Jimmy Page is best known as the fire-slinging riffmaster who helped Led Zeppelin to hard-rock dominance in the 1970s. His work with Zeppelin made him one of rock's most important and influential guitar players, writers, and producers; in 2003, Rolling Stone listed Page as number nine on its list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time. Since Zep's demise, Page has alternated between solo projects and collaborations with other superstars. Largely uninterested in new trends and technology, Page's later work has been as bound to classic rock as his legendary band was.
Page grew up in working class West London and took up the guitar at age 13, learning to play mostly by teaching himself. A fan of bluesmen like B.B. King and Buddy Guy, Page played well enough to be hired as a session musician in the mid-Sixties, appearing on tracks by the Who, the Kinks and many others. When Eric Clapton quit the Yardbirds in 1965, Page replaced him. He joined the band on several singles, including "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago" and "The Nazz Are Blue", and, along with his bandmates, had a cameo in the classic Michaelangelo Antioni film Blow-Up.
When the Yardbirds fell apart in the summer of 1968, Page was left with rights to the group's name and a string of concert obligations. He enlisted John Paul Jones, who had done session work with the Rolling Stones, Herman's Hermits, Lulu, Dusty Springfield, and Shirley Bassey. Page and Jones had first met, jammed together, and discussed forming a group when both were hired to back Donovan on his Hurdy Gurdy Man LP. Page had hoped to complete the group with drummer B.J. Wilson of Procol Harum and singer Terry Reid. Neither was available, but Reid recommended Robert Plant, who in turn suggested Bonham, drummer for his old Birmingham group, Band of Joy. The four first played together as the session group behind P.J. Proby on his Three Week Hero. In October 1968 they embarked on a tour of Scandinavia under the name the New Yardbirds. Upon their return to England they recorded their debut album in 30 hours.
Adopting the name Led Zeppelin (allegedly coined by Keith Moon), they toured the U.S. in early 1969, opening for Vanilla Fudge. Their first album was released in February; within two months it had reached Billboard's Top 10. Led Zeppelin II reached Number One two months after its release, and since then every album of new material has gone platinum; five of the group's LPs have reached Number One. After touring almost incessantly during its first two years together, Zeppelin began limiting its appearances to alternating years. The band's 1973 U.S. tour broke box-office records throughout the country (many of which had been set by the Beatles), and by 1975 its immense ticket and album sales had made Led Zeppelin the most popular rock & roll group in the world. In 1974 the quartet established its own label, Swan Song. The label's first release was Physical Graffiti (Number One, 1975), the band's first double-album set, which sold 4 million copies.
On August 4, 1975, Plant and his family were seriously injured in a car crash while vacationing on the Greek island of Rhodes. As a result, the group toured even less frequently. That and speculation among fans that supernatural forces may have come into play also heightened the Zeppelin mystique. (Plant believed in psychic phenomena, and Page, whose interest in the occult was well known, once resided in Boleskine House, the former home of infamous satanist Aleister Crowley.)
In 1976 Led Zeppelin released Presence, a four-million seller. The group had just embarked on its U.S. tour when Plant's six-year-old son, Karac, died suddenly of a viral infection. The remainder of the tour was canceled, and the group took off the next year and a half. In late 1978 Plant, Page, Jones, and Bonham began work on In Through the Out Door, their last group effort. They had completed a brief European tour and were beginning to rehearse for a U.S. tour when, on September 25, 1980, Bonham died at Page's home of what was described as asphyxiation; he had inhaled his own vomit after having consumed alcohol and fallen asleep.
On December 4, 1980, Page, Plant, and Jones released a cryptic statement to the effect that they could no longer continue as they were. Soon thereafter it was rumored that Plant and Page were going to form a band called XYZ (ex-Yes and Zeppelin) with Alan White and Chris Squire of Yes; the group never materialized. In 1982 Zeppelin released Coda (Number Six, 1982), a collection of early recordings and outtakes.
After Zeppelin drummer John Bonham's death, Page didn't touch a guitar for nine months. His first collaborative project after that, with Yes' Chris Squire and Alan White, never made it out to the studio. His soundtrack for the film Death Wish II is a predominately instrumental album that, at times, finds him playing fitfully with synthesizers. A 1983-84 ARMS (Action for Research into Multiple Sclerosis) benefit tour brought Page to the concert stage for the first time since 1980. He also contributed to former band mate Robert Plant's first solo album, Pictures at 11, in 1982.
Two years later Page, founded the Firm with former Free and Bad Company vocalist Paul Rodgers. Page once referred to the band as a vehicle to show people he wasn't the drug user oft rumored. In the fall of 1984, however, he was arrested for possession of cocaine, his second offense, and his personal life continued to remain shrouded in mystery, colored by rumors of an interest in the occult and a period of heroin addiction.
The Firm released two albums and toured once, to lukewarm critical and mixed fan response. Then, because he wanted to "avoid routine," Page released his first non-soundtrack studio album, Outrider (#26, 1988), which featured vocals by John Miles, Chris Farlowe, and Plant. Outrider earned Page a Grammy nomination for best rock instrumental and sent him on his first solo tour. For his next album, Page paired up with former Deep Purple and Whitesnake vocalist David Coverdale, whose similarities to Rodgers and Plant have provoked the ex-Zep singer to call him "David Coverversion." The Page-Coverdale collaboration is a solid if somewhat generic contribution to the hard rock Page pioneered (the album peaked at Number Five in 1993).
Page and Plant put their differences aside in 1994 when they reunited to record a new album, No Quarter, in Wales, Morocco, and London, where Unledded, the MTV Unplugged special, was taped. A mix of Led Zep and new songs, the album featured musicians from Marrakech, India, and Egypt. It reached Number Four on the U.S. album chart and went platinum. Page and Plant embarked on a 1995 tour to promote the album.
In 1998 Page and Plant released Walking Into Clarksdale, the first album of new material they had recorded together in two decades. "Most High," a single, recalled Zep's hypnotic "Kashmir," but the album (its title an allusion to the cradle of the Delta blues) was more wistful than bombastic. It reached Number Eight on the U.S. charts and went gold. Page was also featured on Sean Combs' "Come With Me," a song from the movie Godzilla that set rap lyrics to the melody from "Kashmir." In 1999, Page toured with the Black Crowes, performing a mix of Zep and Crowes material, as well as old blues covers. Live at the Greek, a tour document, came out in 2000.
In December, 2007, Led Zeppelin reunited for a one-off charity concert in London—with Jason Bonham filling in on drums for his departed dad, John—fueling speculation that the quartet might get together for a full tour and album. Instead, Page appeared in It Might Get Loud, a documentary about electric guitars that also featured Jack White and The Edge. In early 2010, Page announced that he would release a limited-edition autobiography.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Evan Serpick contributed to this story.