John Paul Jones will forever be remembered as the musical Swiss Army knife who helped propel Led Zeppelin to some of the greatest heights that any rock band has ever reached. From the iconic bass line on “Dazed and Confused,” the spine-tingling organ solo on “No Quarter” and the iconic recorder intro to “Stairway to Heaven,” his contributions to the band’s sound were as critical as they were varied. Not such a bad way to be remembered, but Jones has always been a more multi-faceted figure than even his time in Led Zeppelin would suggest.
Beginning early on as a teenager in the 1960s, Jones has quietly led one of the more fascinating and surprising careers in popular music history. As a musician, arranger and a producer, he’s worked in a shockingly wide range of genres and with a surprisingly odd and brilliant assortment of artists. Here are 20 things you may not have known that Led Zeppelin’s secret weapon did.
Released a 1964 solo single, “Baja,” written by Lee Hazlewood and produced by Andrew Loog Oldham.
One of the major trends among popular artists in England in the early 1960s was to change one’s name to something a little bit more eye-grabbing. Thus, Richard Starkey became Ringo Starr and Alan Caldwell became Rory Storm. In 1964, John Baldwin entered the studio with Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham to cut his first single, “Baja,” a song penned by country/pop singer Lee Hazlewood. The song itself is a pretty nondescript instrumental propelled by woody-sounding guitar, but the session’s implications were enormous. Going to market, Oldham was convinced his young charge’s birth name just wasn’t going to cut it, and thus rechristened him John Paul Jones. As Jones remembered, Oldham got the name from a “movie poster for John Paul Jones the American.” The rest is history.
Played in an R&B band named Herbie Goins and the Nightimers with future Mahavishnu Orchestra leader John McLaughlin in the early Sixties.
As influential as the early British blues scene turned out to be — with bands like the Yardbirds, the Rolling Stones and the Animals all breaking out of it — in London in the 1960s, that community was actually quite small. Lots of future stars frequently jammed together at scene maker Alexis Korner’s residency at the Marquee Club downtown and formed upstart bands that typically folded within months of their inception. One such group was an outfit called Herbie Goins, named after the Florida-born blues singer of the same name, which featured Jones on bass and John McLaughlin on guitar. As McLaughlin later recalled, “John Paul Jones and I were very good friends. … I gave [him] harmony lessons, believe it or not.”
Nearly joined up with the Shadows as a full-time member at age 16 in 1963.
Before the Beatles exploded onto the scene in England in 1964, the hottest pop group around was the all-instrumental outfit the Shadows. Originally started as the backing band for the singer Cliff Richards, the group broke out in 1960 with its Number One single “Apache.” Two years later, bassist Jet Harris and Tony Meehan struck out on their own and recorded another Number One record titled “Diamonds” with Jones’ future Led Zeppelin bandmate Jimmy Page on guitar. Looking to capitalize on that success, Meehan and Harris took Jones out on the road for a short tour and almost tendered an offer for him to join up with the Shadows a year later, but went with another bass player named John Rostill instead.
Was a frequent collaborator with Donovan and played on the songs “Hurdy Gurdy Man,” “Sunshine Superman” and “Mellow Yellow.”
Beginning in 1963, Jones established a reputation among many of the producers and engineers at the major studios that dotted London as one of the most reliable, creative bass players and arrangers on the scene. Though he performed on countless sessions in his pre-Zeppelin years, his work with the singer-songwriter Donovan might be the most indelible. Not only did Jones play bass on the singer’s biggest hits, including “Hurdy Gurdy Man” and “Sunshine Superman,” he actually saved the latter number from the scrap heap.
“The first Donovan session was a shambles — it was awful,” he recalled. “It was ‘Sunshine Superman’ and the arranger had got it all wrong so I thought, being the opportunist that I was, ‘I can do better than that’ and actually went up to the producer.” Jones managed to rework the track and was eventually hired by the producer Mickie Most to work on many of his future sessions, including those with Nico, Tom Jones and Wayne Fontana.
Arranged music for Jimmy Page’s lone solo Yardbirds studio album, Little Games, in 1967.
Jimmy Page quit the full-time session life once and for all in the summer of 1966 to join up with his childhood friend Jeff Beck as the second guitarist in the Yardbirds. The duo only recorded a handful of tracks together before Beck jumped ship, leaving Page the sole remaining guitarist in the band. When it came time for the group to work on their next Beck-less album, Little Games, producer Mickie Most called in his ace in the hole John Paul Jones to lay down a bit of bass and put together some cello arrangements. Jones contributions weren’t small either: He performed on the tracks “Ten Little Indians,” “No Excess Baggage” and “Goodnight Sweet Josephine” in place of the Yardbirds’ nominal bassist Chris Dreja, who switched over from rhythm guitar when Page originally joined up.
