John Henry Bonham (31 May 1948 – 25 September 1980) was an English musician and songwriter, best known as the drummer for the British rock band Led Zeppelin. Esteemed for his speed, power, fast bass drumming, distinctive sound, and "feel" for the groove, he is regarded by many as the greatest and most influential rock drummer in history. In 2016, Rolling Stone magazine ranked him number one in their list of the "100 Greatest Drummers of All Time".
Bonham performing with Led Zeppelin in 1973
|Birth name||John Henry Bonham|
|Also known as|
|Born||31 May 1948|
Redditch, Worcestershire, England
|Died||25 September 1980 (aged 32)|
Clewer, Berkshire, England
John Henry Bonham was born on 31 May 1948, in Redditch, Worcestershire, England, to Joan and Jack Bonham. He began learning to play drums 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 age 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 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 breakup of the The Yardbirds in July of 1968, 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 Paul Francis. 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 half-time shuffle.
His drum solo, first entitled "Pat's Delight", later "Moby Dick", often lasted 20 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.
Work outside Led ZeppelinEdit
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", 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 "Keep Your Hands on the Wheel", a single subsequently released 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". He was also featured on Paul McCartney & Wings "Beware My Love" demo version first recorded in 1976, it remained unreleased until 2014 with the release of the album Wings at the Speed of Sound boxset. 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 vodka screwdrivers (16 shots between 400 and 560 ml, also equivalent to 9–13 American standard drinks). He then continued to drink heavily after arriving at rehearsals. The band stopped rehearsing late in the evening and then went to Page's house, the Old Mill House in Clewer, Windsor. After midnight on 25 September, Bonham fell asleep; someone took him to bed and placed him on his side. Led Zeppelin tour manager Benji LeFevre and John Paul Jones found him unresponsive the next afternoon. Bonham was later pronounced dead at 32 years old.
The inquest on 27 October 1980 showed that in 24 hours, Bonham had consumed around 40 shots (1–1.4 litres) of 40% ABV vodka, after which he vomited and choked (a condition known as pulmonary aspiration). The finding was accidental death. An autopsy found no other recreational drugs in Bonham's body. According to Rolling Stone, he was on a medication for anxiety and depression at this time. Bonham's remains were cremated and his ashes interred on 12 October 1980, at Rushock parish church, Worcestershire.
Rather than replace Bonham, Led Zeppelin decided to stop playing together as a band. 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.
Awards and accoladesEdit
Bonham has been described by AllMusic as one of the most important, well-known, and influential drummers in rock. 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." 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."
In 2007, Stylus magazine rated Bonham number one of 50 great rock drummers, as did Gigwise.com in 2008, and 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.
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. According to the Los Angeles 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 ... Nobody else has brought quite that balance of muscle, groove and showmanship."
For music critics who were not receptive to the hard rock aspects of Led Zeppelin's sound, Bonham's playing was sometimes caricatured (along with the other elements of Led Zeppelin's music) as bombastic and lacking a sense of swing. For example, Rolling Stone magazine's Jimmy Miller wrote the following in 1975, while reviewing Physical Graffiti:
Bonham...is a steak-and-potatoes percussionist, handpicked, one assumes, for his ability to supply a plodding, stolid, rock-solid bottom — no one has ever accused Led Zeppelin of swinging."
In the 2012 documentary Beware of Mr. Baker, Eric Clapton reinforced the idea that Bonham's playing lacked subtlety, and that Bonham and his contemporary Keith Moon of The Who were not equals in terms of musicianship to Ginger Baker, Clapton's drummer in the 1960s rock band Cream.
No, no, no, no, (scoffs). Ginger was nothing like those players. His musical capabilities are full spectrum. He can write and compose and arrange, and he has an ear, and he is harmonic. He is a fully formed musician.
Since his death, however, Bonham's reputation has continued to grow beyond the world of hard rock, and his playing is now commonly recognized by critics and musicians as worthy of close study. For example, Modern Drummer Magazine had the following to say about Bonham in 2010:
Like nearly every British rock musician in the mid-’60s, the members of Led Zeppelin played in groups specializing in amped-up versions of black American music like the blues, R&B, jazz, and soul. To play that music convincingly, you had to swing, and few drummers in any genre have swung with as much swagger as John Bonham.....Despite all the deserved attention paid to his brilliant soloing ideas, his rhythmic sophistication, or his bass drum prowess, John Bonham was, above all else, a groover.
Tributes and memorialsEdit
The surviving members of Led Zeppelin reunited to play Live Aid in 1985 and employed two drummers, Phil Collins and Tony Thompson, to take his place. In June 2017, John Bonham's childhood home received a blue plaque in his honour.
On 31 May 2018, on what would have been Bonham's 70th birthday, a statue was unveiled in his hometown of Redditch, England to commemorate him. The work of sculptor Mark Richards, the bronze sculpture weighs around 2.5 tonnes and was installed in Mercian Square. It is covered in anti-graffiti paint and is emblazoned with the words: "The most outstanding and original drummer of his time, John Bonham's popularity and influence continue to resonate with the world of music and beyond." Following the installation of the bronze memorial on Church Green, a special music event was organised to celebrate Bonham’s birthday.
Influence on notable musicians and tributesEdit
Rock drummers influenced by Bonham include Mike Portnoy, Joey Kramer, Lee Kerslake, Neil Peart, Dave Grohl, Tommy Lee, Peter Criss, Chad Smith, Dave Lombardo, Brad Wilk, John Dolmayan, 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's drumming has been widely sampled in hip hop music; for example, the Beastie Boys sampled "Moby Dick", "The Ocean", and "When the Levee Breaks" on their debut album Licensed to Ill. The drum beat of the popular song "Return to Innocence" by Enigma was sampled from the Led Zeppelin song "When the Levee Breaks", played by John Bonham.
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 Remo drumheads. His hardware was a mixture of Rogers and Ludwig, including the Ludwig Speed King pedal and Rogers Swiv-O-Matic series of hardware. 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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