Bonham performing with Led Zeppelin in 1973
|Birth name||John Henry Bonham|
|Also known as||
31 May 1948|
Redditch, Worcestershire, England
|Died||25 September 1980
Clewer, Berkshire, England
John Henry Bonham (31 May 1948 – 25 September 1980) was an English drummer, musician and songwriter, best known as the drummer of Led Zeppelin. Bonham was esteemed for his speed, power, fast bass-drumming, distinctive sound, and "feel" for the groove. He is considered one of the greatest drummers in rock.
Bonham was born on 31 May 1948, in Redditch, Worcestershire, England, to Joan and Jack Bonham. He began learning to play at five, making a kit of containers and coffee tins, imitating his idols Max Roach, Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich. His mother gave him a snare drum when he was 10. He received his first drum kit from his father at 15, a Premier Percussion set. Bonham never took formal drum lessons, though as a teen he had advice from other Redditch drummers. Between 1962 and 1963, still at school, Bonham joined the Blue Star Trio, and Gerry Levene & the Avengers.
Bonham attended Lodge Farm Secondary Modern School, where his headmaster wrote in his report that "He will either end up a dustman or a millionaire." After leaving school in 1964, he worked for his father as an apprentice carpenter between drumming for local bands. In 1964, Bonham joined his first semi-professional band, Terry Webb and the Spiders, and met his future wife Pat Phillips around the same time. He played in other Birmingham bands such as The Nicky James Movement and The Senators, who made a single, "She's a Mod," in 1964. Bonham then took up drumming full-time. Two years later, he joined A Way of Life, but the band folded. Needing a regular income, he joined a blues group called Crawling King Snakes, whose lead singer was Robert Plant.
In 1967, A Way of Life asked Bonham to return to the group, and he agreed, while keeping in touch with Plant. Plant formed Band of Joy and chose Bonham as the drummer. The band recorded demos but no album. In 1968, American singer Tim Rose toured Britain and asked Band of Joy to open his concerts. When Rose returned months later, Bonham was invited by the singer to drum for Rose's band, which gave him a regular income.
After the break-up of The Yardbirds, guitarist Jimmy Page formed another band and recruited Plant, who in turn suggested Bonham. Page's choices for drummer included Procol Harum's B.J. Wilson, and session drummers Clem Cattini and Aynsley Dunbar. Ginger Baker was also rumoured to be on Page's list. However, on seeing Bonham drum for Tim Rose at a club in Hampstead, north London, in July 1968, Page and manager Peter Grant were convinced he was perfect for the project, first known as the New Yardbirds and later as Led Zeppelin. Bonham was reluctant. Plant sent eight telegrams to Bonham's pub, the "Three Men in a Boat", in Bloxwich, which were followed by 40 telegrams from Grant. Bonham was also receiving offers from Joe Cocker and Chris Farlowe but he accepted Grant's offer. He recalled, "I decided I liked their music better than Cocker's or Farlowe's."
During Led Zeppelin's first tour of the United States in December 1968, Bonham became friends with Vanilla Fudge's drummer, Carmine Appice. Appice introduced him to Ludwig drums, which he then used for the rest of his career. Bonham used the longest and heaviest sticks, which he called "trees." His hard hitting was evident on many Led Zeppelin songs, including "Immigrant Song" (Led Zeppelin III), "When the Levee Breaks" (Led Zeppelin IV / ), "Kashmir" (Physical Graffiti), "The Ocean" (Houses of the Holy), and "Achilles Last Stand" (Presence). Page let Bonham use a double bass drum in an early demo of "Communication Breakdown" but scratched the track because of Bonham's "over-use" of it. The studio recording of "Misty Mountain Hop" captures his dynamics, similarly exhibited on "No Quarter". On cuts from later albums, Bonham handled funk and Latin-influenced drumming. Songs like "Royal Orleans" and "Fool in the Rain" are examples, respectively displaying a New Orleans shuffle and a samba.
