It is one of the anthems of 20th century rock, writes Simon Rocker. But could the opening bars of Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven have been lifted from an earlier tune penned by American Jewish guitarist Randy California?
A Pennsylvania law firm is preparing legal action to insist that California — who died in a swimming accident in 1997 — gets the credit for the Zeppelin track.
Similarities between the guitar melodies on Stairway and Taurus, an instrumental California wrote for the West Coast band Spirit’s debut album, have for years been the subject of online chatter.
Led Zeppelin toured with Spirit in the USA in the late 1960s before the release of Stairway on Zeppelin’s fourth album in 1970.
News of the legal threat broke ahead of next month’s long-awaited release of previously unheard Zeppelin material; the British band broke up in 1980.
Led Zeppelin’s label, Warner Music, has yet to comment in response.
Randy California, born Randy Craig Wolfe, could have laid claim to being the greatest Jewish rock guitarist, vying for the title with Peter Green of the early Fleetwood Mac.
He was given his stage name by Jimi Hendrix, whom he met in a music store when he was 15, and played in a band with Hendrix in 1966.
“He is one of the few people who took Hendrix’s innovations to new places in the ’70s,” said JC rock critic Paul Lester. “I would call him the cult hero’s cult hero. He had incredible potential but a run of bad luck.”
California wrote a track called Jewish for Spirit’s second album, The Family That Plays Together, a jazzy reworking of the song Hineh Mah Tovu Umanaim, from Psalm 133, with a solo that demonstrates the lyricism of his guitar.
His mother Bernice Pearl, quoted in Scott R. Bernarde’s book Stars of David; Rock n’Roll Jewish Stories, said: “I always feel Randy’s solos sounded like what I remember from temple. I told him that sometimes his guitar sounded like a cantor in synagogue.”
Randy California drowned in the Pacific aged 45 while saving his 12-year-old son from a treacherous current.
According to Bloomberg Businessweek, Stairway to Heaven had earned more than £330 million by 2008.