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Music

Looking back on John Paul Jones' illustrious pre-fame career as a session musician

Each member of Led Zeppelin was a virtuoso in their own right. The sum of its dazzling parts, the rock behemoth would not have been the same if you were to take away each of its four quarters. This is something the band were clearly well aware of, as they decided not to pursue the project after the death of drumming genius John Bonham in 1980.

Bonham had a flare that hit the sweet spot between technique and power that many have tried to emulate in the years since his passing. Frontman Robert Plant has a voice that is unmistakable, siren-like and powerful, he’s capable of reaching each end of the spectrum. Guitarist Jimmy Page is also an icon, one of the most influential axemen of all time, he helped to bring rock into the modern age with his heavy, swaggering licks, as well as his technical prowess.

Then we have John Paul Jones, bassist and multi-instrumentalist. Led Zeppelin’s glue and unsung hero. Whilst he’s not underrated by fans of the band and genre as a whole, he is certainly overlooked in the mainstream. Coming from a family of musicians, Jones is the true musician of the band. Privately educated at Christ’s College in Blackheath, London, Jones studied music formally and through performing with his father. He became the choirmaster of a local church at 14 and with the payments bought his first bass, a Dallas Tuxedo solid body. From that moment he would progress quickly, and not long after he’d make his first foray into London’s music scene.

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Jones joined his first group, The Deltas, at 15, and afterwards, he played bass in the jazz fusion group, Jett Blacks, an ever-changing collective that featured soon to be celebrated guitarist John McLaughlin. A year later, in 1962, he was spotted by Jet Harris and Tony Meehan of the iconic band The Shadows and hired for a two-year assignment as their bass player. 

Interestingly, before hiring Jones, Harris and Meehan had scored a number one hit with the track ‘Diamonds’, a number which featured Jones’ future Led Zeppelin bandmate Jimmy Page on guitar. Furthermore, his dalliance with The Shadows could have sent his career and rock music on a completely different path if they’d decided to hire him permanently. Talks were initially held with Jones after bassist Brian Locking left the band in October 1963, but thankfully, John Rostill was eventually chosen to take his place. 

Regardless, Jones’ life was about to get very busy. Aged just 18, in 1964, he began working as a session musician for Decca Records, one of the biggest labels of the day. From that point up until the formation of Led Zeppelin in 1968, he featured on hundreds of recording sessions. Swiftly finding his footing, Jones began playing keyboards as well as arranging and producing, and he became one of the most revered and sought out figures in London’s music scene. 

The number of icons that Jones worked with during his pre-Led Zeppelin days is quite remarkable. His string arrangement can be heard on The Rolling Stones classic ‘She’s a Rainbow’ and he also performed on Donovan’s countercultural staples ‘Sunshine Superman’, ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’ and ‘Mellow Yellow’. Jones is also credited on efforts by Jeff Beck, Lulu, Shirley Bassey, Dusty Springfield, Cat Stevens and many more. 

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Jones’ work on ‘Sunshine Superman’ caught the attention of producer Mickie Most, who hired him for most of his projects moving forward. These included releases by heavyweights such as Tom Jones, Nico and The Walker Brothers. Famously in 1967, Jones arranged the music for Herman’s Hermits’ film Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter

Working almost none stop for four years, of the period, Jones said later: “I can’t remember three-quarters of the sessions I was on”. He was participating in two to three sessions a day, often seven days a week. Understandably, by 1968, Jones was burned out. He recalled: “I was arranging 50 or 60 things a month, and it was starting to kill me”.

He and Page would cross paths numerous times across the years as the pair were two of London’s hottest session musicians. After Page joined The Yardbirds permanently in 1966, Jones contributed to their 1967 album, Little Games. The following year, the two would meet again during the sessions for Donovan‘s 1968 album The Hurdy Gurdy Man. Here, Jones told Page that he would be interested in any future projects he might have in store. Fate was to bring Page and Jones together. The Yardbirds disbanded, leaving Page the only remaining member needing to fulfil scheduled dates in Scandinavia. Prompted by his wife, Jones asked Page about the vacant bassist position, and Page joyously invited Jones for a jam. 

In a 1985 interview with Rolling Stone, Page recalled: “I was working at the sessions for Donovan’s Hurdy Gurdy Man, and John Paul Jones was looking after the musical arrangements. During a break, he asked me if I could use a bass player in the new group I was forming. He had a proper music training, and he had quite brilliant ideas. I jumped at the chance of getting him.”

The New Yardbirds, or Led Zeppelin as they came to be known, would leave an indelible mark on rock. They dragged rock into the ’70s by building on the dark and heavy sound that The Yardbirds had experimented with. They filled the massive hole that The Beatles left, and without their pioneering efforts, rock music would sound very different today.

Watch Jones discuss his career below.