His drum solo, first entitled "Pat's Delight," later "Moby Dick", often lasted 30 minutes. He used bare hands for different sounds. Bonham's sequence for the film The Song Remains the Same featured him in a drag race at Santa Pod Raceway to the sound of his solo, "Moby Dick". In Led Zeppelin tours after 1969, Bonham included congas, orchestral timpani and a symphonic gong. He is credited by the Dallas Times Herald with the first concert use of electronic timpani drum synthesisers during "Kashmir" in Dallas, Texas, in 1977.
Work outside Led Zeppelin
In 1969 Bonham appeared on The Family Dogg's A Way of Life, with Page and Jones. Bonham also played for Screaming Lord Sutch on Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends in 1970. He played on Lulu's 1971 single "Everybody Clap (Lulu song)," written by Maurice Gibb and Billy Lawrie. In 1972, he played on a Maurice Gibb-produced album by Jimmy Stevens called Don't Freak Me Out in the UK and Paid My Dues in the US, credited as "Gemini" (his star sign). He drummed for his Birmingham friend, Roy Wood, on his 1979 album, On the Road Again, and on Wings' album Back to the Egg on the tracks "Rockestra Theme" and "So Glad to See You Here". Bonham was the best man of Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi at his wedding ceremony.
In 1974, Bonham appeared in the film Son of Dracula, playing drums in Count Downe's (Harry Nilsson) band. Bonham appeared in a drum line-up including Keith Moon and Ringo Starr on the soundtrack album.
On 24 September 1980, Bonham was picked up by Led Zeppelin assistant Rex King to attend rehearsals at Bray Studios for a tour of North America, to begin 17 October in Montreal, Canada – the band's first since 1977. During the journey, Bonham asked to stop for breakfast, where he drank four quadruple vodkas (16 shots, between 400–560 ml). He then drank after arriving at rehearsals. The band stopped rehearsing late in the evening and then retired to Page's house, the Old Mill House in Clewer, Windsor. After midnight on Thursday, 25 September, Bonham fell asleep; someone took him to bed and placed him on his side. Benji LeFevre, Led Zeppelin's tour manager, and John Paul Jones found him dead the next afternoon. Bonham was 32.
The inquest on 27 October 1980 showed that in 24 hours Bonham had drunk around 40 shots (1–1.4 litres) of 40% ABV vodka, after which he vomited and choked. The finding was accidental death. An autopsy found no other drugs in Bonham's body. Bonham's remains were cremated and his ashes interred on 12 October 1980, at Rushock parish church, Worcestershire.
The remaining members disbanded Led Zeppelin rather than replace him. They said in a press release on 4 December 1980: "We wish it to be known that the loss of our dear friend and the deep respect we have for his family, together with the sense of undivided harmony felt by ourselves and our manager, have led us to decide that we could not continue as we were." It was signed "Led Zeppelin".
Bonham had a younger brother, Mick Bonham (1950–2000), a disc jockey, author and photographer, and a younger sister, Deborah Bonham (born 1962), a singer-songwriter.
Bonham was married to Pat Phillips, and the couple had two children; Zoë Bonham (born 10 June 1975), a singer-songwriter who appears at Led Zeppelin conventions, and Jason Bonham (born 15 July 1966), a drummer who has played with UFO, Foreigner, and Bonham. He previously played in Black Country Communion with Glenn Hughes, Derek Sherinian, and Joe Bonamassa. They recorded an album called Black Country in 2010. On 10 December 2007, he played with Led Zeppelin on the Ahmet Ertegun Tribute Concert, as well as their reunion at the Atlantic Records 40th Anniversary show on 15 May 1988. A 1970 film clip of four-year-old Jason playing drums appears in the Led Zeppelin film The Song Remains the Same. Zoë and Jason appeared at the induction ceremony for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995 with the surviving members of Led Zeppelin.
Bonham collected antique sports cars and motorcycles, which he kept on his family's farm, The Old Hyde. He bought the Plough pub in nearby Shenstone, near Kidderminster, which was converted to allow him to drive his bikes or cars right behind the bar.