Recorded with Jeff Beck multiple times, including on the session for “Beck’s Bolero,” which birthed the name and concept for Led Zeppelin.
While still an official member of the Yardbirds, Jeff Beck decided to test the waters of a solo career and entered IBC Studios in London on May 16th, 1966, to cut his first single. His friend and bandmate Jimmy Page served as the producer that day — though Mickie Most ended up with the credit — while also playing 12-string backing guitar. For the rhythm section, Page enlisted the best in the business: Keith Moon of the Who on drums and John Paul Jones on bass. The resulting song, “Beck’s Bolero,” is one of the most exhilarating instrumentals in rock history, but as good as the song was, the very existence of the session proved to have far larger implications than anyone could have realized. At some point while in the studio, someone suggested that the players assembled should form a band. Moon was said to have quipped, “That would go over like a lead balloon,” an offhand comment sparked the genesis of Led Zeppelin.
Created the string arrangement for the Rolling Stones’ “She’s a Rainbow.”
There aren’t too many bright spots on the Stones’ 1967 foray into psychedelia, Their Satanic Majesties Request, but “She’s a Rainbow” is unquestionably the brightest — thanks in large part to John Paul Jones. Written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, the track is one of the most adventurous and touching in the entire Stones catalog, highlighted by a tender solo piano section from frequent collaborator Nicky Hopkins. Jones was brought in by Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham to arrange the avant-garde string section that acts as the song’s coda.
Worked with Cat Stevens on his debut album, Matthew and Son, in 1967.
In 1966, Cat Stevens was just another folkie trying to make a name for himself around the club and coffeehouse scene in London. Then one day he met manager/producer Mike Hurst and impressed him enough with his songwriting that Hurst signed him up as his next client. Stevens entered the recording studio to work on his first album, Matthew and Son, in July 1967, and John Paul Jones was brought in by Hurst to play bass on all of the record’s 14 tracks.
Worked with Dusty Springfield on Dusty … Definitely in 1968.
Just before she took off to work with Jerry Wexler and Atlantic Records in the United States to create her breakthrough album, Dusty in Memphis, in the fall of 1968, the British soul singer still had one album left on her original contract with Philips. When it came time to record Dusty … Definitely, Jones was brought in by producer Johnny Franz to lay down some bass and conduct the orchestra. This ended up being a more fortuitous assignment for Jones than he could have realized: When it came time for Led Zeppelin to sign with Atlantic Records later that year, Springfield made sure to put in a good word in to Wexler on Jones’ behalf, paving the way for one of the most lucrative signings in rock history up to that point.
Created the signature riff to “Black Dog.”
Jimmy Page is widely renowned as one of the greatest riff-smiths in rock history, a fact that often overshadows some of the more impressive musical contributions of his Zeppelin bandmates. Case in point: It was Jones, not Page, who came up with the unique 5/4 riff for one of Led Zeppelin’s most recognizable songs, “Black Dog.” As Jones told Cameron Crowe in the liner notes to the Led Zeppelin box set Light and Shade, “I wanted to try an electric blues with a rolling bass part. But it couldn’t be too simple. I wanted it to turn back on itself. I showed it to the guys, and we fell into it. We struggled with the turn-around, until [John] Bonham figured out that you just four-time as if there’s no turn-around. That was the secret.”
Considered quitting Led Zeppelin in 1973.
By 1973, after recording five albums and touring almost nonstop, Jones was apparently fed up with life in Led Zeppelin and wanted out. According to band lore, he was thinking about leaving the band to take up a position as the choirmaster of Winchester Cathedral, a claim that he has repeatedly rebuked. “It was a joke,” he explained. “Somebody said, ‘Do you like being on the road?’ I said, ‘No … I saw this advert for a job for the organist out by the cathedral, I’m gonna bide for that. I’m gonna take that. I’m gonna apply for that.’ It was one of those things.” Ultimately, Jones opted to stay in the band and stuck it out for another seven years until the untimely death of John Bonham brought the whole enterprise crashing down.
Played bass on Paul McCartney’s 1984 album, Give My Regards to Broad Street.
Following the demise of Led Zeppelin, while Robert Plant launched a successful solo career and Jimmy Page hooked up with Paul Rodgers to form the supergroup the Firm, Jones essentially picked up right where he left off before he joined the band, working the session scene. One of his first high-profile jobs of the 1980s was his work with Paul McCartney on the soundtrack to the former Beatle’s film Give My Regards to Broad Street. While the film flopped, the album did quite well, taking the Number One spot on the British charts. Lead single “No More Lonely Nights” earned both a Golden Globe and a BAFTA nomination.
Contributed a track to Brian Eno’s 1988 ambient record, Music for Films III.
