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Stairway to Heaven: The Song Remains Pretty Similar

Weary from touring, Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page retreated in 1970 to a stone cottage in Wales, called Bron-Yr-Aur, with no power or running water. Legend has it King Arthur fought his last battle nearby. Not far off is the mountain Cader Idris where, it’s said, those who spend a night at its summit are fated to die, go mad, or become poets. At Bron-Yr-Aur, by candlelight, Page constructed the bones of what may well be the most popular, and valuable, rock ’n’ roll song of all time,Stairway to Heaven. This included the introductory finger-picked section that launched a million guitar lessons.
Back in England that winter, Page laid out the budding epic for the band at another house, Headley Grange, where the magic continued around a fire fueled on one occasion by a section of stairway banister. As Page plucked, singer Robert Plant seemed to channel another world as he wrote the lyrics. To Page, who has referred to the song as “my baby,” it was Zeppelin’s crowning achievement. “Stairway crystallized the essence of the band,” he told then-teenage rock writer Cameron Crowe in a March 13, 1975, Rolling Stoneinterview. “It was a milestone for us. Every musician wants to do something of lasting quality, something which will hold up for a long time, and I guess we did it with Stairway.”
For generations of middle-class youth, the song is the 8-minute soundtrack of adolescent romance—or at least the anticipation of it. Stairway is slow dancing, the last song played at high school proms, sweet-16 parties, and summer camp mixers across a broad swath of the late 20th century.
Jimmy Page in 1969Photograph by Chris Walter/WireImage via Getty ImagesJimmy Page in 1969
Stairway’s stature—financially, culturally, and musically—is towering. By 2008, when Conde Nast Portfoliomagazine published an estimate that included royalties and record sales, the song had earned at least $562 million. It was so profitable in part because Led Zeppelin refused to release the song as a single, forcing fans to shell out for the entire album, which is untitled but known as Led Zeppelin IV. In the U.S., the album has sold more copies (23 million, according to the Recording Industry Association of America) than any save Michael Jackson’s Thriller and the Eagles’ Their Greatest Hits (1971-75). To this day, Warner Music Group cites the song in its annual reports as an example of its publishing portfolio.
For live audiences, Stairway’s power starts with its introductory notes. “Can you think of another song, any song, for which, when its first chord is played, an entire audience of 20,000 rise spontaneously to their feet, not just to cheer or clap hands, but in acknowledgment of an event that is crucial for all of them?” Observercritic Tony Palmer wrote in a 1975 profile. Dave Lewis writes in Led Zeppelin: The Complete Guide to Their Music that “Stairway has a pastoral opening cadence that is classical in feel and which has ensured its immortality.”
But what if those opening notes weren’t actually written by Jimmy Page or any member of Led Zeppelin? What if the foundation of the band’s immortality had been lifted from another song by a relatively forgotten California band?
You’d need to rewrite the history of rock ’n’ roll.

In 1968 a Los Angeles area band called Spirit put out its first album, the self-titledSpirit. Among the songs was an instrumental piece, Taurus, written by the band’s guitarist, Randy California. (Born Randy Wolfe, California got his stage name while playing with Jimi Hendrix’s band in New York in 1966. Hendrix took to calling him Randy California to distinguish him from another Randy in the band. California, only 15 at the time, chose to make it stick.) Taurus runs just 2 minutes and 37 seconds. About a minute of it is a plucked guitar line that sounds a lot like the opening measures of Stairway to Heaven.
For Led Zeppelin, 1968 was a big year. The band recorded its first album and flew to the U.S. to promote it with a series of shows. The day after Christmas, it played its first concert in America at the Denver Auditorium Arena. Led Zeppelin opened for Spirit.
Mark Andes, Spirit’s founding bassist, says he believes the members of Led Zeppelin heard Taurus that day, beginning a process that would lead to its appropriation forStairwayTaurus was a fixture of Spirit’s set at the time. “It was such a pretty moment, and it would typically come after a big forceful number and always got a good response,” Andes says at his home in a Houston suburb, where his music room is lined with framed gold records, many from the decade he later spent with the band Heart. “They would have seen it in that context.”
