Weary from touring, Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page retreated in 1970 to a stone cottage in Wales, called Bron-Yr-Aur, with no power or running water. Legend has it King Arthur fought his last battle nearby. Not far off is the mountain Cader Idris where, it’s said, those who spend a night at its summit are fated to die, go mad, or become poets. At Bron-Yr-Aur, by candlelight, Page constructed the bones of what may well be the most popular, and valuable, rock ’n’ roll song of all time, Stairway to Heaven. This included the introductory finger-picked section that launched a million guitar lessons.
Back in England that winter, Page laid out the budding epic for the band at another house, Headley Grange, where the magic continued around a fire fueled on one occasion by a section of stairway banister. As Page plucked, singer Robert Plant seemed to channel another world as he wrote the lyrics. To Page, who has referred to the song as “my baby,” it was Zeppelin’s crowning achievement. “Stairway crystallized the essence of the band,” he told then-teenage rock writer Cameron Crowe in a March 13, 1975, Rolling Stone interview. “It was a milestone for us. Every musician wants to do something of lasting quality, something which will hold up for a long time, and I guess we did it with Stairway.”
For generations of youth, the song is the 8-minute soundtrack of romance—or at least the anticipation of it. Stairway is slow dancing, the last song played at high school proms, sweet-16 parties, and summer camp mixers across a broad swath of the late 20th century.
Stairway’s stature—financially, culturally, and musically—is towering. By 2008, when Conde Nast Portfolio magazine published an estimate that included royalties and record sales, the song had earned at least $562 million. It was so profitable in part because Led Zeppelin refused to release the song as a single, forcing fans to shell out for the entire album, which is untitled but known as Led Zeppelin IV. In the U.S., the album has sold more copies (23 million, according to the Recording Industry Association of America) than any, save Michael Jackson’s Thriller and the Eagles’ Their Greatest Hits (1971-75). To this day, Warner Music Group cites the song in its annual reports as an example of its publishing portfolio.
But what if those opening notes weren’t actually written by Jimmy Page or any member of Led Zeppelin? What if the foundation of the band’s immortality had been lifted from another song by a relatively forgotten California band?
In 1968 a Los Angeles area band called Spirit put out its first album, the self-titled Spirit. Among the songs was an instrumental piece, Taurus, written by the band’s guitarist, Randy California. Born Randy Wolfe, California got his stage name while playing with Jimi Hendrix’s band in New York in 1966. Hendrix took to calling him Randy California to distinguish him from another Randy in the band. California, only 15 at the time, chose to make it stick. Taurus runs just 2 minutes and 37 seconds. About a minute of it is a plucked guitar line that sounds a lot like the opening measures of Stairway to Heaven.
For Led Zeppelin, 1968 was a big year. The band recorded its first album and flew to the U.S. to promote it with a series of shows. The day after Christmas, it played its first concert in America at the Denver Auditorium Arena. Led Zeppelin opened for Spirit.
Mark Andes, Spirit’s founding bassist, says he believes the members of Led Zeppelin heard Taurus that day, beginning a process that would lead to its appropriation for Stairway.
“We did quite a few shows with those guys,” says Andes. “Not to say they might not have heard it from the record.” On May 16, 1969, the bands played a concert together in Detroit at the Grande Ballroom. On July 5, 1969, at the Atlanta Pop Festival, Spirit played right before Zeppelin. The two bands played the closing day of the Seattle Pop Festival on July 27. The weekend of Aug. 30, they played on two separate days at the Texas International Pop Festival.
California didn’t seem to have griped about Stairway’s genesis, at least publicly, for decades. Finally, citing the gigs they played together, California told journalist Jeff McLaughlin in the winter 1997 issue of Listener magazine that Led Zeppelin had filched his song. “I’d say it was a rip-off,” California said. “And the guys made millions of bucks on it and never said ‘Thank you,’ never said, ‘Can we pay you some money for it?’ It’s kind of a sore point with me. Maybe someday their conscience will make them do something about it.”
On January 2, 1997, California drowned while rescuing his 12-year-old son from a rip current in Hawaii.
After about 17 years later California’s allegation got its day in court. Andes and the trust that handles California’s royalties said they were decided to seek credit for Stairway. They started to work with Francis Alexander Malofiy, a Philadelphia lawyer whose cases included a suit against the singer Usher over the writing credit for the song Bad Girl (meanwhile, Usher won his case).
Starting in June 2014, Led Zeppelin was preparing to cash in anew on Stairway and other hits by releasing all its albums in deluxe, remastered vinyl and CD editions. Malofiy said he was going to file a copyright infringement lawsuit and seek an injunction to block the rerelease of the album containing the song. “The idea behind this is to make sure that Randy California is given a writing credit on Stairway to Heaven,” said Malofiy, 36, who says he grew up with posters of Led Zeppelin on his bedroom wall. “It’s been a long time coming.”
