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John Henry Bonham (31 May 1948 – 25 September 1980) was an English musician and songwriter, best known as the drummer of Led Zeppelin. Bonham was esteemed for his speed, power, fast right foot, distinctive sound, and "feel" for the groove. He is widely considered to be one of the greatest drummers in the history of rock music. Rolling Stone readers named him the "best drummer of all time" in 2011.
Bonham was born on 31 May 1948, in Redditch, Worcestershire, England, to Joan and Jack Bonham. He began learning to play drums at the age of five, making a drum kit out of containers and coffee tins, imitating his idols Max Roach, Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich. His mother gave him a snare drum at the age of ten. He received his first proper drum kit from his father at fifteen, a Premier Percussion set. Bonham never took any formal drum lessons, though as a teen he would get advice from other Redditch drummers. Between 1962–63, while still at school, Bonham joined the Blue Star Trio, and Gerry Levene & the Avengers.
Bonham attended Lodge Farm Secondary Modern School, where his headmaster once wrote in his school report card 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 in between drumming for different 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 also played in other Birmingham bands such as The Nicky James Movement and The Senators, who released a moderately successful 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 soon became inactive. Desperate for a regular income, he joined a blues group called Crawling King Snakes, whose lead singer was a young Robert Plant.
In 1967, A Way of Life asked Bonham to return to the group, and he agreed—though throughout this period, Plant kept in contact with Bonham. When Plant decided to form Band of Joy, Bonham was first choice as drummer. The band recorded a number of demos but no album. In 1968 American singer Tim Rose toured Britain and invited Band of Joy to open his concerts. When Rose returned for another tour months later, Bonham was formally invited by the singer to drum for his band, which gave him a regular income.
Main article: Led Zeppelin
After the break-up of The Yardbirds, guitarist Jimmy Page was forming a new band when he recruited Robert 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, upon seeing Bonham drum for Tim Rose at a club in Hampstead, north London, in July 1968, Page and manager Peter Grant were instantly convinced that he was the perfect fit for the new project, first known as the New Yardbirds and later as Led Zeppelin.
Despite an intensive campaign to snare the drummer, Bonham was initially reluctant to join the band. Plant sent eight telegrams to Bonham's pub, the "Three Men in a Boat", in Walsall, which were followed by 40 telegrams from Grant. However, at the same time he was also receiving lucrative offers from established artists Joe Cocker and Chris Farlowe. Eventually, Bonham accepted Grant's offer. He later recalled, "I decided I liked their music better than Cocker's or Farlowe's."
John Bonham's three intersecting circles sigil for the Led Zeppelin IV album
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 available, which he referred to as "trees." His hard hitting style was displayed to great effect on many Led Zeppelin songs, including "Immigrant Song" (Led Zeppelin III), "When the Levee Breaks" (Led Zeppelin IV / Zoso.svg), "Kashmir" (Physical Graffiti), "The Ocean" (Houses of the Holy), and "Achilles Last Stand" (Presence). In fact, Page once admitted to letting Bonham use a double bass drum in an early demo of "Communication Breakdown" but claimed he scratched the track because of Bonham's "over-use" of it. The double bass style of drumming---already influential by way of Cream drummer Ginger Baker---did not regain popularity for another twenty years. The studio recording of "Misty Mountain Hop" perfectly captures his keen sense of dynamics, and this is similarly exhibited by his precise drumming on "No Quarter". On several cuts from later albums, Bonham rather adeptly handled funk and Latin-influenced drumming. Songs like "Royal Orleans" and "Fool in the Rain" are good examples, respectively displaying great skill with a New Orleans shuffle and a samba rhythm.
His famous drum solo, first entitled "Pat's Delight," later renamed "Moby Dick", would often last for 30 minutes and regularly featured his use of bare hands to achieve different sound effects. Bonham's action sequence for the film, The Song Remains the Same, featured him in a drag race at Santa Pod Raceway to the sound of his signature drum solo, "Moby Dick". In Led Zeppelin concert tours after 1969, Bonham would expand his basic kit to include congas, orchestral timpani, and a symphonic gong. Bonham is also credited (by the Dallas Times Herald) with the first in-concert use of electronic timpani drum synthesisers (most likely made by Syndrum) during a performance of the song "Kashmir" in Dallas, Texas in 1977. Many modern rappers would later heavily sample his drumming and incorporate it into their compositions, such as Beastie Boys, who sampled "Moby Dick," "The Ocean," and "When the Levee Breaks."
During his time with Led Zeppelin, Bonham was also an avid collector of antique sports cars and motorcycles, which he kept on his family's farm called The Old Hyde. He bought The Plough pub in the nearby village of Shenstone, which shows signs of conversion work to allow him to drive his bikes or cars right behind the bar. This was not the pub featured in the film The Song Remains the Same. It was the New Inn, which is currently boarded up, the only clue to its famous past being a picture hanging close to the bar.
Work outside Led Zeppelin
As well as recording with Led Zeppelin, Bonham also found time to play on sessions for other artists. In 1969 Bonham appeared on The Family Dogg's A Way of Life, with Page and Jones. Bonham also sessioned for Screaming Lord Sutch on his album Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends in 1970. He played drums on Lulu's 1971 song "Everybody Clap," written by Maurice Gibb and Billy Lawrie. In 1972 he played drums 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 (given his star sign). Later in his career, Bonham 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) backing band. This was an Apple film directed by Freddie Francis. Bonham appeared in an overcrowded 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 an upcoming tour of the United States—the band's first since 1977. During the journey, Bonham asked to stop for breakfast, where he drank four quadruple vodkas (sixteen shots, between 400–560 ml). He then continued to drink heavily after arriving at the rehearsals. They stopped rehearsing late in the evening and the band retired 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. Benji LeFevre (who had replaced Richard Cole as Led Zeppelin's tour manager) and John Paul Jones found him dead the next afternoon. Bonham was 32 years old.
