40 Years Ago: Led Zeppelin Meets Elvis Presley
The L.A. Forum played host to some of the greatest shows Led Zeppelin ever put on, and it was also the place where, on May 11, 1974, the band came face to face with their greatest hero.
Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Bonham were in Los Angeles, ostensibly for the launch of their own record label Swan Song. The night after the launch party at the Bel Air Hotel, the band minus bassist John Paul Jones decided to attend Elvis Presley’s concert at the Forum.
At some point, Elvis must have been alerted to the presence of the rock group in the audience because at one point during the show – which was taped and later released on record as ‘Live in L.A.’ – he can be heard saying to his band, “Wait a minute… If we can start together fellas, because we’ve got Led Zeppelin out there…let’s try to look like we know what we’re doing, whether we do or not.”
As it happened, Led Zeppelin and the King shared the same promoter, Jerry Weintraub, who set up a meeting after the show between the two parties. Plant later wrote about his impressions of Presley, “I met Elvis with Zeppelin, after one of his concerts in the early ’70s, 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.”
Plant also revealed a funny turn near the end of the evening. “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,” Plant said. “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’ — ‘Treat me like a fool / Treat me mean and cruel / But love me.’ 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.”
Elvis’ and Zeppelin’s paths would cross another two times through the ‘70s. The next meeting took place at Presley’s home in Memphis which Jerry Schilling, a noted member of the ‘Memphis Mafia’ wrote about in his book, ‘Me and a Guy Named Elvis.’ After swapping jewelry amongst each other, the King thought it’d be funny to pull something of a prank.
“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,” remembered Schilling. “So he stood, eyed John [Bonham], and said, ‘Let’s swap pants’, while simultaneously, in expert Python fashion, letting his pajama bottoms drop beneath his robe. The loud [Zeppelin Tour Manager] Richard [Cole] 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.”
The final meeting between Zeppelin and Elvis took place on the Baltimore airport tarmac while both were on tour in 1977. Presley’s stepbrother, David Stanley later recalled the encounter. “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.”
Elvis Presley inspired most, if not all the great rock and roll acts of the ‘60s, ‘70s and beyond. Led Zeppelin were no exception to this rule and the multiple opportunities when their paths crossed remained a thrill for the band and indeed for the King himself.