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Stairway to Bourbon Street: Led Zeppelin in New Orleans

Jimmy Page and Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin with Ernie K-Doe. Photo by Sidney Smith.

Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and Ernie K-Doe. Photo by Sidney Smith.

It’s May of 1973 and the British Gods of Rock—Led Zeppelin—sweep into New Orleans at the height of their mysterious and epochal powers as arguably the best rock band in the world. They play a strange concert that night in the Municipal Auditorium; after all, it is New Orleans and Zeppelin is on stage playing their best stuff to a bunch of stoners and hippies and, well, you get the picture. “Jimmy suggestively bowed Robert’s bum during ‘Dazed and Confused,’” says rock journalist Stephen Davis in Hammer of the Gods: The Led Zeppelin Saga.

“[The Municipal Auditorium] wasn’t state of the art even for those days,” remembers former Atlantic Records executive Phillip Rauls (pronounced like Rolls-Royce, just like the kind Keith Moon drove into a hotel swimming pool.) “It was in a rundown area of town.”

Rauls remembers very well those hours just before Led Zeppelin took the stage at New Orleans Municipal Auditorium on the night of May 14, 1973. “In those days, we partied hard,” he says. “We partied before the concerts as well, and such was the case with that particular event. Hell, we were in New Orleans having a Dixie beer and a bowl of gumbo! We were all pretty sky-high if you know what I mean.”

Rock critic Jon Newlin wrote a review about the concert in the May 19, 1973 issue of Figaro, a review that is either a brilliant piece of writing or nonsensical rubbish as the Brits say. He described Zeppelin vocalist Robert Plant as “a verdical odalisque with a shiny, cylindrical neck like Fernand Leger’s Big Julie, a cross between a peachy Jacobean kewpie doll, and a hard 40’s blonde (on the order of, say, Lizabeth Scott) after 800 volts worth of spoolies. Along with a zany, dumb, rubber band singing voice, he has a cagey galumphing balls-of-the-feet dance style.”

Newlin described Jimmy Page as, “a sequined lesser marsupial who hardly ever looks up from his instrument, plays guitar like Renoir said he painted—“avec mabite.” His playing is a fine, shiny manifestation of the British appetite and capacity for violence, with plenty of sudden, slow, watch-for-falling rocks cadenzas.”

And apparently Newlin was not too enamored with the band’s music either, “What really set my dentures on edge was ‘Moby Dick,’ the electrocardiogram solo, which resembles a marathon dance for clubfoots and is about as interesting as a week-old black market club sandwich.”

“This was the poison pen era,” says Rauls. “Zeppelin hated rock critics.” So great was Zeppelin’s disdain of music critics that they considered a negative concert review to be a reaffirmation of their greatness.

“The Auditorium had a low balcony and some dumb fucker had taken too much LSD. I remember a guy actually falling from the balcony down into the audience and fortunately, it wasn’t a big fall because it was a low balcony,” says Rauls. “The band kept on playing and the fire marshals took the guy out. I guess he cushioned himself but he was pretty screwed up.”

 

As Atlantic Records’ Promotion & Marketing Director for the Southern Region, Phillip Rauls
was well acquainted with Zeppelin and heavily involved in the activities of that evening in ’73. He was the guy who would fly in ahead of the band and call on the media and the local promoters and the radio stations like the WRNOs and WTIXs of the world to convince them to play the records of Atlantic’s recording artists.

“WRNO was supportive to Led Zeppelin. Joe Costello, the GM, let the guys run the show,” says Rauls. “You had Captain Humble and Bobby Reno. The first record that WTIX played was “Stairway to Heaven” and it took an Act of Congress to get that record on there,” remembers Rauls. “Stairway to Heaven” was a major breakthrough because up to that time they were really an FM radio band and for Top 40 AM to end up laying that single—it was a major breakthrough.”

As a Memphis boy, Rauls had something in common with Zeppelin. “They always wanted to talk about blues music and Memphis music, and that was the small bond that I had with them.” He found Robert Plant and Jimmy Page to be very polite, very British, but they could get down with the best of them.

After the concert, Zeppelin headed straight to Bourbon Street to see Frankie Ford play at the Gateway on the corner of Bourbon & Iberville. Stephen Davis describes the scene at the Gateway in Hammer of the Gods: “Robert Plant, dressed in a glittery silver blouse open to the waist, asked Ford to sing ‘Sea Cruise,’ his big hit from the fifties. Later they went to a club called Déjà Vu, whose owner asked Led Zeppelin to imprint their hands in the fresh cement outside. ‘Why don’t you get them to put cocks in,’ Peter Grant suggested. Robert said he didn’t think his would make an imprint.”

Before they left New Orleans, Atlantic Records boss Ahmet Ertegun threw a party for the band at Cosimo Matassa’s Jazz City. Soul food comprised the menu that night and all of New Orleans’ best R&B and rock legends would perform: Willie Tee, Art Neville and the Meters, Ernie K-Doe, the Wild Magnolias, Snooks Eaglin and the Olympia Brass Band. Rauls helped coordinate that party and remembers the event like it was yesterday.