In 1988, electronic music pioneer Brian Eno was plotting the third installment of his ambient music series Music for Films when he decided to bring in Jones to work with him on the track that ended up being named “4-Minute Warning.” While the album isn’t one of Eno’s greatest works — it’s a bit of a stylistic mishmash — it’s hard to argue against the brilliance of that song in particular. Credited solely to Jones, it’s a musically adventurous passage of music that sounds as disturbing as it does alluring, building to an almost unholy crescendo. It’s another marker of Jones being perhaps the most “out there” of his Zeppelin cohorts.
Produced the Butthole Surfers’ 1993 album, Independent Worm Saloon.
Of all the bands in the world that you’d imagine a former Seventies-rock giant collaborating with, the Butthole Surfers would probably be very low on the list. Nevertheless, when it came time for the freaky Texas rockers to record their sixth record and first with a major label, Independent Worm Saloon, they reached out Jones, who surprisingly agreed. As Butthole Surfers frontman Gibby Haynes remembered of those sessions, “We spent so much money on that record! We basically spent a fortune to hang out with some guy from Led Zeppelin!”
Worked on the orchestral arrangements for R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People.
If Automatic for the People isn’t R.E.M.’s best record, then at the very least it’s their most popular, with more than 18 million copies sold. While the Georgia alt-rockers were clearly hitting their stride by this point and writing some of their best material in years, it was a stroke of genius to bring in Jones to help put together some of the orchestral arrangements on the album. As Jones recalled, “They sent me the demos of their songs, and we went into a studio in Atlanta, with members of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. They were great songs, something you can really get your teeth into as an arranger. And I’ve been good friends with them ever since.”
Recorded an album with outré singer Diamada Galàs in 1994.
During the Nineties, while his former Led Zeppelin bandmates Jimmy Page and Robert Plant were reuniting for an MTV Unplugged album, Jones was off taking yet another creative left turn, linking up with avant-garde singer-composer Diamanda Galàs to create the album The Sporting Life. “We met once in London for an evening and talked about music and our backgrounds and what we liked,” Jones said. “Diamanda went back on tour and then to New York, and I went back home and started thinking about this. And I put down some riffs with a drum machine and sent them to Diamanda, who by that time was working at a studio, SIR, with a Hammond organ. … We got together for the recording period, just the two of us for two weeks and put it all down.”
Signed with King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp’s DGM label in 1999 and released two solo albums.
After waiting for a number of years to see if Page or Plant might call him up and ask him whether he would like to join them out on the road, Jones decided to move on and try his hand as a solo artist. When it came time to find a label, however, the options appeared limited, so he reached out to King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp, who had just started his own company: Discipline Global Mobile or DGM. “Robert and I shared managers at one point,” Jones recalled. “I asked what Robert was doing. He said that Robert had this record company and it had this great ethic, you know, where the artist had total artistic control … and they retained ownership of their music, which is pretty rare in the music industry, and there were no contracts, which is also nice. I just liked the whole idea — it’s very artist friendly, not artist-hostile or even artist-dangerous, like some places!” Ultimately, Jones put out two albums under the Discipline umbrella, Zooma in 1999 and The Thunderchief in 2002. The former actually featured Jones’ boss Fripp playing guitar on the song “Leafy Meadows.”
Played on two tracks on the Foo Fighters’ 2005 album, In Your Honor.
Dave Grohl is a vocal Led Zeppelin fan — the first tattoo he ever got was of John Bonham’s interconnected-circles symbol that appears on the band’s fourth album — so when it came time to record the Foo Fighters’ 2005 album, In Your Honor, the singer/drummer/guitarist threw up a Hail Mary and put in a phone call to Jones to see if he’d be interested in coming into the studio to add a bit of instrumentation. Ever the game collaborator, Jones agreed and played mandolin on the song “Another Round” and piano on “Miracle.” Jones would collaborate with Grohl once again four years later along with Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme in the supergroup Them Crooked Vultures.
Composed a dance piece with Sonic Youth.
In 2009, Jones linked up with Sonic Youth for a one-of-a-kind performance with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in Brooklyn. The happening was avant-garde to the extreme, with Jones joining the band’s guitarists Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore, and swapping frantically between bass and keyboard passages. As the hour-long performance progressed, Jones kept his foot pressed almost constantly on a pedal that controlled the pitch, tone and volume of his bass sound. Needless to say, the entire endeavor was one of the more intense performances of his long and storied career.
Is currently busy writing an opera.
Not one to rest on his laurels, Jones has apparently spent the past few years working on a completely original opera production. As he stated in 2014, “It’s unlike anything else. It’s the emotion, the passion.” Apparently, Jones opera is based partly on August Strindberg’s The Ghost Sonata, and at the time he gave that interview, he was about halfway through the work’s first act. While Jones hasn’t given many updates on the project since that point, it’s safe to assume, given his track record, that if he ever does complete the piece, it won’t meet anyone’s expectations of what a traditional opera sounds like.