught at the Speakeasy in London. Arthur Lee was on both Plant's mind and lips in 1995 as he and the other members of Led Zeppelin were being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In performing Love songs at his own concerts, particularly over the past eight years, Plant has treated audiences to some recollections about how close to his heart he holds Love's music. At a concert I saw in person in 2001, Plant told the Philadelphia audience he has acquired copies of Forever Changes on every new musical format as it was introduced: originally on vinyl, then on 8-track and cassette tapes, followed by CD and eventually MP3.

Listening to Forever Changes, I can hear many things that would inspire most musicians. The guitars and the drums have a lot of appeal for me as a listener. The way the songs are written impresses me. The arrangements are also astounding with their layers of strings and brass on top of electric and acoustic guitars, bass, drums, and vocals.

Still, the lyrics throughout this album are among some of the most compelling words ever set to music. On one Forever Changes
track titled "Maybe the People Would Be the Times or Between Clark and Hilldale," Arthur sings the following stanza, which today reads like a message he could have released in anticipation of his own passing:
"When I leave, now don't you weep for me
I'll be back, just save a seat for me
But if you just can't make the room
Look up, and see me on the
The last track of Forever Changes, titled "You Set the Scene," contains one particular phrase that I believe directly inspired one of Robert Plant's lines in the Led Zeppelin III track "That's the Way." Compare Arthur's declaration that "all that lives is gonna die" with Plant's similar observation: "all that lives is born to die." Aside from this, "You Set the Scene" features what are probably some of the most poignant lyrics Arthur Lee ever scribed. I close with these words from it:
"This is the time and life that I am living
And I'll face each day with a smile
For the time that I've been given's such a little while
And the things that I must do consist of more than style
There are places that I am going

"This is the only thing that I am sure of
And that's all that lives is gonna die
And there'll always be some people here to wonder why
And for every happy hello, there will be good-bye
There'll be time for you to put yourself on"

Tuesday, May 9, 2006

Former Zep members announce concert schedules

This news originally appeared in an edition of the newsletter "On This Day In Led Zeppelin History."

All three surviving members of Led Zeppelin are said to be working on new recording projects, something fans of the group should be used to hearing for some time now. However, a point that will be easier to prove is that at least two of the former members of the group will be playing concerts this summer. The news of upcoming concert events seems to put Jimmy Page back onstage for the first time since a couple of one-off appearances 2002, this time alongside a couple of faces that popped up more often during his music career of over 45 years than did that of P. Diddy.

Robert Plant and the Strange Sensation are already fresh off some completed concert engagements in Italy, France, the Netherlands and Switzerland that have taken place over the past few months. More live dates by the band will follow throughout the continent throughout August or later.

Page, who has not played regularly since he sustained a back injury while on tour with the Black Crowes in 2000, has two concerts lined up over the next few months. Some newly recorded Page guitar work is expected to be released on an album this September, while his past remarks that he would be undertaking another new project remain elusive.

John Paul Jones, in a message on his official Web site posted in February, thanked his fans for their patience while he readies what will be his third solo album since 1999. It is one he claims to have been working on since 2004, just after he last embarked on a concert tour – that being with an all-star bluegrass band called Mutual Admiration Society. Jones' February message also recounted some more of his recent one-off concerts, and he said he would take some time off from the solo project to produce a record for an all-female folk string ensemble he met two years ago, called Uncle Earl.

While announcements from the Page and Jones camps are so scant, tour plans from Plant and the Strange Sensation are high in frequency. Despite the rumors of a North American tour, there has been no announcement as such. The group was on the road for several months last year, including in the United States, in support of the album Mighty ReArranger. The Strange Sensation has committed to a number of festival dates throughout Europe that will keep them busy touring for the next several months.

The few dates apparently lined up for 62-year-old Page this summer will pair him up first in June with Plant, and second in August with Roy Harper, who was a constant touring companion with Led Zeppelin in the 1970s. There is also the possibility of Page sitting in with Jerry Lee Lewis of "Great Balls of Fire" fame this August.

Just days before Plant and the Strange Sensation played their first show this year, the music world suffered the loss of prominent guitarist Ali Farka Toure, who died in his home country of Mali on March 7 after a long bout with bone cancer. Plant was a fan of his music, and the two played together in Mali at the Festival in the Desert in January 2003.

Plant's most recent live appearance, a concert tribute to Toure, took place on May 4 in Milan, Italy . Also playing the event was Tinariwen, a group Plant has called in recent years as one of his favorites worldwide. However, at the time of the show, Plant was said to be suffering from the flu and a throat infection. As a result, he limited his singing to only one number: a version of "Win My Train Fare Home" performed with the members of Tinariwen and Strange Sensation bandmates Clive Deamer, Billy Fuller and Justin Adams. He also played guitar on a few other songs.