Members of Spirit including Jay Ferguson, Mark Andes, Ed Cassidy, Randy California and John Locke, pose for a portrait in 1970 in Los AngelesPhotograph by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty ImagesMembers of Spirit including Jay Ferguson, Mark Andes, Ed Cassidy, Randy California and John Locke, pose for a portrait in 1970 in Los Angeles
Within four days of its inaugural U.S. gig, Led Zeppelin had already assimilated some of Spirit’s other music into its act. At Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., the band played a medley that included Spirit’s Fresh-Garbage. The song, with its grinding bass line, shares side one of Spirit with Taurus. Set lists posted on Led Zeppelin’s official website name Fresh-Garbage as a song for the Spokane show and at least 11 other shows in the following months. Even if Page hadn’t heardTaurus at that first gig, he would have had other chances to hear it live as the bands crossed paths through 1969. “We did quite a few shows with those guys,” says Andes. “Not to say they might not have heard it from the record.” On May 16, 1969, the bands played a concert together in Detroit at the Grande Ballroom. On July 5, 1969, at the Atlanta Pop Festival, Spirit played right before Zeppelin. The two bands played the closing day of the Seattle Pop Festival on July 27. The weekend of Aug. 30, they played on two separate days at the Texas International Pop Festival.
California doesn’t seem to have griped about Stairway’s genesis, at least publicly, for decades. Finally, citing the gigs they played together, California told journalist Jeff McLaughlin in the winter 1997 issue of Listener magazine that Led Zeppelin had filched his song. “I’d say it was a ripoff,” California said. “And the guys made millions of bucks on it and never said ‘Thank you,’ never said, ‘Can we pay you some money for it?’ It’s kind of a sore point with me. Maybe someday their conscience will make them do something about it.” On Jan. 2, 1997, California drowned while rescuing his 12-year-old son from a rip current in Hawaii.
Now the late California’s allegation may get its day in court. Andes and the trust that handles California’s royalties say they’re teaming up to seek credit forStairway. They’re working with Francis Alexander Malofiy, a Philadelphia lawyer whose cases include a pending suit against the singer Usher over the writing credit for the song Bad Girl, which Usher is fighting. Starting in June, Led Zeppelin is preparing to cash in anew on Stairway and other hits by releasing all its albums in deluxe, remastered vinyl and CD editions. Malofiy says he is going to file a copyright infringement lawsuit and seek an injunction to block the rerelease of the album containing the song. “The idea behind this is to make sure that Randy California is given a writing credit on Stairway to Heaven,” says Malofiy, 36, who says he grew up with posters of Led Zeppelin on his bedroom wall. “It’s been a long time coming.”
Andes, 66, says he was so wrapped up in his music back then that he only recently noticed how similar Stairway was to California’s song. “The clarity seems to be a present-day clarity, not at the time of infringement. I can’t explain it. It is fairly blatant, and note for note,” he says. “It would just be nice if the Led Zeppelin guys gave Randy a little nod. That would be lovely.”
Jason Elzy, a spokesman for New York-based Warner Music, says, “Both Led Zeppelin and Warner Music will be offering no comment for this story.” Hollenbeck Music, which publishes Taurus and receives a portion of the royalties, is run by music mogul Lou Adler, a childhood friend of Randy California’s mother, who signed Spirit to its first record contract. Associates of Adler say he’s told them he believes the lick was lifted, but Adler isn’t part of the lawsuit and didn’t respond to requests for comment. Hollenbeck has compared the songs and doesn’t think there is a case, says Howard Frank, an executive at the Santa Monica (Calif.)-based company.
It’s no secret Led Zeppelin borrowed from blues and folk musicians in what it said was part of an organic tradition that created new, original works. Page has explained how he crafted songs with bits of others. “I always tried to bring something fresh to anything that I used,” he said in an interview for Light & Shade: Conversations With Jimmy Page by Brad Tolinski. “I always made sure to come up with some variation. In fact, I think in most cases, you would never know what the original source could be.” Zeppelin histories that address the issue seem to favor Page, calling him a transformer rather than a thief. In When Giants Walked the Earth: A Biography of Led Zeppelin, Mick Wall details the Welsh genesis of the song and writes that if Page was influenced by the chords from Taurus, “what he did with them was the equivalent of taking the wood from a garden shed and building it into a cathedral.”
But songwriters from whom Led Zeppelin drew inspiration, or more, have brought legal challenges for decades, often successfully. Since its 1969 debut album, the band has altered the credits and redirected portions of the royalties for some of its biggest songs, including Whole Lotta Love and Babe I’m Gonna Leave You. A copyright infringement suit over Dazed and Confused, a defining number that formed the centerpiece of Led Zeppelin’s live shows, was settled in 2012. The rise of the Internet has made comparisons by amateur plagiarism detectives easier, with mashup videos of Zeppelin songs and their alleged antecedents appearing on YouTube.