At the coroner's inquest it emerged that in the 24 hours before he died, Bonham consumed approximately forty shots of vodka, after which he vomited and aspirated the vomitus, causing asphyxiation. A verdict of accidental death was returned at the inquest, held on 27 October 1980. An autopsy found no other drugs in Bonham's body. John Bonham's body was cremated and his ashes were interred on 12 October 1980, at Rushock Parish Church, Worcestershire. His headstone reads:
“CHERISHED MEMORIES OF A LOVING HUSBAND AND FATHER JOHN HENRY BONHAM WHO DIED SEPT. 25th 1980 AGED 32 YEARS He will always be Remembered in our hearts. Goodnight my Love, God Bless.”
John Bonham's gravestone at Rushock Parish churchyard, Worcestershire, with drumsticks left in tribute by fans.
Despite media rumours that drummers including Cozy Powell, Phil Collins, Carmine Appice, Barriemore Barlow, Roger Taylor, Simon Kirke or Bev Bevan, among others, would join the group as his replacement, the remaining members decided to disband Led Zeppelin after Bonham's death. They issued a press statement on 4 December 1980, confirming that the band would not continue without their drummer. "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 simply signed "Led Zeppelin".
John Bonham had two siblings; his younger brother, Mick Bonham (1950-2000), was a disc jockey, author and photographer and his younger sister, Deborah Bonham (born in 1962) is a singer-songwriter.
Bonham was married to Pat Phillips, and the couple had two children; his daughter Zoë Bonham (born 10 June 1975), is a singer-songwriter and also appears regularly at Led Zeppelin conventions and awards, and his son Jason Bonham (born 15 July 1966), a rock drummer who has gained success with various bands including UFO, Foreigner, and Bonham. He previously played in a band called Black Country Communion which included 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 previous reunion at the Atlantic Records 40th Anniversary show on 15 May 1988. A 1970 film clip of a 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 along with the surviving members of Led Zeppelin.
John's mother, Joan Bonham, died aged 81 on 10 February 2011. She was one of the lead vocalists for The Zimmers, a 40-member band set up as a result of a BBC documentary on the treatment of the elderly.
Bonham's cousin Billy Bonham (born 1950), also played keyboards for Terry Reid and Ace Kefford.
Awards and accolades
While Bonham is widely considered to be one of the greatest and most influential rock drummers by other musicians and commentators in the industry, he continues to receive the greatest acclaim from fans, and several opinion polls and critic lists continue to list him in first place before any other drummer in rock history. In 2007, Stylus magazine rated Bonham number 1 on its list of the 50 greatest rock drummers, as did the online music magazine Gigwise.com in 2008, and a Rolling Stone reader's poll where he "led the list by a significant margin" in 2011. Bonham was ranked at no. 1 on Classic Rock's 2005 list of "50 Greatest Drummers in Rock", and Modern Drummer magazine 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 their reader's poll to determine the "50 greatest drummers of all time" for its October 2009 issue. At the end of the BBC Two series I'm in a Rock 'n' Roll Band! on 5 June 2010, John Bonham was named the best drummer of all time.
John 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 magazine, writes "If the king of rock 'n' roll was Elvis Presley, then the king of rock drumming was certainly John Bonham."
Influence on notable musicians and tributes
Many rock drummers were influenced by John Bonham's work with Led Zeppelin. A few of them include Joey Kramer (Aerosmith), Lee Kerslake (Uriah Heep, Ozzy Osbourne), Tony Thompson (Chic), Dave Grohl (Nirvana, Foo Fighters), Tommy Lee (Mötley Crüe), Peter Criss (Kiss), Chad Smith (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Dave Lombardo (Slayer, Fantômas) and Brad Wilk (Rage Against the Machine).
Several of these drummers have testified to Bonham's influence, such as Roger Taylor of Queen, who stated:
The greatest rock 'n' roll drummer of all time was John Bonham who did things that nobody had ever even thought possible before with the drum kit. And also the greatest sound out of his drums—they sounded enormous, and just one bass drum. So fast on it that he did more with one bass drum than most people could do with three, if they could manage them. And he had technique to burn and fantastic power and tremendous feel for rock`n`roll.
Dave Grohl has 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.
Similarly, Chad Smith has 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.
Charlie Watts of The Rolling Stones told Guitar Player's Jas Obrecht:
John Bonham is the best at being John Bonham and doing what he does. Or did—unfortunately, he's dead. He was the best. There wasn't anyone better than John Bonham at doing that, and thank goodness we've got some records so that you can hear it.
Eric Carr, former drummer of Kiss, stated:
At least 85% of all of the rock drummers today have gotten influences from Bonham, and all have recognised how great he was. Every band in the business – guaranteed – has tried to do something with that Bonham sound, which shows that everyone from A to Z has listened to him.
Musicians other than drummers have also paid tribute to Bonham. John Paul Jones, who formed a very tight musical partnership with him as Led Zeppelin's power rhythm section, stated that Bonham was a "bass player's dream". Jimmy Page has also commented:
One of the marvelous 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.
A major tribute for John Bonham entitled "Bonzo: The Groove Remains the Same—A Night In Honor of John Henry Bonham" was performed 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, Brian Tichy, Joe Travers, Simon Wright, and John's son, Jason Bonham. Carmine Appice performed via video.
Bonham is also admired outside of rock music. In 1988, for example, the Pulitzer laureate Christopher Rouse composed Bonham in tribute to the drummer.Wide ThumbClearartFanartBanner User Comments