When people think of Jimmy Page, they think of the long-haired guitar wizard who brought that iconic, hard-rocking edge to Led Zeppelin, his somewhat tenuous links to Aleister Crowley, or maybe even that terrible 2008 rockumentary; It Might Get Loud. But before all of this, he was a short-haired session musician, one of the hottest prospects on the London scene.
Starting life as a busker after enrolling in art school in the pursuit of developing his love of art and wanting to recover from glandular fever, he would begin to transition into being a full-fledged guitar for hire. Whilst still a student, he performed at the cultural hub of the day, the Marquee Club on Oxford Street. He performed on stage with some of the era’s biggest acts, including Cyril Davies’ All Stars, and Alex Korner’s Blues Incorporated, which featured Ginger Baker and Charlie Watts at different points. Not resting there, he even played with fellow guitar heroes Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton as he hoarded the skills of others with prolific intensity.
One night, he was spotted by John Gibb of Brian Howard & The Silhouettes, who asked him to join him to record a collection of singles for Columbia Graphophone Company. With his foot now firmly in the door, it would be Mike Leander of Decca Records, a ubiquitous songwriter and producer, who first offered Page regular work as a session musician. The first single he appeared on for Decca was ‘Diamonds’ by Jet Harris and Tony Meehan, which hit number one on the UK Singles Chart in 1963.
After brief sessions with various other bands and convinced by the money, Page was now committed as a full-time session musician. Funnily enough, his nickname was ‘Lil’ Jim Pea’, as it spared confusion with another celebrated session guitarist, Big Jim Sullivan. This nickname is a far cry from the swaggering rock god we got in Led Zeppelin.
Still young, although he was making some medium-sized waves, Page was still mainly called on as a backup or ‘insurance’ musician for when the first choice dropped out, or a second guitarist was really needed by an artist. “It was usually myself and a drummer”, Page explained in 1977. “Though they never mention the drummer these days, just me… Anyone needing a guitarist either went to Big Jim (Sullivan) or myself.”
It was working for iconic producer Shel Talmy of The Who and Kinks fame where Page truly started to rise as a guitarist. He is even credited with playing the twelve-string guitar on The Kinks 1964 debut album, Kinks, on the tracks ‘I’m a Lover Not a Fighter’ and ‘I’ve Been Driving on Bald Mountain’. Furthermore, he also played rhythm guitar on The Who’s classic introductory single, ‘I Can’t Explain’.
Between 1964 and 1965, Page loaned his talents to some of the biggest records of the day. Hits he played on included Marianne Faithfull’s ‘As Tears Go By’, The Rolling Stones hit ‘Heart of Stone’, Shirley Bassey’s ‘Goldfinger’ and Petula Clark’s ‘Downtown’ to name just a few. Reflecting on just how much of the unseen man Page was, in 2010, he revealed that he had actually contributed guitar to the incidental score for the classic Beatles film A Hard Day’s Night. In 1966 he also played on Donovan’s flower-power staple, Sunshine Superman.
In fact, Page isn’t even sure of the exact number of tracks he played on in total. He maintains that it’s hard to remember the precise amount due to the sheer amount of sessions he played at the time. On the fluid nature of his job, he said: “I was doing three sessions a day, fifteen sessions a week. Sometimes I would be playing with a group, sometimes I could be doing film music, it could be a folk session… I was able to fit all these different roles.”
The whole point of the article is to show that the fully realised and dextrous Jimmy Page that we got in Led Zeppelin would not have been so without the mountains of hours he put in as a session musician. In short, these experiences created the fluid guitar hero we all know today.
In 1993, he told Guitar World of his schooling: “My session work was invaluable… And I rarely ever knew in advance what I was going to be playing. But I learned things even on my worst sessions – and believe me, I played on some horrendous things. I finally called it quits after I started getting calls to do Muzak. I decided I couldn’t live that life anymore; it was getting too silly.”
Discussing the way his session work opened up the doors for the next chapter of his life, Page said: “I guess it was destiny that a week after I quit doing sessions Paul Samwell-Smith left The Yardbirds and I was able to take his place. But being a session musician was good fun in the beginning – the studio discipline was great. They’d just count the song off and you couldn’t make any mistakes.”
In addition to getting sick of having to feature on the music he hated, it was the rise of the soulful Stax Records sound, which brought in brass and orchestral arrangements at the expense of the guitar, that was the final nail in the coffin for Page’s pre-Zeppelin career as a session man. Soon after, in 1966, he joined The Yardbirds. It was this decision to join the band, nearly two years after their first offer, that would set him on his path to forming Led Zeppelin – but that is a story for another day.
By 1970, Jimmy Page was a celebrated guitarist for his original work, not just on the work of others. He emerged from the shadows as a quarter of the colourful, esoteric beast that was Led Zeppelin. The rest, as they say, is history.