Jimmy Page Talks Sex, the Blues, and Led Zeppelin

Hear from the man himself in this excerpt from his oral autobiography

ConversationLight & Shade

Q: You started playing electric quitar when it was still a relatively exotic and unusual instrument. What inspired you to pick it up? 

Like many young people of the era, I loved the guitar-driven rockabilly of Elvis and Gene Vincent. It’s amazing to me now: The guitar parts were so subdued, but I was so engrossed that they seemed very loud—right up there. I just used to listen to my music, and in my mind, I would go back through the cone of the speaker into a world of my own. I would pretend that I was sitting in the studio with these artists and engineers and we’d study the echo and how the music was created. I might’ve been deluding myself, but I thought I could tell the difference between the recorded sound of one particular session from another and what was being applied. Certain echoes and reverbs seemed earth-shattering. Now when I listen to those same records, all of those effects are way in the background, but that’s how hard we studied these records, and that’s how hungry we were. All of us—Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and our contemporaries—went through the same process. Those early rock and blues records grabbed us hard.

When did the blues come into the picture?

It didn’t take me long to notice that some of my favorite Elvis songs, like “Hound Dog” and “Milk Cow Blues,” were originally writeten and recorded by blues performers. We began to discover people like Arthur Crudup, who wrote Presley’s hit “That’s All Right.” So in this way, bit by bit, you start understanding a much bigger musical picture. You discover that music is a tapestry that unfolds.

I started going back to the source of his music through a friend of mine that was a record collector. He had an amazing stash of blues albums, and he was very generous about letting me listen to them. No one was really playing the blues on the radio or in clubs yet, so it was still an underground thing; records were very hard to find.

It’s not hard to see why I gravitated to rock and blues. I was a guitarist and it was a very guitar-centric music. If you were a guitarist at that time, your appetite was voracious for Chuck Berry and all the blues that was coming out of Chicago.

The fact that the blues dealt with sex and the devil must have also made them attractive to a young guy.

When I heard those songs for the first time, they really did send chills up my spine. They still do.

What saved the day was that there were other people that just really loved rock, blues, and R&B, and they also began collecting these obscure records. Soon a whole network formed of people who would swap and trade music. They’d lend you a record so you could work out certain solos. None of us really had any money to buy all of these rare imported albums, but it all built up. It was a very, very important period.

Besides record collectors, who were some of the other heroes who brought the blues and rock to England?

Well, you would have to mention Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies, who had a band called Blues Incorporated. Alexis played acoustic guitar and Cyril was an amazing electric harp player, and back in the early sixties they would host these regular blues jams on Thursday nights at the Marquee Club. It was the only thing like that in London at the time. The Rolling Stones played there before they became famous, Clapton would be in the audience, and I would regularly participate in jam sessions that would happen between sets.

Alexis also brought blues artists like Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson to England for the first time, which was incredible.

Was the Marquee a big place?

I guess it held a couple hundred people. It seemed very big at the time to me, I’ll tell you that! [laughs] It was a big gig for me.

I remember one night Matthew Murphy came to play the Marquee. The place was packed, because we all loved his playing. We were all psyched and ready for him to rock out, and he looked at us and said, “Naw, man, I just want to play some jazz.” Everybody just groaned. It was very funny.

What kind of music were you playing at that time?

I was trying to play like Matt Murphy! [laughs] I think I was also playing some Freddy King.

Was the release of Robert Johnson’s King of the Delta Blues Singers in 1961 a significant event in the UK?

It was significant, but it took a little while to get around the grapevine. But, believe me, there was a grapevine. That’s how we heard about Freddy and Albert King, Robert Johnson, and a number of other country bluesmen.

What did you think of your white, blues-playing contemporaries at that time? Did you like the Stones, the Animals, and the early Yardbirds, or did you think they were jive for trying to play black music?

There was no real snobbery; we were all trying to do our own take on the blues at that time. I had heard about the Stones from the recording engineer Glyn Johns. I was working as a session musician at the time, and he would rave about them. I finally went to see them, and I was really impressed. They really had the Muddy Waters groove dead-on. Brian Jones in particular was playing very authentically.

A milestone in the development of British blues was when Sonny Boy Williamson actually played and recorded with Eric Clapton and the Yardbirds. Clapton, who was in the band at the time, has said it was a real education for him, but he didn’t think it turned out well. Again, what did you think of their collaboration?

When I first heard about it, I thought it was really exciting. I mean, no one really expected the Yardbirds to sound like a Chess band, but I thought they did a really credible job. They had their own take on the blues, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There was just so much going on at that time, and everyone was just trying to push the music further.

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