May 11, 1974: Led Zeppelin, the gods of 70s rock, meet their own god: Elvis

By on May 11, 2016

Led Zeppelin may have been the hammering gods of 70s rock, dominating sales charts and FM airplay, and towering over just about every other band in the land, but the band members themselves had grown up listening to an even more powerful god, Elvis Presley.

All four members of the mighty Zepp idolized Presley, and they’d even seen him perform live before — at the International Hotel in Las Vegas, on August 11, 1969, and an early afternoon performance at Madison Square Garden on Saturday, June 10, 1972 — but they’d never met him. All that changed on the evening of Saturday, May 11, 1974, when Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and John Bonham finally crossed paths with their idol after seeing him perform at their own personal Mt. Olympus, Los Angeles’s Fabulous Forum.

There’s no actual film footage of the meeting, naturally, but have a look at this wonderfully appropriate Youtube clip, which imagines the mashup/meeting of Elvis and Led Zeppelin, to the classic rock sounds of “Stairway To Heaven” at an airport, which looks to us like they’re taking a ride on the same plane.

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The story of that meeting, compiled from various online sources, begins like this: Led Zeppelin were in Los Angeles, CA, ostensibly for the launch party for their brand new record label, Swan Song. The night after the launch party, while hanging out at the Bel Air Hotel, the band — minus Zeppelin’s bassist John Paul Jones — decided to attend  Presley’s concert at Los Angeles’s Fabulous Forum Forum. Page, you may already know, had first picked up a guitar after hearing Elvis’s “Baby Let’s Play House,” and the rest is whatcha might call rock lore.

Here’s a photo of Page wearing an “Elvis on Tour” show member ribbon, from 1975:

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Jimmy Page & John “Magnet” Ward (1975)

Not having tickets in hand for what was possibly a sold-out show wasn’t an issue, of course: after all, both the band and Elvis had the same concert promoter, Jerry Weintraub, and so it’s not that much of a stretch to imagine how Plant, Page, Bonham and their band manager Peter Grant ended up getting tickets to the concert, probably even front-row seats.

Towards the end of the concert -– which was recorded for posterity, thankfully, and later released by RCA as Live in L.A. – Elvis asks for the venue’s house lights to go up so he can take a look at the audience, and at some point he must have seen, or at least been alerted to the presence of, three members of the band sitting near the stage, because, as he begins to sing the next song, the Willie Nelson-penned “Funny How Time Slips Away,” (a song he’d recorded for his 1971 album, Elvis Country (I’m 10,000 Years Old)), he stops the band after a few notes, saying:

“Wait a minute, wait a minute, hold it…[laughs] If we can we start together, fellas, because, we’ve got Led Zeppelin out there, and Jimmy Darren, and uh, a whole bunch of people, and, let’s try to look like we know what we’re doing, whether we do or not… now, what were we doing?”

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Later that night, the band (minus John Paul Jones), and their manager Peter Grant, were taken to Elvis’s hotel room for a meeting that was supposed to be no more than twenty minutes — but it ended up lasting closer to two hours.

“We went up to his suite and his girlfriend Ginger was there with just a few other people,” Jimmy Page said later. “I can tell you, we were really nervous. When he came to the door, he started doing his famous twitch. You know, he didn’t put that on — that was something he really did.” (George Case, “Led Zeppelin FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the Greatest Hard Rock Band …”)

Presley and Bonham broke the ice to discuss their mutual love of hot rods, while Robert Plant remembered, “We all stood in a circle and discussed this whole phenomenon, this lunacy...[Elvis] was very focused, very different to what you now read.”

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In 2010, Robert Plant talked about meeting The King, in the pages of Rolling Stone:

“When I met Elvis with Zeppelin, after one of his concerts in the early Seventies, 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.”

David E. Stanley, Elvis’s step-brother, recalls what happened that night:

“I started touring with Presley in 1972 when I was 16. I always had Zeppelin’s music with me. In 1974, while at the LA Forum, Led Zeppelin came to see Elvis. Later that night, after the show, Robert, Jimmy and John Paul came to Elvis’s suite at the hotel across the street from the Forum. I met them as they came off the elevator and walked with them to Elvis’s room. I introduced myself, shook their hands and got their autograph. Of all the people I met during my life with Elvis, it was only Led Zeppelin’s autograph that I asked for.”

NOTE: David may have been mistaken when identifying John Paul as being one of the band members who met Elvis in ’74 — he probably means Bonham, as his story conflicts with the one that we’ll get to in a sec.

Check out Led Zeppelin boarding their private Boeing 720 “Starship” (Registration # : N7201U) once owned by United Airlines. The caption for this video says: The Starship was the first Boeing 720 ever built. The Starship was used by a lot of other famous bands in the 1970’s for touring , including Deep Purple and The Allman Brothers Band , but no band used it as extensively or became as popular with it as Led Zeppelin did. The Starship [later the band flew on a different jet, which they re-christend Caesar’s Chariot] was owned by several owners in the late 70’s until it went into storage before ending up being dismantled for parts.

Apparently Elvis — who admitted that night that he knew about their band, but that he’d never heard any of their records excerpt for the time his step-brother David had played him “Stairway To Heaven” — was interested in knowing if the salacious stories he’d heard about Zeppelin’s notorious reputation with groupies was simply rock n’ roll mythology, or was there was any measure of truth to it: “Is it true,” he asked, “those stories about you boys on the road?”

Plant is said to have innocently denied the rumors, and told Elvis, “Of course not. We’re family men. I get the most pleasure out of walking the hotel corridors, singing your songs.”

Plant: “At that meeting, Jimmy Page joked with Elvis that we never sound-checked — but if we did, all I wanted to do was sing Elvis songs. Elvis thought that was funny and 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’.

