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Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page takes the stand: I didn't steal that 'Stairway to Heaven' guitar riff

Singer Robert Plant, left, and guitarist Jimmy Page of the British rock band Led Zeppelin perform at the 1985 Live Aid concert at Philadelphia's J.F.K. Stadium. Generations of aspiring guitarists have tried to copy the riff from Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven." A Los Angeles court is trying to decide whether the members of Led Zeppelin themselves ripped off that riff. [Associated Press]

Singer Robert Plant, left, and guitarist Jimmy Page of the British rock band Led Zeppelin perform at the 1985 Live Aid concert at Philadelphia's J.F.K. Stadium. Generations of aspiring guitarists have tried to copy the riff from Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven." A Los Angeles court is trying to decide whether the members of Led Zeppelin themselves ripped off that riff. [Associated Press]

LOS ANGELES — In days of Led Zeppelin's youth, the band didn't have many original works and relied heavily on cover songs, including a medley that borrowed a riff from the California band Spirit.

Fresh Garbage from Spirit's debut album was woven into the jam, As Long as I Have You, with its cycle of notes repeated again and again.

"We played it from day one," Led Zeppelin founder Jimmy Page testified Wednesday. "That was part of a staple diet."

While the minor hit for Spirit found its way into the band's early set list, Page said he was unaware of an instrumental from the same album that he is now accused of lifting for the intro to Led Zeppelin's 1971 hit, Stairway to Heaven.

The estate of Spirit's late guitarist, Randy Wolfe, also known as Randy California, contends the famous descending-chord progression that softly begins the crescendo-building Stairway was lifted from Wolfe's Taurus, which was released a few years earlier.

Led Zeppelin has settled several similar copyright disputes over hit songs, though Stairway to Heaven has generated hundreds of millions of dollars over the years and could provide a windfall if Wolfe's estate prevails.

Page claimed he didn't even know he owned Spirit's self-titled first album until a son-in-law told him comparisons between the tunes were popping up online and he unearthed it in his collection of 10,000 records and CDs. He said he only knew Fresh Garbage from hearing it on the radio.

"Something like that would stick in my mind," Page told the eight jurors in Los Angeles federal court. "It was totally alien to me."

Attorney Steven Weinberg, a music copyright lawyer who is watching the case but not involved in it, said he found Page charming, confident and well prepared, though not entirely credible in his denial of ever hearing Spirit's first album. The use of Fresh Garbage in the band's earliest days lends credibility to the idea that Page and singer Robert Plant liked the band enough to probably know more of its work.

"If they used one riff from Spirit, they might have used another riff from Spirit," Weinberg said.

While musical experts not involved in the case have said the two songs are similar, they have also said the sequence is common and has appeared in other pieces from even centuries ago.

Perhaps a larger hurdle for the plaintiffs is that the jury must find the recording of Stairway substantially similar to the sheet music for the song because that's what is filed with the U.S. Copyright Office. Videos played in court of other musicians playing the sheet music differ significantly from the recorded version of Taurus.

Page, wearing a dark gray suit, a vest and tie and wearing his white shoulder-length hair in a ponytail, acknowledged he liked Spirit and had played their second album, which contained the band's biggest hit, I Got a Line on You, many times.

In answers that sometimes strayed from the scope of the question, Page told of learning to play guitar 60 years ago when he was 12.

He was hired as a studio musician at 17 — seven years junior to the next oldest musician — because he said he understood what younger artists were playing and could supply blues or rock riffs, a talent that put some older guitarists out of work.

Plaintiff's attorney Francis Malofiy, who had called Page to the stand as a hostile witness, asked if he had a gift with the guitar.

Page, one of rock's guitar greats, paused for a long moment and finally said, "Well, yeah." The gallery erupted with laughter at the understatement.

Malofiy cited an interview in which Page was quoted saying Spirit's music struck him on an emotional level.

Page said he didn't remember saying that.

Malofiy then asked if it was possible he also forgot hearing the song Taurus. The question was never answered because of an objection by Page's lawyer.

The lawyer, who referred to Page at one point as the "alleged composer of Stairway to Heaven, struggled to get past objections so Page could compare the acoustic guitar riffs in the two songs.

Page acknowledged they were both in A-minor, but he said he had never seen the sheet music and couldn't comment on the tempo or structure of Taurus.

Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page takes the stand: I didn't steal that 'Stairway to Heaven' guitar riff 06/16/16 [Last modified: Thursday, June 16, 2016 12:10pm]
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