Andes, then 66, saids he was so wrapped up in his music back then that he only “recently” noticed how similar Stairway was to California’s song. “The clarity seems to be a present-day clarity, not at the time of infringement. I can’t explain it. It is fairly blatant, and note for note,” he says. “It would just be nice if the Led Zeppelin guys gave Randy a little nod. That would be lovely.”
It’s no secret Led Zeppelin borrowed from blues and folk musicians in what it said was part of an organic tradition that created new, original works. Songwriters from whom Led Zeppelin drew inspiration, or more, have brought legal challenges for decades, often successfully. Since its 1969 debut album, the band has altered the credits and redirected portions of the royalties for some of its biggest songs, including Whole Lotta Love and Babe I’m Gonna Leave You. A copyright infringement suit over Dazed and Confused, a defining number that formed the centerpiece of Led Zeppelin’s live shows, was settled in 2012. The rise of the Internet has made comparisons by amateur plagiarism detectives easier, with mashup videos of Zeppelin songs and their alleged antecedents appearing on YouTube. In the early 1970s, Chester (Howlin’ Wolf) Burnett’s music publisher sued Led Zeppelin for The Lemon Song, saying it was derived from Burnett’s Killing Floor. The parties settled, according to When Giants Walked the Earth. Burnett got a writing credit.
In the mid-’80s, another artist stepped forward, 83-year-old Anne Bredon woman who wrote the original “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You”. By the way, she was not a fan of hard rock.
Anne Bredon wrote Babe around 1960 as a student at the University of California at Berkeley. She shared the chords and words with a fellow student, Janet Smith, who took Babe with her to Oberlin College and popularized it there. In 1962, Joan Baez came through the Ohio campus, heard Babe, and added it to her repertoire, including it in a songbook (credited to Bredon) and on a live album (not credited). In 1969, Led Zeppelin’s first album included a version of the song based on the Baez recording, listed as “Trad. arr. Jimmy Page.” “Jimmy Page must have assumed it was a folk song,” Bredon said. She, in the meantime, had no idea that her song was in the pantheon of classic rock.
In 1981, Bredon’s old college friend, Smith, was strumming the tune at home when her 12-year-old son popped into the room. “Gee, Mom, I didn’t know you did Led Zeppelin songs,” he said, according to Smith. It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that Smith happened to look at a copy of the debut Led Zeppelin album in a Tower Records store and realized her friend hadn’t gotten credit. She contacted Bredon with a proposal to hire a lawyer, and the two agreed to split any money they could recover. To resolve the dispute, Led Zeppelin’s publisher made an offer: Because the band had made the song famous, the authorship of the Zeppelin version should be split 50-50, with half going to Bredon and the other half to Page and Plant. Future editions of the song would be credited, “Words and music by Anne Bredon, Jimmy Page, and Robert Plant.” Bredon, got what she says was a small amount for back royalties and has collected royalty checks regularly since.
Attorney Francis Malofiy representing California's estate, now repped by British former music journalist Michael Skidmore, claimed that Led Zeppelin's trippy, acoustic guitar intro to "Stairway" had borrowed heavily from "Taurus." He filed his original complaint against Led Zeppelin, on behalf of the Randy Craig Wolfe Trust, in May 2014. He stylized section headers in the font the group used on its untitled fourth album – home to "Stairway to Heaven" – and claimed that Led Zeppelin had become influenced by Wolfe and Spirit's performances after sharing a bill with them. Led Zeppelin would perform on the same bill as Spirit that year, at a gig where Malofiy claimed Spirit played "Taurus," and again in 1969.
In June 2016 Led Zeppelin have won a copyright lawsuit that claimed they had plagiarized the music to their most celebrated song, "Stairway to Heaven." A Los Angeles jury determined that the lawyer representing the estate of late guitarist Randy Wolfe, who played with the group Spirit, did not prove that the hard rockers lifted the song's intro from Spirit's 1968 instrumental "Taurus."
The jury was not legally allowed to hear the original recordings of "Stairway to Heaven" and "Taurus" in determining their verdict. Instead, they heard an expert perform both songs based on the original sheet music. Both Page and Plant testified they did not remember ever hearing "Taurus." Anderson made an ugly misstep during cross-examination with Skidmore when he accused Wolfe's mother as having an "illegitimate son" that was cut out of royalties. He also brought in a musicologist as a witness who spoke too academically and compared "Stairway" to the obscure "To Catch a Shad" by the Modern Folk Quartet.
Anderson closed his arguments by saying that Malofiy had not proved the case and that Spirit's music "would not even be remembered." It marked the end of a particularly combative trial. Before the judge called for the jury to deliberate, he asked of the attorneys, "Any other catfights?"
Bloomberg reported in April 2016 that if Wolfe's estate had won, they would have been entitled to a share of "Stairway to Heaven" revenue for only the three years before the lawsuit was filed, due to copyright law. The estate would also have been entitled to royalties going forward.