Robert Plant: musician, vocalist, songwriter
Robert Plant (born 20 August 1948) is an English musician, singer, and songwriter best known as the lead singer and lyricist of the rock band Led Zeppelin. A powerful and wide vocal range (particularly evident in his high-pitched vocals) have given him a successful career spanning over 40 years. Plant is regarded as one of the greatest singers in the history of rock and roll.
Robert Anthony Plant was born in the Black Country town of West Bromwich, Staffordshire to Robert C. Plant, a qualified civil engineer who worked in the Royal Air Force during World War II, and Annie Celia Plant (née Cain). He grew up in Kidderminster, Worcestershire. He gained an interest in singing and rock and roll music at an early age: “When I was a kid I used to hide behind the curtains at home at Christmas and I used to try and be Elvis. There was a certain ambience between the curtains and the French windows, there was a certain sound there for a ten-year-old. That was all the ambience I got at ten years old… I think! And I always wanted to be a curtain, a bit similar to that. ”
He left King Edward VI Grammar School for Boys in Stourbridge in his mid-teens and developed a strong passion for the blues, mainly through his admiration for Willie Dixon, Robert Johnson and early rendition of songs in this genre. “I suppose I was quite interested in my stamp collection and Romano-British history. I was a little grammar school boy and I could hear this kind of calling through the airwaves.”
He abandoned training as a chartered accountant after only two weeks to attend college in an effort to gain more GCE passes (General Certificates of Education) and to become part of the English Midlands blues scene. “I left home at 16“, he said, “and I started my real education musically, moving from group to group, furthering my knowledge of the blues and of other music which had weight and was worth listening to.”
Plant had various jobs while pursuing his music career, one of which was working for the major British construction company Wimpey in Birmingham in 1967 laying tarmac on roads. He also worked at Woolworth’s in Halesowen town for a short period of time. He cut three obscure singles on CBS Records and sang with a variety of bands, including the Crawling King Snakes, which brought him into contact with drummer John Bonham. They both went on to play in the Band of Joy, merging blues with newer psychedelic trends.
In 1968, guitarist Jimmy Page was in search of a lead singer for his new band and met Plant after being turned down by his first choice, Terry Reid, who referred him to a show at a teacher training college in Birmingham (where Plant was singing in a band named Obs-Tweedle). Page witnessed Plant sing a version of “Somebody to Love” by Jefferson Airplane, and that was that. As recalled by Plant and Page:
Plant: I was appearing at this college when Peter and Jimmy turned up and asked me if I’d like to join the Yardbirds. I knew the Yardbirds had done a lot of work in America – which to me meant audiences who would want to know what I might have to offer – so naturally I was very interested.
Page: When I auditioned him and heard him sing, I immediately thought there must be something wrong with him personality-wise or that he had to be impossible to work with, because I just could not understand why, after he told me he’d been singing for a few years already, he hadn’t become a big name yet. So I had him down to my place for a little while, just to sort of check him out, and we got along great. No problems.
With a shared passion for music, Plant and Page immediately began their writing collaboration with reworkings of earlier blues songs. Plant would receive no songwriting credits on the band’s first album, allegedly because he was still under contract to CBS Records at the time. Plant brought along John Bonham as drummer, and they were joined by John Paul Jones, who had previously worked with Page as a studio musician.
Initially dubbed the “New Yardbirds” in 1968, the band soon came to be known as Led Zeppelin. Legend has it that the name stemmed from a humorous conversation with Keith Moon of the Who, who joked about their chances of going down “like a lead zeppelin.” The band’s eponymous debut album hit the charts in 1969 and is widely credited as a catalyst for the heavy metal genre. Plant has commented that it is unfair for people to think of Zeppelin as heavy metal, as almost a third of their music was acoustic.
The band released 6 albums with great success between 1969 and 1974. In 1975, Plant and his then wife Maureen, were seriously injured in a car crash in Rhodes, Greece. This significantly affected the production of Led Zeppelin’s seventh album Presence for a few months while he recovered, and forced the band to cancel the remaining tour dates for the year.
In July 1977 his son Karac died at age five of a stomach infection while Plant was engaged on Led Zeppelin’s concert tour of the United States. It was a devastating loss for the family. Plant retreated to his home in the Midlands and for several instropsective months afterward. Karac’s death later inspired him to write several songs in tribute: “All My Love” featured on Led Zeppelin’s final studio album, 1979’s “In Through the Out Door” and “Blue Train” featured on Page and Plant’s second and final (studio) album, 1998’s Walking into Clarksdale. The song “I Believe” on Plant’s solo album “Fate of Nations” is another tribute to his late son.
