Arguably one of the greatest guitarists in the history of rock-n-roll, Jimmy Page earned his place among the pantheon of immortals as the guitarist for the mighty Led Zeppelin, one of the most influential rock bands of the 20th century. Prior to their inception in 1968, Page had been a prolific session guitarist, lending his versatile talents to songs by the Rolling Stones, The Who and The Kinks, among countless others. He joined the Yardbirds shortly before their breakup in 1968, after which he recruited singer Robert Plant, bassist and fellow session vet John Paul Jones and the formidable drummer John Bonham to fulfill concert dates as the New Yardbirds. However, the quartet's thunderous sonic attack and preference for improvisational blues jams set them apart from the Yardbirds' pop-rock sound, which spawned a new name and the dawn of a rock band that contributed hugely to the formation of countless hard rock, heavy metal and punk acts, from Van Halen and Guns N' Roses to the Ramones and Black Sabbath. In the decades after Zeppelin's demise following Bonham's death in 1980, Page worked on a variety of projects, including a new group, The Firm, but his former band loomed largely over all of his subsequent creative efforts. Page, Plant and Jones reunited on several occasions, each spawning rumors of a full-fledged reunion tour. Though Zeppelin remained largely dormant, Jimmy Page's impact on popular music through his storied body of work ensured his status as one of rock's most legendary figures.
James Patrick Page was born Jan. 9, 1944 in Heston, a suburb of London, England. The son of English industrial personnel manager Patrick Page and his Irish wife, Patricia, a doctor's assistant, he moved with his family to Surrey in 1952, where he came across his first guitar. After taking a few lessons, Page essentially taught himself to play the instrument by the age of 12, largely by necessity due to the lack of capable teachers. Early rock and American blues formed the backbone of his musical diet, though he also drew inspiration from British folk players like Bert Jansch. By his early teens, he had formed a skiffle quarter, which appeared on the BBC children's program "All Your Own" (1952-1961), while honing his craft through busking. Page soon left school to pursue a fulltime career in music, eventually joining Neil Christian and The Crusaders, with whom he made one of his earliest recordings, a 1962 single called "The Road to Love." Unfortunately, Page was forced to quit the group due to recurrent bouts of glandular fever, and for a period, he studied painting at Sutton Art College in Surrey. However, he continued to play with a variety of bands, including Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated, when his health would allow it. By 1962, he had landed a job as a studio musician for Decca Records, where he quickly established himself as one of the most prolific session players in early '60s rock and pop. Among his credits during this period was "Diamonds," a No. 1 instrumental hit for former Shadows members Jet Harris and Tony Meehan.
Between 1963 and 1966, Page played on a vast number of popular and influential songs by such iconic artists as the Rolling Stones, The Who, Donovan, The Kinks, and Joe Cocker. His rhythm guitar anchored The Who's "I Can't Explain" and Marianne Faithfull's cover of the Stones' "As Tears Go By," as well as the explosive "Baby Please Don't Go," a 1964 chart hit for Van Morrison and Them. His notoriety as a top session musician soon attracted the attention of the blues-rock band the Yardbirds, which was in dire need of a new lead guitarist following the departure of Eric Clapton in 1964. Page demurred, citing his friendship with Clapton, as well as concerns over his still-tentative health. He instead suggested his friend Jeff Beck as a replacement, which launched the second and even more successful phase of the Yardbirds' careers. Page's relentless session schedule, which often encompassed performing on three sessions a day for six days a week, eventually spurred him to offer his services to the Yardbirds when bassist Paul Samwell-Smith left the band. He was soon moved to the second guitar slot opposite Beck, but the new lineup fizzled out due to a lack of commercial success and various interpersonal conflicts, including the dismissal of Beck in 1966. Soon after, Beck hired Page, John Paul Jones, and the Who's rhythm section - bassist John Entwhistle and drummer Keith Moon - to record a solo single, "Beck's Bolero." Page was seized by the idea of forming a group with the assembled players, which was nixed due to a variety of contractual issues. However, the session did provide Page with a name for a future project: "Lead Zeppelin," which was reportedly coined by Moon after Entwhistle dismissed their proposed supergroup by saying that it would go over like a lead balloon.
Page remained with the Yardbirds for one final album, Little Games (1967), which featured the original Page composition "White Summer," an Eastern-themed instrumental that would later become a staple of Zeppelin concerts. The album stalled below the Top 40 in both America and the U.K., spurring most of the members of the Yardbirds to leave the group. Page was left with a slew of Scandinavian concert dates to fulfill, and soon tapped Jones as a replacement bassist before hiring vocalist Robert Plant and drummer John Bonham to fill out the group. Initially billed as the New Yardbirds, the quartet immediately established itself with an adherence to a heavier sound that blended blues tropes with extended, experimental passages with elements of jazz, classical and Middle Eastern/Indian music. After adopting "Led Zeppelin" - intentionally misspelled to avoid mispronunciation as "Leed" Zeppelin - as their new moniker, Page led the group to international stardom through a series of classic albums between 1969 and 1975 which featured such staples of FM rock radio as "Whole Lotta Love," "Dazed and Confused," "Kashmir" and the epic "Stairway to Heaven," which had a profound influence on the scope and sound of mainstream rock-n-roll as well as the development of the heavy metal and punk genres.
