Robert Plant was the shrieking, swaggering golden god at the center of Led Zeppelin's titanic hard-rock sound. An archetypal frontman with razor-sharp phrasing and world-class pipes, he also co-wrote many of Zeppelin's greatest songs, including "Stairway to Heaven" and "Good Time Bad Times." Plant's post-Zep career hasn't always been filled with commercial success. But artistically he's held his own, making interesting choices in repertoire and coming up with several cool collaborations, and his work with country singer Allison Krauss made 2007's Raising Sand an out-of-the-blue smash.
Born in 1948, as a child Plant would hide behind the curtains of his living room and sing Elvis Presley songs. It was in high school that he fell for American blues singers such Willie Dixon and Robert Johnson. He started singing with local blues groups in the Midlands section of Britain and met up with drummer John Bonham. When ex-Yardbirds guitarist Jimmy Page was putting together a new band, he was rebuffed by singer Terry Reid. Plant was there to step in, and he brought Bonham with him. Bassist John Paul Jones rounded out the band, deemed Led Zeppelin. In short, they basically lorded over the hard rock world from 1969 to 1980.
After Zep's demise (due to Bonham's death in 1980), Plant produced a series of progressive albums that have been critical and commercial successes. In the 1980s and 1990s, he has been more interested in hip-hop, punk and world music than the heavy metal or classic rock of Zeppelin imitators. He just didn't want to look back.
But when he did look back, he went all the way. One of his first post-Zep musical adventures was a series of jam sessions that featured swing and rockabilly with a bunch of pals who worked under the name the Honeydrippers. Plant has a knack for bringing the 1950s rock & roll dialect to life, and although it took until 1984 for the band to release an EP, the band brought the pleasure of that sound to foreground. "Sea of Love" was a ballad that reached Number 3 on the charts. The old school approach was a far cry from his more formal work of the era; his first two solo discs Pictures at 11 (Number 5, 1982) and The Principle of Moments (Number 8, 1983) were modern in their attack. With lithe guitars and a huge drum sound, they spun away from the Zep vernacular without entirely refuting it. Indeed, the Zep sound has never been too far away from the singer. The old crew (Page, Plant, and Zep bassist John Paul Jones) made an appearance together at 1985's Live Aid benefit show.
Synths met grooves on that year's Shaken 'n' Stirred (Number 20), which found Little Feat's funky drummer Richie Hayward assisting. Plant's material was moving away from the mainstream, but the trajectory was intriguing. Another collaboration, one that would remain strong for years, was with keyboardist Phil Johnstone. Together they constructed the bulk of Now and Zen (Number 6, 1988) featuring the impressive "Tall Cool One," a track that boasted a guitar solo from Page and samples of Zep songs. It was later used in a Coca-Cola commercial. Manic Nirvana (Number 13, 1990) was similar in feel to its predecessor.
It was on Fate Of Nations (1993) that Plant returned to some of the more folksy and cosmic music that had always been the mellow side of Zep's thunder. He spoke of being inspired by the rediscovery of 1960s West Coast groups, such as Moby Grape (in 1998 Plant worked with the Flaming Lips on a track for a tribute disc to the Grape's Skip Spence). Celtic singer Maire Brennan and guitarist Richard Thompson were noted guests. Tim Hardin's folkie jewel "If I Were a Carpenter" was the lead track.
In 1994 Page and Plant put their intermittent differences aside to record No Quarter in Wales, Morocco, and London, where Unledded, the MTV Unplugged special, was taped. With a mix of Zep classics ("The Battle of Evermore") and new songs, the album featured musicians from Marrakech, India, and Egypt. 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" recalled Zep's hypnotic "Kashmir," but the album (its title an allusion to the cradle of the Delta blues) was more wistful than fierce.
In the same way that he sounded utterly convincing singing the ancient blues tunes on the first Zep disc, Plant was remarkably at home in the cover songs of his next disc, Dreamland. Forward-thinking, his spins on tunes by the Youngbloods, Tim Buckley, and Bob Dylan were powerful and evocative. It's follow-up, 2005's Mighty Rearranger was a cosmopolitan affair, flecked with drama, spirituality and an array of beats and textures that stretched from New Orleans to North Africa. Plant was in an ambitious mood, and he pulled it off nicely.
Led Zeppelin reunited on December 10th, 2007, at a London concert in honor of Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegün. With Jason Bonham on drums, the band performed 16 songs. The performance sparked speculation that more reunion shows—and possibly even a worldwide tour—might be in the works, but Plant's support of his successful Alison Krauss collaboration Raising Sand may have gotten in the way; Jones and Page did get together with drummer Taylor Hawkins and the Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl, however, to perform a few Zeppelin songs live in London in 2008. Persistent subsequent rumors suggested that Jones, Page, and Jason Bonham might be on the verge of recording with a new singer, but no such group ever materialized.
Raising Sand (Number 2, 2007), meanwhile, turned out to be a major album for Plant. A program of folk, twang, and R&B produced by T-Bone Burnett, it made a case for Plant and Krauss as expert interpreters of American vernacular music. They spent a good chunk of 2008 touring the material around the world, and at the 2009 Grammy Awards, Raising Sand grabbed its fair share of nods, including Album of the Year, Record of the Year, Pop Collaboration with Vocals, Country Collaboration with Vocals, and Contemporary Folk/Americana Album. Its success gave Plant the most mainstream visibility he's had in ages, including an interview with Charlie Rose, and the album went platinum.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Jim Macnie contributed to this story.
To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here
MUSIC 9 Classic Devo Videos
OLYMPICS 18 Epic Opening Ceremonies