Awards and accolades
In 2007, Stylus magazine rated Bonham number 1 of 50 great rock drummers, as did Gigwise.com in 2008, and a Rolling Stone reader's poll where he "led the list by a significant margin" in 2011, and in 2016, the same magazine ranked him as the greatest drummer of all time in a list of 100 Greatest Drummers of all time. Bonham was ranked no. 1 on Classic Rock's 2005 list of 50 Greatest Drummers in Rock, and Modern Drummer describes him as "the greatest rock 'n' roll drummer in history." In September 2008, Bonham topped the Blabbermouth.net's list of "Rockers fans want brought back to life", ahead of Elvis Presley and Freddie Mercury. Rhythm magazine voted him the greatest drummer ever, topping a readers' poll to determine the "50 greatest drummers of all time" in October 2009. At the end of the BBC Two series I'm in a Rock 'n' Roll Band! on 5 June 2010, Bonham was named best drummer of all time.
Bonham has been described by AllMusic as one of the most important, well-known and influential drummers in rock. Adam Budofsky, managing editor of Modern Drummer, writes "If the king of rock 'n' roll was Elvis Presley, then the king of rock drumming was certainly John Bonham." According to the LA times, even after all these years, Bonham still ranks as the best drummer of all time, mentioning that "[his] beat still bangs like a mofo."
Influence on notable musicians and tributes
Rock drummers influenced by Bonham include Joey Kramer, Lee Kerslake, Tony Thompson, Dave Grohl, Tommy Lee, Peter Criss, Chad Smith, Dave Lombardo, Brad Wilk, Yoshiki, and Shinya. Phil Collins, who became a drummer for Robert Plant's solo career, told Plant he wanted to play with him because he "loved" Bonham's drumming.
Dave Grohl said:
John Bonham played the drums like someone who didn't know what was going to happen next—like he was teetering on the edge of a cliff. No one has come close to that since, and I don't think anybody ever will. I think he will forever be the greatest drummer of all time.
Chad Smith remarked:
To me, hands down, John Bonham was the best rock drummer ever. The style and the sound was so identifiable to one person. Any drum set that he would play, it sounded like him.
Other musicians also paid tribute. John Paul Jones said Bonham was a "bass player's dream". Page has also commented:
One of the marvellous things about John Bonham which made things very easy [for a producer] was the fact that he really knew how to tune his drums, and I tell you what, that was pretty rare in drummers in those days. He really knew how to make the instrument sing, and because of that, he could just get so much volume out of it by just playing with his wrists. It was just an astonishing technique that was sort of pretty holistic if you know what I mean.
"Bonzo: The Groove Remains the Same—A Night In Honor of John Henry Bonham" was produced by Whitesnake drummer Brian Tichy in Los Angeles on 25 September 2010 – the 30th anniversary of his death. Notable drummers that appeared at the tribute included Steven Adler, Vinny Appice, Kenny Aronoff, Frankie Banali, Fred Coury, Jimmy D'Anda, James Kottak, Chris Slade, Chad Smith, Joe Travers, Simon Wright, and John's son, Jason Bonham. Carmine Appice performed via video.
Bonham initially used Premier drums, but in the late 1960s was introduced to Ludwig by Carmine Appice. Throughout the remainder of his career, Bonham endorsed Ludwig drums. At times, Bonham's kick drum pedal squeaked. Jimmy Page later commented:
The only real problem I can remember encountering was when we were putting the first boxed set together. There was an awfully squeaky bass drum pedal on "Since I've Been Loving You". It sounds louder and louder every time I hear it! [laughs]. That was something that was obviously sadly overlooked at the time.
In 2005, Ludwig reissued Bonham drum kits in several styles and, in 2007, stainless steel kits similar to those Bonham used on the last Led Zeppelin tours in the 1970s.
Bonham used Paiste cymbals, and he used Remo drumheads. His hardware was a mixture of Rogers and Ludwig, most notably the Ludwig Speed King pedal and Rogers Swiv-O-Matic series of hardware, and initially augmenting his kit in live performances with timbales and congas as well as the cowbell, he soon settled on his trademark timpani, gong and ching-ring mounted on his hi-hat stand as the percussion in his setup in addition to the aforementioned cowbell.
Bonham drum solos would often feature his playing floor toms and cymbals with his bare hands. He started using this technique as well as developing a finger-control style, influenced from hearing jazz recordings by drummer Joe Morello, during the early 1960s with his first band the Blue Star Trio.
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