Before Led Zeppelin became the titans of rock that would take over the globe, they were four of London’s brightest session musicians who had built up immense individual reputations. The first time that they would actually create magic together came when American singer-songwriter P.J. Proby arrived in London’s Olympic Studios in 1968 to create his album Three Week Hero.
Although the record features an array of session musicians rather than Proby being backed by John Bonham, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and Robert Plant for the entirety of the record, it’s still a hugely monumental moment and one which can’t be overlooked. In truth, Plant doesn’t even sing on the record and instead offers a contribution on the harmonica. Without his thunderous vocals, it’s hard to draw many comparisons between the album and the work of Led Zeppelin but it’s a poignant moment in the history of the group nonetheless.
Jimmy Page’s success as a session musician meant that getting him to play on this record was somewhat of a coup for Proby and, equally, the power that Page carried meant that he could squeeze his new bandmates onto the project too. Led Zeppelin had only just played together for the first time earlier that month and was yet to play a proper show. However, that soon changed and they began playing dates around Scandinavia that Autumn under the guise of The New Yardbirds.
“I got the opportunity to walk through that sort of iron-clad door,” Page later recalled about his days on the session circuit. “Session music was an extremely closed shop. I was given a try-out with other studio musicians – I must have been seven years younger than anybody else that was around at that point, and some were considerably older.
“They said ‘You can make up a part, play what you want.’ And because I had these roots across the board, going through from rockabilly to Chicago blues and the whole works, and acoustic playing as well, and I played the harmonica too, I became quite an in-demand session player for one instrument or the other.”
Proby was a seasoned musician who had a fraction of success in 1964 with his debut album but never quite managed to recapture that at any point of his career. Even having the best session musicians in the business playing for him wouldn’t resurrect his waling career.
“The boys told me they were going over to play in San Francisco and all that,” Proby once told Led Zeppelin fansite Finding Zoso. “I said, ‘Look, from what I’ve heard and the way you boys played tonight, not only are you not going to be my backing band, I’m going to say goodbye right now, because I don’t think I’m ever going to see you again. That’s how successful you’re going to be. You’re exactly what they want, you play all that psychedelic stuff and everything’,” Proby recalled.
“I said, ‘You’re going to go over there and go down so great I don’t think you’re ever going to come home.’ They didn’t ever come back until they changed their name to Led Zeppelin and stayed over there and came back huge huge stars… I said goodbye that day when I cut that album and I haven’t seen one of them since,” Proby added.
Straight after they finished work on the album on September 7th, 1968, Led Zeppelin took to the stage as a four-piece for the first time at the unlikely location of the Gladsaxe Teen Club of Gladsaxe, Denmark, where they would deliver a now-historic set but this came just after they finished work on Proby’s record.
“Their performance and their music were absolutely flawless, and the music continued to ring nicely in the ears for some time after the curtains were drawn after their show,” a newsletter issued by the venue said of the performance. “Let me, in particular, give my praise to Jimmy Page who has made a great job with the three new men. They really succeeded and in particular, the guitar solo by Page created huge applause. We can therefore conclude that the New Yardbirds are at least as good as the old ones were.”
Just two months on from their first ever show and finishing work on Proby’s record they then went on to secure a whopping $143,000 advance contract from Atlantic Records which, at the time, was the biggest deal ever for a new act and the rest, as they say, is history.