Published On: Mon, May 26th, 2014

Led Zeppelin Sued for Snatching Notes on “Stairway to Heaven” From Randy California

The suit claims that the iconic opening chords to Led Zeppelin’s greatest hit, Stairway to Heaven, were taken from the obscure band Spirit’s 1968 song “Taurus, ” written by guitarist, singer and songwriter Randy California.

Led Zeppelin:  (L-R) Robert Plant,    Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones / Getty

The suit claims that the iconic opening chords to Led Zeppelin’s greatest hit, Stairway to Heaven, were taken from the obscure band Spirit’s 1968 song “Taurus, ” written by guitarist, singer and songwriter Randy California.

Musicians are inevitably inspired by the music that preceded them and often “borrow” elements from them. Artists have long sued other artists over this issue with varying degrees of success. The essential questions are, when does inspiration and borrowing cross over into copyright infringement and how to prove it. In this case, it is clear that Led Zeppelin was familiar with “Taurus” having been the opening act for Spirit a number of times in 1968 and 1969 after the release of Spirit’s self-titled debut album on which the song appears.

This was about three years before “Stairway to Heaven” appeared on Zeppelin’s untitled fourth album. About 45 seconds into the instrumental song “Taurus, ” an acoustic guitar begins playing a chord progression for three measures that is distinctly recognizable as the iconic lead-in to “Stairway to Heaven.” Zeppelin’s case is further damaged by the fact that they have faced copyright infringement suits on several occasions. They were force to emend credits for “Whole Lotta Love” and “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” as well as settling a suit over “Dazed and Confused.”

The stakes for Zeppelin are high, in terms of their reputation and finances, as “Stairway to Heaven” is the band’s biggest hit from the third-bestselling album in American history and is widely considered to be one of the greatest Rock songs of all time.

This epic eight minute song that was too long to be released as a single is estimated to have yielded over $560 million in sales and publishing royalties. The suit seeks a writing credit for Randy California and is being pursued by his trust as he died tragically in 1997, drowning in a riptide after rescuing his son.

Months before his death California told Listener magazine “I’d say it was a rip-off. 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.”

Led Zeppelin Sued for Snatching Notes
At the age of 15, guitar prodigy Randy Craig Wolfe had the name “California” bestowed upon him by non-other than Jimi Hendrix. After hearing him play in a music store, Hendrix invited Randy to join his band for a one-night gig that lasted three months. Hendrix called him “Randy California” to differentiate him from the band’s other Randy. He was raised in a Jewish home by his mother Bernice Pearle.

In his book “Stars of David: Rock’n’Roll’s Jewish Stories, ” author Scott R. Benarde quotes Pearle saying “I always felt Randy’s solos sounded like what I remember from temple, I told him that sometimes his guitar sounded like a cantor in synagogue.” This influence is clear on the song “Jewish, ” from Spirit’s second album, with its Hebrew lyrics that are taken from the traditional song “Henei Ma Tov” based on King David’s Psalm 133.

Though California was cash-strapped when he died, his continuing royalties fund the Randy California Project that was created by his family to honor his legacy. The fund provides a musical director and instruments to an elementary school band composed of students from low-income schools in Ventura, California at a time when music programs across the country are being eliminated due to budget cuts.

 

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