Plant’s lyrics with Led Zeppelin were often mystical, philosophical and spiritual, alluding to events in classical and Norse mythology, such as “Immigrant Song“, which refers to Valhalla and Viking conquests, as well as “The Battle of Evermore”, “Misty Mountain Hop”, “No Quarter”, “Ramble On” and “Over the Hills and Far Away” which contain verses referencing Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.
Conversely, Plant sometimes used more straightforward blues-based lyrics dealing primarily with sexual innuendo, as in “The Lemon Song”, “Trampled Under Foot”, and “Black Dog”.
Arguably one of Plant’s most significant achievements with Led Zeppelin was his contribution to the track “Stairway to Heaven“, an epic rock ballad featured on Led Zeppelin IV that drew influence from folk, blues, Celtic traditional music and hard rock among other genres. Most of the lyrics of the song were written spontaneously by Plant in 1970 at Headley Grange. While never released as a single, the song has topped charts as the greatest song of all time on various polls around the world.
So popular in fact, the song has become an unbreakable thread in the tapestry of human history…
Plant is also recognised for his lyrical improvisation in Led Zeppelin’s live performances, often singing verses previously unheard on studio recordings. One of the most famous Led Zeppelin musical devices involves Plant’s vocal mimicking of band mate Jimmy Page’s guitar effects. This can be heard in the songs “How Many More Times”, “Dazed and Confused”, “The Lemon Song”, “You Shook Me”, “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” and “Sick Again.”
Plant enjoyed great success with Led Zeppelin throughout the 1970s and developed a compelling image as the charismatic rock-and-roll front man, similar to his contemporaries, the Who singer Roger Daltrey, Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones and Jim Morrison of the Doors. With his mane of long blond hair and powerful, bare-chested appearance, Plant helped to create the “god of rock and roll” or “rock god” archetype. On stage, Plant was particularly active in live performances, often dancing, jumping, skipping, snapping his fingers, clapping, making emphatic gestures to emphasize a lyric or cymbal crash, throwing back his head, or placing his hands on his hips. As the 1970s progressed he, along with the other members of Led Zeppelin, became increasingly flamboyant on-stage, and wore more elaborate, colorful clothing and jewelry.
In an interview from 1994, Plant reflected tongue-in-cheek upon his Led Zeppelin showmanship: “I can’t take my whole persona as a singer back then very seriously. It’s not some great work of beauty and love to be a rock-and-roll singer. So I got a few moves from Elvis and one or two from Sonny Boy Williamson II and Howlin’ Wolf and threw them all together.”
One of the oddest awards he received was the Rock Scene Magazine “Chest-O-Rama”. Readers of the magazine had to decide who had the best chest in rock and Plant was the winner. When they contacted him about it, he replied: “I’m really greatly honoured although it’s hard for me to be eloquent on the subject of my chest.”
After Led Zeppelin dissolved in December 1980 (following the death of drummer John Bonham), Plant briefly considered abandoning music to pursue a career as a teacher in the Rudolf Steiner education system; going so far as to be accepted for teacher-training. He nevertheless embarked on a successful solo career, helped by encouragement from Genesis drummer Phil Collins. Plant’s solo career began with the album Pictures at Eleven in 1982, followed by 1983’s The Principle of Moments.
Through the late 1980s and early 1990s, Plant co-wrote three solo albums with keyboardist/songwriter Phil Johnstone. These were: Now and Zen in 1988, Manic Nirvana in 1990, and the 1993 Fate of Nations. Songs from this third album, plus a smattering of Led Zeppelin classics, made up the set-list for Plant’s legendary sun-set performance on the Main Stage at Glastonbury Festival, in 1993.
Although Led Zeppelin split in 1980, Plant occasionally collaborated with Jimmy Page on various projects through this period, including forming a short-lived all-star group with Page and Jeff Beck in 1984, called the Honeydrippers. They released an album called “The Honeydrippers: Volume One,” and the band had a No. 3 hit with a remake of the Phil Phillips’ tune “Sea of Love“, plus a follow-up hit with a cover of Roy Brown’s “Rockin’ at Midnight.“
Plant and Page reunited and became a full-fledged performing act from 1994 through 1998, releasing the Unledded album in 1994 and following with an enormously successful tour in 1995. Having long resisted offers from MTV to reform and appear on the program Unplugged, they finally accepted as part of a deal that also allowed them to visit Morocco to record new material. The album combines the results of both of these projects.
