Jimmy Page discovers the guitar, becomes a local legend, goes to art school, and helps usher in the British blues boom.
“There was a fight almost every time we performed . . .”
It is an old, old story, the heartbeat of many an ancient myth. A young man of humble background stumbles upon a mysterious talisman, the mastery of which would change the course of his life. The boy embarks on a lengthy journey, during which his skills, strength, and mettle are tested to determine his worth. He ultimately unlocks the awesome power of the talisman, leading to great glory for himself and, often as not, a reordering of the cosmos. So it was with Jimmy Page, founder of Led Zeppelin and one of rock’s greatest guitar legends.
On Sunday, January 9, 1944, James Patrick Page was born to parents James and Patricia in the London borough of Hounslow. The family stayed in the area for nearly a decade, until the noise from nearby Heathrow Airport prompted them to move to the quiet suburb of Epsom, in Surrey. Or, as Page dryly remarks, “When the jets arrived, the family left.” It’s here that the real story begins.
“The weirdest thing about moving to Epsom was that there was a guitar in the house,” Page told British journalist Charles Shaar Murray in 2004. “I don’t know whether it was left behind by the people before, or whether it [belonged to] a friend of the family’s—nobody seems to know how it got there.”
It would be a stretch to suggest that Jimmy’s discovery of a mysteriously discarded guitar was an act of divine providence. However, it is indisputable that a man whom millions would one day call the King led Page to realize that his destiny was linked to his mastery of that gift guitar: Jimmy has stated that Elvis Presley’s recording of “Baby Let’s Play House,” featuring the slicing, reverb-soaked rockabilly licks of guitarist Scotty Moore, was one of many key tracks that inspired him to get serious about music. “I heard that record and I wanted to be a part of it,” he explains. “I knew something was going on.”
At the age of thirteen, Page learned to tune his guitar from school friends and to strum some rudimentary chords from some local players, but beyond that he was largely self-taught. He learned by ear how to play songs from recordings by British skiffle sensation Lonnie Donegan and early American rockers like Presley, Eddie Cochran, and Gene Vincent.
Impressed by his dedication, Jimmy’s dad bought him an acoustic sunburst Hofner President f-hole guitar, which resembled the big Gibson guitars played by his heroes Moore and Chuck Berry. In little over a year, Page was already good enough to perform two songs on the BBC-TV program All Your Own, a talent show for teens hosted by Huw Wheldon. Videos of the 1958 performance show the precocious Page bopping with confident enthusiasm while playing the novelty song “Mama Don’t Allow No Skiffle Around Here” and Leadbelly’s “Cotton Fields.”
Soon afterward, Page bought his first solid-body electric guitar, a three-pickup 1958 Resonet Grazioso Futurama, which resembled the sleek Fender Stratocaster guitars favored by rock stars such as Buddy Holly. He continued to hone his craft while playing with a series of local Epsom bands, and in 1960 he caught the eye of music manager Chris Tidmarsh, who sought to recruit him for a gang of rockers called Red E. Lewis and the Red Caps, whose very name was a tribute to Jimmy’s heroes, Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps.
Page remembers those early shows as being fun but rowdy. “I was still in school, so we would only play on weekends,” he says. “But it was an eye-opening experience. There was a fight almost every time we performed. It wasn’t like the fights you have these days, where people get shot, stabbed, or killed. It was more like violent sport. Basically, the first guy to hit the floor lost, and that would be it. But I had to learn how to keep my head down and play though all kinds of situations.”
Several months after Jimmy joined the Red Caps, Tidmarsh, who changed his name to Neil Christian, fired Red E. Lewis and made himself the band’s singer. He renamed the band Neil Christian and the Crusaders and aggressively hit the road, playing up and down the English club circuit.
A big part of the group’s popularity was the boy wonder Page, who was able to replicate the popular sounds of the day with his newly acquired orange Gretsch Chet Atkins Country Gentleman. From the high-energy rock and R&B of Chuck Berry and Little Richard to slower instrumentals like Santo and Johnny’s “Sleep Walk” to whatever was in the Top 20, Jimmy could play it all, and do so with flair.
While the shows were always exciting, the living conditions, pace of the performances, and tough travel itineraries were emotionally and physically punishing. For the next two years, Neil Christian and the Crusaders lived out of the back of their van and in the clubs they headlined at, sleeping on floors or on top of their instruments.
One night in the summer of 1962, Page collapsed after a gig. He was diagnosed with a form of mononucleosis, and soon thereafter he gave his notice.
Jimmy’s introduction to the entertainment business had been rough-and-tumble, but there was no doubt that, by the age of eighteen, he had become a polished guitarist, mature beyond his years. His reputation had grown to such an extent that, even while he was in the Crusaders, he had been asked to play on a 1962 recording session with two of England’s most respected rock musicians: bassist Jet Harris and drummer Tony Meehan, both of whom played with one of Britain’s biggest bands, the Shadows. The song they recorded was “Diamonds,” an instrumental composed by Jerry Lordan, and it became a number-one smash in the UK charts in early 1963. It was also during this period that UK blues harmonica virtuoso Cyril Davies approached Page to join his influential R&B All-Star Band. But after his experiences with the Crusaders, Jimmy was wary about becoming a touring musician.
While recovering from his illness, Page began to consider his prospects. He loved playing guitar, but his time in Neil Christian’s band gave him second thoughts about making music his career. He had been doing a lot of painting and drawing in his free time and decided to take a prediploma course at Surrey’s Sutton Art College. For the next year and a half, Jimmy diligently pursued his formal studies, but perhaps just as diligently, he continued to play the guitar.
Page began spending his evenings haunting the small but growing London blues-club scene, jamming at places like London’s Marquee Club and Richmond’s Crawdaddy Club. The British blues boom was in its embryonic stages, but he was already well versed in the music of the American South. His interest had been piqued years earlier by his beloved rockabilly, but local R&B buffs and record collectors fanned the flames.
Just as he had devoured the licks of Gene Vincent guitarist Cliff Gallup and Ricky Nelson guitarist James Burton, Page greedily consumed the solo and rhythm styles of blues players like Hubert Sumlin, Elmore James, and Memphis Slim guitarist Matt “Guitar” Murphy. During his time in the Crusaders, Jimmy attempted to incorporate his new passion into the band’s repertoire, but the music did not sit well with the mainstream ballroom-dancing crowds that constituted its main audience.
The times were changing, however, and a year or two later, British music fans began taking greater interest in black American sounds. In the north of England, the Beatles were having great success playing songs from Motown’s dance-oriented R&B catalog. But in the south, a small and devoted group of musicians took to studying and performing the raw electric blues released by Chess Records and other Chicago-based labels. In 1962, harpist Cyril Davies and guitarist Alexis Korner opened a new Thursday residence at the Marquee Club with their band Blues Incorporated. The gigs became a meeting place for hipsters and musicians who enthusiastically embraced the music of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and other Chicago blues greats. Soon, Jimmy was invited to lead a band that performed at the Marquee during the interval between the headliner’s sets.
During that period, Page realized the extent to which he was still passionate about the guitar. While he pondered his future, fate intervened when he was invited to play on several more recording sessions. Soon he began to think that a career as a studio guitarist might be a good way to earn a living without having to tour.
You started playing the electric guitar 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 written 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.