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Happy Birthday Bonzo

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Today would have been John Bonham’s birthday. Here, a look at his life, how his son is keeping the family name alive and how drummers around the industry are celebrating what would have been his 64th birthday.

John Bonham learned to play the drums at the age of five making his first kit out of coffee cans. At the age of ten his mother gave him a real snare drum and he got his first honest-to-goodness Ludwig drum kit when he was 14. Believe it or not, John never had any formal lessons and just learned how to play by asking other drummers for tips and advice and at the age of 18, he joined a band called Crawling King Snakes fronted by a young Robert Plant. Shortly thereafter, another group called A Way of Life lured Bonham away from Crawling King Snakes, but he did keep in touch with Plant after he left.

Following the breakup of the Yardbirds, Jimmy Page contacted Plant to start a new band and Plant in turn contacted Bonham to play drums for this new group. Jimmy already had a few drummers in mind for the group, but after seeing Bonham perform in London in July of 1968, Peter Grant and Jimmy Page were both convinced that Bonham was the right guy for the job. The project was first known as the New Yardbirds and finally Led Zeppelin.

His two children Zoe and Jason were just five and 14 at the time of their dad’s death and Jason has decided to carry on the family name and has drummed for several bands including UFO, Foreigner and Bonham. He also drummed for Zeppelin at their 2007 reunion at the O2 in London and has his own group called Black Country Communion. Jason put together a group called Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Experience. I was fortunate enough to see them from the sixth row when they stopped in Minneapolis in October 2010 and it was definitely worth the price.

Yes, there is Poor Tom, Moby Dick and Bonzo’s Montreaux, but during part of the show, Jason stopped the music and told the crowd that there was one song that they wanted to perform for us, but just couldn’t get the drum track right, so Jason said they would do the song, but he wouldn’t play. He asked if we would help him by shouting “Bonzo” at the count of three. We obliged, Jason said, “Dad?” The lights went out and When the Levee Breaks began playing. It was one of the most unreal things I have ever heard. Jimmy Page had been working on the riff for this song for quite some time, but said that it was John’s drum track that made all the difference.

Led Zeppelin never performed the song live because there were so many production elements to the vocals and drums and when John passed away in 1980, he was such a huge part of their sound that the band decided not to carry on. A press release was issued on December 4, 1980 that stated, “We wish it to be known that the loss of our dear friend, and the deep sense of undivided harmony felt by ourselves and our manager, have led us to decide that we could not continue as we were.” The release was simply signed, “Led Zeppelin”.

The band did stage a few reunions at Live Aid in 1985, at the Atlantic Records 40th Anniversary in 1988, most notably at the O2 in London as an homage to their Atlantic Records rep, Ahmet Ertegun in 2007. No further reunion plans are in place now, but there’s always hope.

Today, drummers around the music industry are celebrating John’s life and work with Bonzo’s Birthday Bash. Former Guns n’ Roses drummer Matt Sorum and Rikki Rocket from Poison are among some of the big names taking part. Brian Tichy from Whitesnake has organized the tribute which will feature John’s kit taking center stage. Each of the 24 drummers taking part will create their own drum parts for their favorite Led Zeppelin songs. It’s taking place today at the House of Blues in West Hollywood.

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