Photo by Jim Summaria, (Wikipedia:Contact us/Photo submission) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo by Jim Summaria, (Wikipedia:Contact us/Photo submission) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Robert Plant were the final witnesses Tuesday in a trial that seeks to put to rest a long-running contention that the duo purloined part of a little-known instrumental by a long- defunct Los Angeles group and used it as the basis for “Stairway to Heaven,” one of the most famous rock epics of the last five decades.

An attorney for Page and Plant concluded the defense case by playing for the jury excerpts from Page’s own 46-year-old work tapes revealing the development of “Stairway.” He then played the seven-and-a-half-minute finished version.

Sitting in the witness box of the downtown Los Angeles courtroom, Page swayed, tapped his fingers along with the beat and smiled as his band’s multimillion-selling signature song rang out.

Plant testified earlier that he recalled writing the opening stanzas of “Stairway” in 1970 as he and Page sat by the firelight in an English country manor house where the band recorded and rehearsed.

The lawsuit alleges that the pastoral guitar arpeggio that opens “Stairway” was lifted from the 1968 instrumental “Taurus,” recorded by the long-defunct Los Angeles band Spirit.

The suit was lodged in 2014 on behalf of Michael Skidmore, administrator of the trust of Spirit’s late guitarist-songwriter Randy Craig Wolfe, known as Randy California. Wolfe drowned in 1997 off the coast of Hawaii.

Defendants include Page, Plant and three companies involved in the Led Zeppelin catalog. Although dollar amounts ranging from $3.5 million to $58 million have been bandied about in court, David Woirhaye, the chief financial officer of Rhino Entertainment — which markets and distributes the Led Zeppelin catalog — testified that “Stairway” has grossed $3.4 million in total revenues during the five-year statutory period at issue in the case.

During five days of trial, Page, Plant and Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones have told the eight-member jury that they have no recollection of hearing Spirit perform in concert or of hearing the album track “Taurus” before Zeppelin wrote and recorded “Stairway.”

Skidmore’s attorney spent much of last week trying to show that Page was familiar with Spirit’s music, owned the disc that featured “Taurus” and had discussed the band in interviews.

Musicologists called by the plaintiffs said that there were substantial similarities between key parts of the two songs. Experts hired by the defense, however, testified that the chord pattern used in the intro to “Stairway” was so “commonplace” that it probably shouldn’t be copyrighted.

The judge is expected to instruct the jury before attorneys give their closing arguments Wednesday and the jury begins deliberations.

Perhaps the most convincing testimony came Tuesday when the defense played portions of Page’s “Stairway” work tapes — never previously heard by the public — and had the 72-year-old guitarist-producer explain the song’s creation.

Telling the jury that his concept in mid-1970 for the song involved starting with a lone acoustic guitar and building slowly to a crescendo, Page said he imagined that instruments would be “layered” to add texture. A “fanfare,” played on 12-string guitar, would lead to a lengthy guitar solo.

“Basically, I had the ideas — or map — for putting it together,” he testified. “I though the best thing to do was get together with John Paul Jones.”

Jones heard what would become “Stairway to Heaven” before Plant, at Headley Grange, the manor house in Hampshire, England, that the band used to rehearse and record, with the help of a mobile recording truck parked outside.

Jones played electric piano as Page, on guitar, worked out an early arrangement, as one of the work tape excerpts shows.

Page said he imagined the song as being “very ambitious and also very long.”

Another segment played for the jury Tuesday revealed the 12-string guitar flourish that builds to the guitar solo. On the tape, Page plays the chords that would later underpin his own guitar solo.

“I go on for ages, playing those chords,” he told the jury.

Page clearly enjoyed hearing his decades-old work tapes.

Plant, 67, Tuesday recalled for the jury composing the first stanza of “Stairway to Heaven” shortly after Page and Jones had worked up a loose arrangement at Headley Grange.

“That particular evening I sat with Jimmy by the fire, and I had this first couplet that fit with what he was playing: ‘There’s a lady who’s sure/All that glitters is gold/And she’s buying a stairway to heaven/When she gets there she knows/If the stores are all closed/With a word she can get what she came for,” Plant recited.

“I was really trying to bring the remote, pastoral Britain … the old, almost unspoken Celtic references into the piece,” the singer said.

The Led Zeppelin classic — a mainstay of at least two rock radio formats — first appeared on the band’s untitled fourth album in 1971.

Page — who wrote and produced Zeppelin’s music and controls the band’s catalog — told the court last week that he had not heard “Taurus” until his son-in-law showed him a comparison with “Stairway” on the Internet a few years ago. He also said he only recently discovered he owned more than two Spirit albums after checking his record collection of more than 10,000 vinyl albums and CDs.     Also last week, a musicologist testified that any similarity between “Stairway To Heaven” and “Taurus” can also be found in music dating back more than 300 years.

Lawrence Ferrara, a music professor at New York University, said 17th century Venetian opera singers and Mozart used the “commonplace” techniques found in both songs.

“That progression, that movement, has been around for 300 years, dating back to the 17th century,” he testified. “In the 20th century, before ‘Taurus,’ a large number of popular musicians, artists and composers also used it.”

Ferrara, an expert witness for Led Zeppelin’s defense team, said the technique was a “musical building block” for a song, adding that it is not “something anyone can possibly own.”

He said such material as the Antonio Carlos Jobim number “How Insensitive,” the Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart standard “My Funny Valentine,” “Michelle” by the Beatles, and the 1967 hit “Music to Watch Girls By” all had similarities to “Taurus.”

—City News Service

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