Lawyers for a deceased guitarist-songwriter are preparing to file suit against Led Zeppelin, claiming that the British rock behemoths stole part of their biggest hit “Stairway to Heaven” from him.
Randy California was the guitarist, singer and songwriter for late-1960s American band Spirit, which recorded his song “Taurus” on its debut album in 1968. Led Zeppelin heard the song plenty because the British band was the opening act for Spirit in a subsequent series of concerts in America that year and the next. “Stairway to Heaven,” a classic which frequently tops lists of rock’s most beloved and significant songs, as well as a constituting a challenge to generations of budding guitarists, was recorded in late 1970 and 1971.
California, who died in 1997 when saving his son from drowning in Hawaii, always believed that Zeppelin’s guitarist Jimmy Page, credited as co-writer of “Stairway” with lyricist and singer Robert Plant, had stolen his song.
“It’s an exact… 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,” he told the magazine Listener in 1997. “Maybe some day their conscience will make them do something about it. I don’t know.”
“Stairway” is a multi-sectioned, eight-minute epic.
“Taurus” is a far-shorter, instrumental number. The similarities with the opening section of “Stairway” kick in at about 45 seconds.
Now the lawyers who handle California’s trust have teamed up with a Philadelphia lawyer named Francis Alexander Malofiy, and are preparing a copyright infringement suit against Led Zeppelin. The suit, which is apparently not barred by statute of limitations considerations, is timed ahead of next month’s planned re-release by Zeppelin of all of its albums in remastered and deluxe editions. “The idea behind this is to make sure that Randy California is given a writing credit on Stairway to Heaven,” Malofiy told Bloomberg Businessweek. “It’s been a long time coming.”
Spirit’s bass guitarist, Mark Andes, is equally adamant that his band was ripped off. “It is fairly blatant, and note for note. It would just be nice if the Led Zeppelin guys gave Randy a little nod. That would be lovely,” he told Bloomberg.
The looming legal battle against Led Zeppelin is for enormously high stakes — musically and financially. “What if the foundation of the band’s immortality had been lifted from another song by a relatively forgotten California band?” asked Vernon Silver, author of the Bloomberg piece. “You’d need to rewrite the history of rock ’n’ roll.”
Six years ago, “Stairway” was estimated to have earned over $560 million in royalties and record sales. The album on which it appears, Led Zeppelin IV, is America’s third biggest-selling album of all time, with 23 million copies sold. “There’s millions of dollars at stake here,” Malofiy told Bloomberg.
The potential beneficiary, California’s trust — the Randy California Project in Ventura County, California — teaches music to youngsters.
Zeppelin has had a history of legal entanglements over song-writing credits, settling cases over hits including “Whole Lotta Love” and “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You.” The band had no comment on the new legal threat.
‘And if you listen very hard
The tune will come to you at last’
— from the lyrics to ‘Stairway to Heaven’
One of the band’s biographers, Mick Wall, addressing the “Taurus”-“Stairway” controversy in his 2010 book “When Giants Walked the Earth,” argued however that if Page was influenced by the chords from the Spirit song, “what he did with them was the equivalent of taking the wood from a garden shed and building it into a cathedral.”
Randy California, who was Jewish, was born Randy Craig Wolfe, the son of Bernice Pearle. He got his stage name from Jimi Hendrix, whom he first met when he was 15 and with whom he gigged as a teenager.
Spirit did not enjoy significant commercial success, and California was broke when he died.