Arguably one of the most influential bass players in rock music history, John Paul Jones contributed to the immense power and rhythm of Led Zeppelin, which in turn influenced a myriad of popular music genres for decades after their debut in the late 1960s and demise in 1980. Jones also enjoyed a prolific career as a producer, arranger and player on dozens of recordings, from legendary sides by the Rolling Stones and Donovan to modern acts like the Foo Fighters and independent musicians like the Butthole Surfers and Diamanda Galas. Zeppelin, of course, remained his most prominent credit, and he gamely reunited with singer Robert Plant and guitarist Jimmy Page for several hit-and-miss performances between 1985 and 2007. If their lack of cohesiveness prevented what would likely have been one of the most anticipated reunion tours in rock-n-roll history, it did not appear to faze Jones, who remained both active and relevant with a variety of bands, including the supergroup Them Crooked Vultures with the Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl. John Paul Jones' vast contributions to popular music, as well as his tenure in one of the most popular bands of the 1970s and beyond, ensured his enduring status in the upper echelons of rock royalty.
Born John Paul Baldwin on Jan. 3, 1946 in the district of Sidcup, in South East London, England, John Paul Jones was the son of musical parents; his father, Joe Baldwin, was a pianist and arranger for various big bands in the 1940s and 1950s, while his mother often joined her husband in a vaudeville comedy act that played throughout England. Jones began his music studies at Christ's College, London, then served as choirmaster and organist at his local church. At the age of 14, he was inspired by American jazz and R&B bassist Phil Upchurch to purchase his first bass guitar, which he employed in his first band, the Deltas, in 1961. Jones then logged time with the jazz-rock group Jett Blacks, which also featured guitarist John McLaughlin, before joining Jet Harris and Tony Meehan, former members of the instrumental group the Shadows who had scored a No. 1 hit with the 1963 single "Diamonds," which featured Jones' future bandmate, Jimmy Page, on acoustic guitar. Jones backed the duo for two years before transitioning to session work at Decca Records on Meehan's recommendation. Between 1964 and 1968, Jones worked on an astonishing number of recordings as arranger, keyboardist and musical director for acts ranging from the Rolling Stones, Jeff Beck and the Yardbirds to Tom Jones, Etta James, the Supremes and many others. Among the more historic recordings that bore his name was Donovan's "Mellow Yellow" and "Hurdy Gurdy Man," Beck's "Bolero" and Lulu's "To Sir With Love" as well as dozens of recording dates for film and television.
During this period, Jones adopted his stage name at the suggestion of his friend, Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham, who also produced his first solo single, "Baja," in 1964. By 1968, Jones had tired of the endless recording assignments, which often encompassed multiple sessions per day for six to seven days each week. He found a possible outlet in Jimmy Page, a frequent session player who had joined the Yardbirds in 1966. The group had spent the next two years in a state of flux due to a slew of failed singles and conflicts among the members, which led to the departure of singer Keith Relf and drummer Jim McCarthy, with bassist Chris Dreja leaving shortly thereafter. Upon hearing that Page needed musicians in order to fulfill live dates on a Scandinavian tour, Jones asked about and was quickly assigned the bass position in what was briefly called the New Yardbirds, which also featured vocalist Robert Plant and drummer John Bonham. However, the group's heavier, more experimental sound was in direct contrast to the blues-rock on which the Yardbirds had made their name, prompting Page to dub the new act Led Zeppelin. The band soon established itself as one of the most formidable rock acts of the 1970s, combining the psychedelic blues of Cream with the sonic attack of the Who and touches of soul, English folk and Middle Eastern tonalities on such songs as "Dazed and Confused," "Whole Lotta Love" and their epic ballad "Stairway to Heaven." By the end of their reign in 1980 following the death on Bonham, Led Zeppelin was among the most popular and influential rock groups of the late 20th century.
Jones' contributions to the group were often overlooked in favor of Plant's keening vocals and Page's guitar work, but his bass and keyboards brought immeasurable depth to their library of songs. His bass lines, which drew equal influence from Motown, James Brown and jazz, lent both power and swing to the band, which set them apart from the blues- and country-driven sounds of their peers. Jones' keyboards also added layers of texture and atmosphere to their work, most notably the funky, Stevie Wonder-inspired Clavinet on "Trampled Under Foot" and the Eastern scales, played on a Mellotron, on "Kashmir." In concert, his keyboard solos on "No Quarter" would display the full range of his influences, from "Amazing Grace" and snippets of classical compositions by Rachmaninoff and Joaquin Rodrigo. Jones also contributed some of the more eclectic elements in the band's musical palette, including mandolin and the overdubbed recorder parts that kicked off "Stairway to Heaven."
Following the demise of Led Zeppelin, Jones resumed his busy schedule of producing, arranging and contributing to music by other artists. He had never completely given up that side of the business during his tenure with his band, having played on Wings' Back to the Egg (1979) as well as records by Peter Green, Roy Harper and others. Jones soon expanded his efforts to include film scores for Michael Winner's "Scream for Help" (1984), which featured guitar work by Page, as well as a course on electronic composition at the Dartington College of Arts. As the decades progressed, he remained in demand for his studio talents, which he applied to Peter Gabriel's Us (1992), R.E.M.'s <>Automatic for the People (1992) and albums by Brian Eno, Heart, the Butthole Surfers and avant-garde singer Diamanda Galas, with whom he recorded a collaborative album, The Sporting Life, in 1994. Jones would also record his first solo album, the all-instrumental Zooma, in 1999, while composing and performing a wealth of material for international advertising campaigns, short films and computer animation projects.
However, Led Zeppelin continued to loom largely over Jones' career, and he participated in most of the major reunions between 1985 and 2007. He performed with Plant, Page and guest drummers Phil Collins and Tony Thompson at the Live Aid Concert in Philadelphia in 1985 and later at the Atlantic Records 40th Anniversary Concert in 1988. Both events were torpedoed by sound issues as well as internal problems between the original members of the group, which were further exacerbated by Jones' exclusion from an MTV special featuring Plant and Page, which culminated in the album No Quarter: Jimmy Page and Robert Plant Unledded (1994) and a subsequent world tour. Jones made pointed reference to the snub during the band's 1995 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where he thanked his bandmates for "remembering [his] phone number." He was again conspicuously absent from Plant and Page's Walking into Clarksdale (1998) album, but remained busy with his own projects, including tours with King Crimson, Robyn Hitchcock and Steve Hackett, as well as a second solo album, The Thunderthief in 2001.
Jones' schedule grew even busier in the new millennium; he played on two tracks from the Foo Fighters' In Your Honor (2005) album, then made a high-profile appearance at the 2007 Bonnaroo Festival, which saw him perform in sets with Ben Harper, Gillian Welch, Gov't Mule and in the show's all-star jam with Harper and the Roots' Questlove. That same year, he reteamed with Plant, Page and Bonham's son Jason for Led Zeppelin's first full-length concert performance since 1980. Widespread critical praise for the appearance led to rumors about a reunion tour that were quickly quashed by Plant. Jones then returned to the studio, producing Nickel Creek singer Sara Watkins' self-titled solo debut album in 2009 before forming Them Crooked Vultures, a supergroup featuring Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters and Queens of the Stone Age singer-guitarist Josh Homme. A self-titled album released that year debuted at No. 12 on the Billboard albums chart. Jones, Grohl and Jimmy Page later collaborated several times following the album's release, most notably at the 2008 Grammy Awards ceremony and later at Wembley Arena that same year.
By Paul Gaita