Zeppelin was also instrumental in transforming Page from a well-regarded session musician to an enduring guitar god for millions of fans and future players. He was equally capable of wringing thunderous riffs and delicate folk trills from his vast array of guitars, including a signature double-necked Gibson model. Page also drew praise for his use of a cello bow with his guitars, which created the otherworldly solos on "Dazed and Confused" and "How Many More Times." He was also an innovative producer, employing unique microphone placement and reverse echo effects to achieve Zeppelin's prodigious yet organic and intimate sound. But as Zeppelin grew in fame, Page also developed an enormous appetite for excess. He participated in the group's notorious debaucheries, including a considerable drug habit that blossomed into full-blown heroin addiction in the mid-1970s. He also developed a fascination for the occult, as evidenced by the various zodiac and symbols that dotted the band's album artwork and stage costumes, and his purchase of a bookshop and publishing house devoted to arcane subjects. Page was particularly fascinated with British occultist Aleister Crowley, going so far as to purchase Boleskine Home, his former estate on the banks of Loch Ness, where segments from the Zeppelin concert film "The Song Remains the Same" (1978) were filmed. Eventually, Page's habits got the better of him, affecting not only his health but also ability to perform and oversee the band. The drug-related death of John Bonham, which led to the dissolution of Led Zeppelin in 1980, had a profound effect on Page, who went into a period of seclusion for nearly two years.
He began a tentative return to music in the early 1980s, collaborating briefly with Chris Squire and Alan White of Yes in an aborted supergroup and recording the score for "Death Wish II" (1982) and "Death Wish III" (1985). In 1983, he appeared alongside fellow Yardbirds alums Beck and Clapton at a series of benefit concerts honoring Small Faces bassist Ronnie Lane. The shows resulted in a brief tour with Paul Rodgers of Free and Bad Company, who soon formed The Firm with drummer Chris Slade of Uriah Heep and AC/DC and bassist Tony Franklin. Their self-titled debut album reached No. 17 on the Billboard albums chart in 1985, but its follow-up, Mean Business (1986), failed to match its success, and the group folded soon after. Page worked on a variety of projects during the 1980s and early 1990s, including his solo debut album Outrider in 1988 and a collaboration with Whitesnake singer David Coverdale that generated a Top 5 album, Coverdale-Page (1991) but also criticism for what many perceived as a wan attempt to evoke the Zeppelin sound without its surviving members. Zeppelin was a source of considerable tension for Page, Plant and its fans since the breakup in 1980. Though there were several reunions with Jones, most notably at Live Aid in 1985, the results had frequently failed to live up to the expectations of the players, who constantly thwarted audiences' desire for a full-fledged reunion. Plant's resistance to make a Zeppelin reunion more or less permanent also created rancor with Page, though the pair appeared to settle their differences for about four years in the mid-1990s, beginning with a 1994 appearance on MTV's "Unplugged" (1989- ) performance series. The appearance was released as the highly successful CD No Quarter: Jimmy Page and Robert Plant Unledded, which was followed by an equally well-received world tour. However, a second album, Walking into Clarksdale (1998), failed to meet its predecessor's level of sales, prompting the pair to split once again.
The following year, Page was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Led Zeppelin. It was his second honor from the hall, having been previously inducted as a member of the Yardbirds in 1992. Page then returned to his journeyman ways, collaborating with Sean "P. Diddy" Combs on the song "Come With Me" for the "Godzilla" (1998) soundtrack, and then recording a double concert album, Live at the Greek, in 2000. In 2006, Led Zeppelin was inducted by an all-star lineup of admirers, including Slash, Joe Perry of Aerosmith and Jack White, into the U.K. Music Hall of Fame, which preceded a 2007 reunion with Plant and Jones at a tribute to Atlantic Records chief Ahmet Ertegun at the 02 Arena in London. The show, which set records for the highest demand for tickets to a single musical performance with over 20 million requests, represented the best performance by the surviving members since the 1970s, which naturally prompted rumors of a reunion. However, Plant's reluctance to abandon his solo career, which had hit its stride with the multi-Grammy-winning Raising Sand (2007) with Alison Krauss, put paid to fans' hopes. Page co-produced the documentary "It Might Get Loud" (2008), which focused on the history of the electric guitar and its role in his career, as well as that of U2's the Edge and Jack White. He also appeared opposite R&B singer Leona Lewis at the closing ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics in London, where they performed Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love." Two years later, he released a limited-edition photographic autobiography, which marked his publishing debut. In 2011, he contributed to a number of high-profile musical performances in London, including Donovan at the Royal Albert Hall and with Roy Harper at the influential British singer-songwriter's 70th birthday celebration. The following year, Page, Plant and Jones were honored by President Barack Obama at the annual Kennedy Center Honors, where they were presented with the United States' highest cultural honor for contributions to the arts.
By Paul Gaita