Even golden gods get old. Robert Plant, former lead singer of the group that Rolling Stone called “the heaviest band of all time”, was barely out of his teens when he first got together with guitarist Jimmy Page, bassist John Paul Jones and drummer John Bonham to form Led Zeppelin. He turns 70 today.
While he will, of course, be indelibly associated with the behemothic London four-piece, fans often forget about the band that landed him his biggest hit in the US: The Honeydrippers.
Plant changed music forever with Led Zeppelin, their iconic albums inspiring a generation of teenagers to pick up a guitar and blast out power chords. Plant was the band’s lyricist, writing classics such as “Stairway to Heaven,” “Immigrant Song” and “Kashmir.” From 1968 to 1980, Led Zeppelin released nine studio albums and acquired the status of “the biggest band in the world”.
However, after the death of their drummer Bonham in 1980, the remaining trio were left in a state of flux. First, rumours swelled that Plant may collaborate with XYZ – a short-lived supergroup composed of Page and former members of the progressive rock band Yes. But the singer had other ideas.
While late Zeppelin’s stadium fillers had become more experimental, Plant wanted to return to the blues and R&B sounds that dominated the Fifties and Sixties; songs that acted as a comfort food for a man reeling from the death of a close friend.
Plant decided to hang around the Midlands’ blues clubs, trying to meet others with similar sonic ambitions. Amidst them were blues guitarists Andy Silvester (of the band Chicken Shack) and Robbie Blunt (of Bronco and Silverhead). After inviting them to jam back at Plant’s home, the three-piece were soon joined by bassist Jim Hickman, saxophonist Keith Evans, drummer Kevin O’Neill, and harmonica player Ricky Cool. Together, they became the first edition of The Honeydrippers.
Taking their name from Roosevelt Sykes (a blues musician nicknamed The Honeydripper), the newly formed group decided to head out on tour in 1981 with a catalogue of covers, including Muddy Waters’s “I Can’t Be Satisfied”, Elvis Presley’s “Little Sister” and the swing standard “Deep in the Heart of Texas”. Ignoring London, they played small venues unannounced around Northern England. It was a startling contrast to Zeppelin; gone were 10-minute guitar solos, replaced by fast-paced rockabilly. Even Plant’s hair had been somewhat kempt.
Following the shows, the group were put on the backburner as Plant decided to pursue a solo career. His debut album, 1982’s Pictures of Eleven, would take cues from rock again, appeasing fans desperate to hear Plant’s voice on record once more.
“I just made up my mind one day that I couldn’t sing Eddie Cochran songs forever,” he told LA Times in 1985. “It was time for me to go back and start writing again. I had a lot of feelings and emotions I had to release somehow. Writing music is the way I release all that.”
Yet The Honeydrippers were not forgotten.
Ahmet Ertegun, the co-founder and President of Atlantic records, had wanted to put together a covers album of his favourite blues tracks from the Fifties for a while. Having seen the original Honeydrippers tour, Ertegun thought the former Zeppeliner would be ideal for the project.
Plant happily obliged. But, rather than record with the same touring line-up, an all-star collective of musicians and friends were brought to the studio. Most notably, they included former Zeppelin member Jimmy Page, guitarist Jeff Beck, and Chic frontman Nile Rodgers. Together, the assortment of musicians recorded five blues covers, including “I Got A Woman”, “Rockin’ At Midnight”, and “Young Boy Blues.”
Titled The Honeydrippers: Vol 1, the record spawned a hit single, a seriously syrupy cover of Phil Phillips’ “Sea of Love”, which peaked at number three in the US music charts and quickly became Plant’s highest charting single in the US to date – Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” previously held that title after reaching number four on the billboard charts. Plant was shocked by the success, having initially wanted to release ”Rockin’ at Midnight” as the A-side (the song managed to reach 25 on the US charts) and feared the song would lead non-Zeppelin fans to think of him as a crooner.
Still, Plant persevered, taking The Honeydrippers on tour again with another new line-up, the group performing on Saturday Night Live in late 1984. “We were just having fun, we weren’t thinking about tours or commercial success or anything like that,” Plant later said.
Heading to the UK for more shows – a live recording from Birmingham was included on the 2007 re-release of Vol. 1 – Plant eventually decided to focus on his third solo record, Shaken ’N’ Stirred.
Since then, there has been one occasion when The Honeydrippers returned. Back in 2006, Plant played a Town Hall in Worcestershire to raise money for a friend, Jackie Jennings, who was having treatment for a brain tumour in Boston. The gig was a success, fans asking whether another Honeydrippers record would come, something that will likely never materialise following the death of Ertegun.
“I would only do it because I wanted the whole rapport with him and his history,” Plant told Billboard, revealing that he had been thinking of doing a cover of “Stay Alive” by the Clovers, so that Ertegun could tell him some more stories about singer Bobby Darin. “That’s what would have made it worthwhile.“
Fans then will have to be content with The Honeydrippers: Volume One, perhaps the most fascinating side project of the newest septuagenarian in rock.
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