After its first two, mostly hard-rocking albums met with instant acclaim, Led Zeppelin put out the mainly acousticLed Zeppelin III in October 1970, only to see it panned by critics. It did not sell well. The band called off a planned British Christmas tour so it could go back to the studio, according to When Giants Walked the Earth. The press speculated about a breakup. Against this backdrop, “Jimmy would soon discover his compromise between the two realms of music, the acoustic and the metallic,” Stephen Davis writes inHammer of the Gods: The Led Zeppelin Saga. The six-string intro, according to Davis, was recorded at the Island Records studio in London in December 1970 before the band decamped to Headley Grange, where Plant wrote the lyrics.
The song that emerged is a concerto in three movements. The first is the finger-picked portion, with a recorder accompaniment played by bassist John Paul Jones. The second section, on which Page switches to a 12-string guitar and drummer John Bonham comes in, is the “and it makes me wonder” section. The third and final “and as we wind on down the road” movement speeds up the tempo. A headbanging three-chord progression repeats under Page’s guitar solo before the instruments surrender to Plant’s final, a cappella “and she’s buying a stairway to heaven.” The song made Led Zeppelin’s fourth album, released in November 1971, its biggest.
As the band rose to rock deity status on the back of Stairway, behind the scenes the slow and expensive unraveling of its intellectual-property foundations was already beginning. In the early 1970s, Chester (Howlin’ Wolf) Burnett’s music publisher sued Led Zeppelin for The Lemon Song, saying it was derived from Burnett’s Killing Floor. The parties settled, according to When Giants Walked the Earth. Burnett got a writing credit.
Willie Dixon in 1970Photograph by Gilles Petard/Redferns via Getty ImagesWillie Dixon in 1970
The next case started around 1979, after Shirley Dixon-Nelson, the daughter of blues legend Willie Dixon, heard Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love at a friend’s house in Chicago. It’s Led Zeppelin’s highest-charting U.S. single, reaching No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100. To Dixon’s 13-year-old daughter, the song sounded a lot like her father’sYou Need Love. Dixon sued, reaching a settlement in 1987, and the song is now credited to the four Zeppelin members and Dixon, who died in 1992. Despite the settlement, “there was no significant money to Willie from record sales. He went to his grave feeling that he was not represented properly,” his wife, Marie Dixon, told Barney Hoskyns in Led Zeppelin: The Oral History of the World’s Greatest Rock Band. Today in Chicago, Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation runs a blues education program in local schools and awards college scholarships to study topics including artists’ legal rights.
In the mid-’80s, another artist stepped forward. To reach the home of the 83-year-old woman who wrote the original Babe I’m Gonna Leave You, you drive up a dirt road on the edge of California’s Sierra National Forest. In a house made from two double-wide mobile homes, Anne Bredon, silver-haired and lanky, spends her days making jewelry, which she sells at craft fairs. To get to town for supplies, she drives a white electric car plastered with bumper stickers like “My Other Car Is a Broom.” She’s not a fan of hard rock.
Bredon wrote Babe around 1960 as a student at the University of California at Berkeley. She shared the chords and words with a fellow student, Janet Smith, who took Babe with her to Oberlin College and popularized it there. In 1962, Joan Baez came through the Ohio campus, heard Babe, and added it to her repertoire, including it in a songbook (credited to Bredon) and on a live album (not credited). In 1969, Led Zeppelin’s first album included a version of the song based on the Baez recording, listed as “Trad. arr. Jimmy Page.” “Jimmy Page must have assumed it was a folk song,” Bredon says. She, in the meantime, had no idea that her song was in the pantheon of classic rock.
In 1981, Bredon’s old college friend, Smith, was strumming the tune at home when her 12-year-old son popped into the room. “Gee, Mom, I didn’t know you did Led Zeppelin songs,” he said, according to Smith. It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that Smith happened to look at a copy of the debut Led Zeppelin album in a Tower Records store and realized her friend hadn’t gotten credit. She contacted Bredon with a proposal to hire a lawyer, and the two agreed to split any money they could recover. To resolve the dispute, Led Zeppelin’s publisher made an offer: Because the band had made the song famous, the authorship of the Zeppelin version should be split 50-50, with half going to Bredon and the other half to Page and Plant. Future editions of the song would be credited, “Words and music by Anne Bredon, Jimmy Page, and Robert Plant.”
Bredon, who was married to a math professor and living in New Jersey at the time, got what she says was a small amount for back royalties and has collected royalty checks regularly since. “I just wish we could have known about it earlier,” says Bredon in her living room, holding her banjo. “I lost out on a lot of money. … What I really wanted was my credit. I wanted to get my name on the song so they knew I wrote it, damn it.”

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