“They didn’t need some ritzy ballroom,” he says. “Just going to a funky, soulful recording studio in a beat down part of New Orleans and to meet the guys they grew up listening to—they were in seventh heaven. Willie Tee was still alive, Ernie K-Doe was there, Professor Longhair—all these guys were former Atlantic artists that Ertegun had a relationship with. To bring them out at Cosimo’s party, it gave the band a woody.”

John Bonham, drummer of Led Zeppelin, with Professor Longhair. Photo by Sidney Smith.

John Bonham with Professor Longhair. Photo by Sidney Smith.

Davis writes of the party in Hammer of the Gods, “John Paul Jones played organ while a stripper bumped and grinded on the tabletop. Jimmy and Robert watched in awe as the elder statesman of rock and roll strutted their stuff.”

As the party organizers, including Rauls, were going over the guest list and the media list for the event, they asked the band what they wanted. Page and Plant requested “a lot of flat-chested little birds,” so as a joke Ahmet Ertegun arranged for four taxi cabs of Girl Scouts to be driven to the party’s entrance.
John Paul Jones had a more eccentric request that night.

“Jones told the party organizers that he wanted some New Orleans drag queens,” says Rauls. “Everyone has their fetish I guess. ‘Make sure the top two drag queens of the French Quarter are there’ and sure enough they were, and he spent most of the evening over in the corner chatting with them.”

In Richard Cole’s book Stairway to Heaven, the former tour manager for Led Zeppelin remembers one particularly embarrassing night for Jones and his New Orleans transvestite acquaintances.

“John Paul was chatting with a couple of drag queens in a New Orleans bar,” he writes. “The queens were flirting endlessly with him as if they had found their ‘catch’ for the evening. One of the ‘girls’—Stephanie—eventually ended up with Jonesy in his room back at the Royal Orleans. It seems they were smoking a joint or two. The joint suddenly started the bed on fire, and within minutes sirens were blaring and firemen were tearing down the doors and taking their axes to the place.

“Later, Jonesy insisted that he didn’t know the transvestite was a man. He looked sincere during his explanation, but no matter what the truth really was, we knew we had caught him in a rather embarrassing situation. ‘We’re not going to let Jonesy forget about this one for a long time,’ I told Robert.”

Zeppelin’s song “Royal Orleans” is an account of Jones’ infamous adventures at the classic New Orleans hotel that night:

Out at a hotel in the quarter, our friends check in to pass the night
Now love gets hot, but fire preceded water
Poor whiskers set the room alight.
Whiskers!

 

At the time, New Orleans was just beginning to get a strong reputation with the rock groups as a place to lay over between their Southern concert dates. You would hit Dallas, Houston, San Antonio; you might jump up to Oklahoma City or Little Rock. But you would come into New Orleans or Baton Rouge, and then you would get a hiccup in the schedule, purposely.

“Sometimes, they would let the groups regroup there in New Orleans for a day or two and unwind because traveling and touring is very stressful work and it’s indeed hard,” says Rauls. “To have a couple of days off in New Orleans to go down and hear some jazz music on Bourbon Street and have some nice cuisine and let your hair down just was a great deal for a band like Zeppelin.”

According to author Stephen Davis’ LZ-’75, The Lost Chronicles of Led Zeppelin’s 1975 American Tour, the band’s affection for the Crescent City drew a chorus of catcalls at a 1975 concert in Dallas. “After ‘Over the Hills and Far Away’,” he writes, “Robert (Plant) exclaimed to the audience that it was great to be back in Texas ‘even if me and Pagey been flying back to New Orleans every night.’”

Rauls remembers, “The band were bad boys. They weren’t necessarily the greatest band in the world to have stay at your hotel for 48 hours—the madness that it created through the lobby and fire escapes and the laundry rooms, and all the craziness that goes with a rock band and fans trying to gain access. Terry Bassett of Concerts West offered to let them stay at his ranch on the outside of Dallas, and in between Dallas gigs they would fly into New Orleans to party and have a good time.”

The Ivanhoe became one of the band’s favorite hangouts. Rauls, Page and Plant were staying at the Downtowner across from the Ivanhoe, and they would go over there after a gig—John Bonham, too—and on occasion they went up and jammed onstage, and of course it would be 2:30 in the morning. There would only be 30 to 50 people in the room.

“Of course, drinks were being poured, tabs were being run and it was good to see the band get up and intermingle with the local musicians and just see two members of Led Zeppelin playing at the Ivanhoe,” Rauls remembers. “On one occasion, me and Bonzo (John Bonham) went in there and he went up onstage and played. Oh Christ, it was madness.”

 

Ironically, Plant would also experience the pain of a lifetime in the city that he had come to love. Led Zeppelin had just checked in at the Maison Dupuy Hotel for a July 30, 1977 concert at the Superdome that would never happen. Maureen Plant phoned her husband from England to inform him that their five-year old son Karac was gravely ill with a viral infection. Two hours later, Maureen called Robert once again with devastating news; Karac was dead.

“The band had just arrived at the Maison Dupuy Hotel in Louisiana—where the governor planned to make them honorary colonels,” writes Mick Wall in his biography of the band, When Giants Walked the Earth. “As Plant put the phone down, his world collapsed. So did what was left of Led Zeppelin’s. All of the remaining shows were cancelled.”