Plant is among artists scheduled to appear June 23 at a benefit concert for another of his musical heroes: Arthur Lee, the singer and songwriter behind the group Love, who is reportedly battling acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Lee has undergone three weeks of chemotherapy and faces possible surgery. Plant's Web site says Lee's medical bills already top six figures. "I'm really glad to be able to do something for him, you know, raising funds and stuff because I don't think he's got any health insurance," Plant said this weekend during an interview on DJ Johnnie Walker's BBC Radio 2 show. All proceeds from the concert will go to Lee's medical expenses.

Plant spoke briefly in this interview about his appreciation of Lee and his contemporaries from San Francisco and other West Coast hotbeds of late-1960s psychedelic music. "I must have been about 17 when I first heard 'The Castle' and his version of 'Hey Joe,'" he said, referring to songs from the first two Love albums, released in 1966 and 1967. Love's next opus in 1967, Forever Changes, is routinely mentioned as Plant's favorite album of all time, and it provided him with a pair of songs he often covers in concert – "A House Is Not a Motel" and "Bummer in the Summer."

The Arthur Lee benefit concert is set to take place at the Beacon Theatre in New York. Besides Plant, other performers on the bill, according to Plant's Web site, are Love member Johnny Echols, the Ian Hunter Band, David Johansen of the New York Dolls, New York-based songwriter Garland Jeffreys, and Alec Ounsworth of indie-rock band Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. (Tickets to Beacon Theatre events are normally sold online by Ticketmaster and by the venue box office, although the concert has not yet been listed at either site.)

For now, Plant's next concert is set to take place today in England, at a benefit by the RD Crusaders. In addition to Plant, the RD Crusaders concert lineup is to include Roger Daltrey, drummer Richard Desmond, Lulu, Greg Lake, Russ Ballard, Zoot Money, Simon Townshend, Steve Smith, Nick Newall, Nicky Lambourne, Steve Balsamo and Margot Buchanan.

Richard Desmond formed the RD Crusaders in 2003, and the group has raised over 1 million British pounds for charity since then. Proceeds from the May 9 show benefit the Evelina Children's Hospital Appeal and Camp Simcha. The hospital appeal project aims to raise 10 million pounds through this concert and several other events.

Both Plant and Page are among artists slated to appear on June 30 in Montreux, Switzerland, at a special tribute show for Ahmet Ertegun. The Atlantic Records cofounder will be one month short of turning 83. It is unclear whether Page and Plant will play together.

The Ertegun tribute concert takes place as part of the Montreux Jazz Festival, which was the setting of the set Page and Plant last played together, on July 7, 2001. Then, the two collaborated on a set that included the first-ever performance of Led Zeppelin's "Candy Store Rock," paying tribute to the Sun record label that first made the names of rockabilly legends Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis famous in the 1950s.

A new album by Lewis, called Redemption, is slated for release in September, and it will feature Page sitting in on a new rendition of Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll." Both Lewis and Page are scheduled to appear at the Rhythm Festival in England this August, so it is not unreasonable to assume that the former Led Zeppelin guitarist could show up to play during the Jerry Lee Lewis and the Killer Band's festival set on Aug. 6.

Page is being mentioned as a guest of Roy Harper's, who will perform at the Rhythm Festival on Aug. 5. According to promotion for the event, Harper is to play his 1971 album Stormcock, which includes Page on a 12-and-a-half-minute song called "The Same Old Rock." (Page's role was attributed on the album sleeve to the pseudonym S. Flavius Mercurius.) David Bedford, who provided the orchestral arrangement for the song that closes Stormcock, is also listed on the bill as involved with Harper's August festival set.

Harper, after whom Led Zeppelin named the blues medley featured at the end of Led Zeppelin III, included Page on the songs "Bank of the Dead" and "The Lord's Prayer," both from his 1973 album Lifemask, as well as on the song "Male Chauvanist Pig Blues," separate versions of which were included on Harper's 1974 albums Valentine and Flashes from the Archives of Oblivion. In 1984, the two released a collaborative album called Whatever Happened to Jugula?, which they supported with a handful of festival dates. A London concert in 2001 honoring Harper's 60th birthday provided fodder for a rumor that Page would pick up a guitar; Page attended the event but did not grace the stage.

For a complete listing of upcoming concert appearances from Plant and the Strange Sensation, visit Plant's official Web site. To stay up-to-date on the latest happenings from Jones, visit his official Web site. Page is without an official Web site to call his own, but the Led Zeppelin fan site Tight But Loose does a fine job of keeping up with his news as well as that of his fellow former bandmates.

There's been talk that Plant said the Strange Sensation is working on another album, so consider that three separate projects are potentially forthcoming from the surviving members of Led Zeppelin, forcing the history of this group ever onward.