Starting in mid-1999, Plant performed until the end of 2000 at several small venues with his folk-rock band, named Priory of Brion. In 1999, Plant also contributed to the tribute album for Moby Grape co-founder Skip Spence, who was terminally ill. The album, More Oar: A Tribute to the Skip Spence Album (1999), contained Plant’s version of Spence’s “Little Hands“.
In 2001, Plant appeared on Afro Celt Sound System‘s album Volume 3: Further in Time. In 2002, with his then newly formed band Strange Sensation, Plant released a widely acclaimed collection of mostly blues and folk remakes, Dreamland. Contrasting with this lush collection of often relatively obscure remakes, the second album with Strange Sensation, Mighty ReArranger (2005), contains new, original songs. Both have received some of the most favorable reviews of Plant’s solo career and four Grammy nominations, two in 2003 and two in 2006.
From 2001 to 2007, Plant actively toured the US and Europe with Strange Sensation. His sets typically included recent, but not only, solo material and plenty of Led Zeppelin favourites, often with new and expanded arrangements. A DVD titled Soundstage: Robert Plant and Strange Sensation, featuring his Soundstage performance (filmed at the Soundstage studios in Chicago on 16 September 2005), was released in October 2006.
On 23 June 2006, Plant was the headliner (backed by Ian Hunter’s band) at the Benefit For Arthur Lee concert at New York’s Beacon Theatre, a show which raised money for Lee’s medical expenses from his bout with leukaemia. Plant and band performed thirteen songs – five by Arthur Lee & Love, five Led Zeppelin songs and three others, including a duet with Ian Hunter. At the show, Plant told the audience of his great admiration for Arthur Lee dating back to the mid-’60s. Lee died of his illness six weeks after the concert.
An expansive box set of his solo work, Nine Lives, was released in November 2006, which expanded all of his albums with various b-sides, demos, and live cuts. It was accompanied by a DVD. All his solo works were re-released with these extra tracks individually.
In 2007, Plant contributed two tracks to the Fats Domino tribute album Goin’ Home: A Tribute to Fats Domino.
From 2007–2008, Plant recorded and performed with bluegrass star Alison Krauss. A duet album, Raising Sand, was released on 23 October 2007 on Rounder Records. The album, recorded in Nashville and Los Angeles and produced by T-Bone Burnett, includes performances of lesser-known material from R&B, blues, folk and country songwriters including Mel Tillis, Townes Van Zandt, Gene Clark, Tom Waits, Doc Watson, Little Milton and the Everly Brothers. The song “Gone Gone Gone (Done Moved On)” won a Grammy for Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals in 2008. Raising Sand also won Album of the Year at the 51st Grammy Awards. The album has been successful critically and commercially, and was certified platinum on 4 March 2008.
In July 2010, Robert Plant embarked on a twelve-date summer tour in the United States with a new group called Band of Joy (reprising the name of his very first band in the 1960s). After a unique show in the United States on 12 September 2010 at the Bowery Ballroom in New York City, another eleven-date autumn tour in Europe was announced to last from October to November 2010.
A new studio album called Band of Joy was released on 13 September 2010 on the Rounder Records label. The album was nominated for Best Americana Album in the 2011 Grammy Awards, and Plant’s performance of “Silver Rider” on the album (a cover from the Low album The Great Destroyer) was nominated for Best Solo Rock Vocal Performance. The band played their final scheduled show together at the Big Chill Festival at Eastnor Castle Deer Park in Herefordshire on 7 August 2011. The show ended with Plant bidding his bandmates “a fond farewell.”
In 2012, Plant formed another new band, The Sensational Space Shifters, and in July of that year they released a download live album called Sensational Space Shifters. This album featured a mix of Strange Sensation and Led Zeppelin reinterpretations as well as covers. On 23 June 2014, Robert Plant announced the release of his tenth solo album, Lullaby and… and the first studio album with the Sensational Space Shifters, The Ceaseless Roar.
The unstoppable Robert Plant is still touring, recording, sounding great, and looking incredible. He may have set the template for what a rock-god is supposed to be in the 1960’s, but he continues to epitomize that ideal with style, dignity, and an indelible spirit to this day.