Plant says he then offered up his best Elvis impersonation, singing: “Treat me like a fool, treat me mean and cruuuuel, but looooove me…”

For a moment Elvis Presley eyed them both very carefully. Then, he burst out laughing. Then his bodyguards burst out laughing. Later, Plant says, while walking down the hotel hallway, Page and Plant congratulated themselves on meeting one of their heroes, when, suddenly, they heard a booming voice behind them: “Hey!”

Plant: “So when we were leaving, after a most illuminating and funny 90 minutes with the guy, I was walking down the corridor. He swung ’round the door frame, looking quite pleased with himself, and started singing that song: “Treat me like a fool…” I turned around and did Elvis right back at him. We stood there, singing to each other.” (L.A. Times, Cameron Crowe, January 4, 1981)

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Elvis backstage with Jerry Schilling, before his evening show at the Omni Coliseum in Atlanta, GA, July 3, 1973, the year before he met Led Zeppelin.

A year later, since John Paul Jones hadn’t gone to the concert, and was understandably a little disappointed that he didn’t get to meet Elvis afterwards, Richard Cole, the band’s road manager, organized another meeting with The King via Jerry Schilling, who was Elvis’s chief bodyguard and a longtime member of Elvis’s “Memphis Mafia.” Elvis told Schilling it would be okay for them to “come by the house,” and Schilling says he was there on the night of the planned meeting and was, according to an interview he did years later, “a little surprised to see that Elvis was in pajamas and robe — he and Sheila Ryan [she appears on the front cover of the October ’73 issue of Playboy magazine] were getting ready to go upstairs.” 

Jerry reminded Elvis that Richard and John were coming and Elvis remained downstairs to wait for them. (Me and a Guy Named Elvis: My Lifelong Friendship with Elvis Presley, Jerry Schilling, Chuck Crisafulli)

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Elvis with Joe Esposito (another “Memphis Mafia” pal), who can be seen wearing a Led Zeppelin 1975 Tour T-shirt — this one was taken on Sept. 7th, 1976, outside of the Holiday Inn hotel, in Pine Bluff, Arkansas.

The following excerpt is taken from Schilling’s book, Me And A Guy Named Elvis:

From the moment Richard [Cole] 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.

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Schilling (left) with The King.

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, letting his pajama bottoms drop beneath his robe.

The loud Richard was shocked into silence, while quiet Sheila and John burst out laughing. Nobody accepted Elvis’ offer, but it was a great note to end the night on.”

Schilling later told Cole, “We haven’t seen the Boss have such a good time in years.”

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Elvis and some of his “Memphis Mafia,” including Dave Hebler, Red West and Jerry Schilling, his back towards the photographer, wearing a Led Zeppelin T-shirt (April 24, 1975)

(Schilling also talks about Elvis meeting Eric Clapton through Richard Cole here)

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Elvis and bodyguards depart the Hilton Hotel, Philadelphia, PA, June 25, 1974 (Ron Galella)

Led Zeppelin would end up selling something a colossal amount of recordings worldwide. Their fourth album, Led Zeppelin IV, sold 18 million copies in the States alone, making it the fifth best-selling album in recording history. Among British groups, only The Beatles have outsold them. Plant and Page may be the golden gods of 70s rock, but Elvis — is sales are anything to go by — is still the king. According to this source, Elvis Presley’s recordings have sold a claimed 500-600 million units, while Led Zeppelin’s sales, astronomical as they are, are about half of that amount: 300 million albums (it’s virtually impossible to find 100% accurate sales figures, for a variety of reasons, so this is probably still a rough estimate).

There’s another story which details how Elvis’s and Led Zeppelin’s paths would cross one last time, in 1977, on the Baltimore airport tarmac, while both were on tour.  Some people dispute that this even happened, but  David E. Stanley — Presley’s step-brother, who had played him “Stairway To Heaven” years earlier — writes:

“There was one other time the Presley tour ran across the band 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 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, ‘They lease their jet from Caesar’s Palace, I OWN mine.’

The (perhaps spurious) mythology which involves Elvis, Led Zeppelin, and their private jets, is actually a bit of a online jumble: just type those words in the search engine of your choice and you’ll see there are a lot of stories, perhaps apocryphal, perhaps lies, but all we know for sure is, there would be no more meetings after Elvis died on August 16, 1977.

Plant again, in 2010: “By then, because of the forces around him, it was difficult for him to stretch out with more contemporary songwriters. When he died, he was 42. I’m 18 years older than that now. But he didn’t have many fresh liaisons to draw on — his old pals weren’t going to bring him the new gospel. I know he wanted to express more. But what he did was he made it possible for me, as a singer, to become otherworldly.”

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.
  • Guillermo F. Perez-Argüello

    Fantastic article!!

  • Guillermo F. Perez-Argüello

    Fantastic article!! As to the first time Plant and Page saw Presley perform in the summer of 1969, in Las Vegas, here is an account from someone who was there. And I quote “He was wearing black and looked like ten greek Gods as he tore through “Love me Tender,”Don’t be cruel, and “Jailhouse Rock”. He was sweating, in the flesh, alive, inhaling and exhaling. And there I was, breathing the same air, sitting with Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, completely and entirely beside myself. Some sideburned grease monkey appeared after the show, asking Jimmy if he would like to meet Elvis. He said “No, thank you,” and I never quite got over it. Unquote Pamela Des Barres former rock and roll groupie, actor, author and magazine writer, blaming her then love interest Jimmy Page for declining to meet Presley on the early hours of August 12, 1969, ostensibly in reference to the fact she was a huge Elvis fan, but because of Page’s decision, never got to meet him (as noted in page 139 of her biography. “I am with the band”)