IN APRIL OF 1970, FRESH OFF THE triumph of their first two albums, Led Zeppelin were touring North America for an astounding fifth time in two years. The quartet was determined to become the biggest band in the world, and there was every indication that they were well on their way. Their live shows had become the stuff of legend, breaking attendance records, and on this particular one-month jaunt, they would gross a total of more than $1,200,000— roughly $8 million in today’s money.
But their experience on tour was not without its glitches. And a major one was the U.S. South and its still ultra-conservative mores.
“It was my dream to play Memphis,” Jimmy Page told Guitar World back in 2008. “I grew up loving the music that came out of [there] and Nashville. But it turned out to be really depressing. We arrived in Memphis and were given the keys to the city [because] the mayor was astonished at how quickly ‘this Led Zeppelin fellow’ had sold out the local arena. It occurred to him, whoever this ‘guy’ was, he must be important.
“We got the keys in the afternoon, but I guess they didn’t like the looks of us. Shortly after, we were threatened and had to get the hell out of town as soon as we were done with the show. I was really mad because there were all these places I wanted to go — Sun Studios, where Elvis Presley had recorded, and so on. They didn’t like the long hair at all, man. It was seriously redneck back then.”
“Then we played Nashville the following night. We were in the dressing room, getting ready to go out and do an encore, and this guy walked in and he said to us — ‘If you guys go back out there, I’m gonna bust your heads.’ And he wasn’t kidding. We were part of a subculture [they] didn’t want the kids to know about — hippies with long hair.”
But Page and the band’s unnerving adventures in the South were a mere bump in the road compared to what happened a couple of weeks later, far to the north. Toward the end of the group’s month-long American trek, they traveled from Minneapolis to Montreal, Canada. Crossing the border was often a hassle for rock and roll groups, as Canadian customs officials often spent extra time going through their equipment, searching for contraband.
To avoid the bother, Led Zeppelin often chose venues close to the border so their Canadian fans could see them in the States. But this time they decided to bite the bullet and fly to Montreal. Everything went surprisingly well until Page noticed that something was missing: his prized black 1960 Gibson Les Paul Custom — a deeply personal favorite he had used since his early days as a top British session musician.
“We went over the border, but my ‘Black Beauty’ didn’t turn up at the other end,” Page recalls in his new book, Jimmy Page: The Anthology. “There were so many points in the journey where it could’ve gone missing — at the original airport, at customs, at the airport in Canada — but all I knew was that it wasn’t there, and in those days, nobody could trace it. We played the concert in Montreal and there was still no news on the guitar. It had evaporated.”
After he was certain it had been stolen, Page did the only thing he could think of, which was to take out a “missing guitar” advertisement in Rolling Stone that ran in every issue for the next year. Unfortunately, the only response he received was silence, and thus began one of music history’s biggest mystery stories — a perplexing whodunnit that most thought would never be solved.
IN THE BEGINNING
TO APPRECIATE THE guitar’s significance to Page, we have to travel back to England in the late Fifties. During that time, Page played in several exciting London rock and blues bands, like Red E. Lewis and the Redcaps and Neil Christian and the Crusaders, while experimenting with different guitars and sounds.
After cutting his teeth on two serviceable instruments, a 1958 Hofner President and a Czechoslovakian-made 1959 Grazioso Futurama, Page moved on to a pro-level sunburst Fender Stratocaster. The Strat was a fine guitar, but the young Page wasn’t quite ready to settle down with one instrument.
Enamored with the fingerpicking style of country superstar Chet Atkins and rockabilly guitarist Cliff Gallup’s use of the Bigsby tremolo, Page acquired a 1960 Gretsch Chet Atkins 6120 model featuring a beautiful and highly figured, flamed maple top and a Bigsby.
“I was keen to be able to play [like Atkins],” Page said. “And Paul Bigsby was an extraordinary innovator, and there’s a totally different mechanism on his tremolo arm compared to the one on a Stratocaster. The combination… was enough for me to go up to London, play [a Gretsch 6120] in the shop and trade in the Fender Stratocaster.” It seemed like Page had found his ideal guitar, but several months later he was walking down Charing Cross Road in London and decided to stop by Lew Davis, a small music shop that doubled as an informal gathering spot for local musicians. There he saw something that literally stopped him in his tracks, made his palms sweat and his heart beat a little faster.
“There was this guitar hanging on the wall looking so bloody sexy,” Page said of the new (1960) tuxedo-black, three-pickup Les Paul Custom with flashy gold hardware and a Bigsby tremolo. “It was saying, ‘Come on then. Come on, stop looking and ask them if you can play me.’ I played it unplugged for quite a while. Then when I plugged it in it was like a dream, and I knew this was it. It sounded extraordinary. I knew it was coming home with me.”
Page wasn’t sure how he was going to pay for the deluxe instrument, but something came up that eliminated those money worries enough so that he could have his dream guitar. While playing at the Marquee, a small club in the heart of the music industry in London’s West End, he was headhunted to work as a session guitarist for the Columbia Graphophone Company and Decca Records.
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