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35 Years Ago: Robert Plant Debuts the Honeydrippers

Al Dunlop, Getty Images
Al Dunlop, Getty Images

Once you’ve been to the mountaintop, where can you go for a follow-up? That’s the question the surviving members of Led Zeppelin had to ask themselves when they disbanded following John Bonham’s death in 1980. After you’ve become the biggest band in the world, defining over-the-top rock stardom, what do you do for a second act?

For a hot minute, it looked like the band’s front line might merge with the rhythm section of another iconic ‘70s band that had come to a fork in the road. Jimmy Page was cozying up to bassist Chris Squire and drummer Alan White of Yes in a band tentatively dubbed XYZ (for Ex-Yes and Zeppelin, of course) – and he wanted Robert Plant to join in.

The leonine lead singer, however, ultimately demurred. It would have been easy for Plant to go from Zeppelin to another big, flashy bunch of arena rockers, but the singer would spend much of his post-Zep career flouting expectations at every opportunity. And that practice began in 1981, when Plant put together the Honeydrippers.

Now, these weren’t the Honeydrippers that most of the world would come to know through the 1984 album Honeydrippers Vol. 1, which contained two Top 40 hits. That all-star outfit – which featured Plant, Page, Jeff Beck, Paul Shaffer and other heavyweights – came into existence at the behest of Atlantic Records chief Ahmet Ertegun, who had caught a concert by the short-lived, considerably less star-studded 1981 lineup.

Reeling from both the death of his longtime friend Bonham, with whom he’d played in the Band of Joy before Led Zeppelin, Plant sought out a place of comfort, both musically and personally. In order to escape his recent past he pursued a more distant, almost mythological past. He began convening with musicians he’d known since he was a schoolboy hanging around Midlands blues clubs, and together they proceeded to jam on the kind of early rock & roll/R&B tunes that Plant loved when he was a kid.

Instead of storming the stage amid lengthy solos and epic tunes, Plant began bopping atop bouncy ‘50s-style jump blues and rockabilly rhythms, and having the time of his life doing it. He first brought guitarists Robbie Blunt (ex-Bronco and Silverhead) and Andy Silvester (formerly of Chicken Shack and Savoy Brown) over to his home at Jennings farm, followed in due course by bassist Jim Hickman, drummer Kevin O’Neill, harmonica player Ricky Cool and saxophonist Keith Evans.

The man who had become an avatar of everything larger-than-life in the ‘70s rock scene was now engaging in a shocking about-face. Ironically, Plant shook off the psychological shackles of the last decade by returning to the same well of post-World War II American music that inspired Led Zeppelin, but instead of amping those sounds up to gargantuan stature, he and his Honeydrippers – whose name came from either from the nickname of bluesman Roosevelt Sykes or the song and backing band of ‘40s R&B star Joe Liggins, depending on who you ask – stuck to the material’s original sonic dimensions.

Listen to the Honeydrippers Perform ‘Rockin’ at Midnight’

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Plant and his pals worked up a rootsy repertoire that encompassed not only rockabilly romps like Gene Vincent’s “She She Little Sheila,” Carl Perkins’ “Your True Love,” and the Elvis Presley classic “Little Sister,” but old-school R&B wailers like Don Gardner & Dee Dee Ford’s “I Need Your Loving,” blues stompers like Muddy Waters’ “I Can’t Be Satisfied” and Lazy Lester’s “Sugar Coated Love,” and even the Western swing standard “Deep in the Heart of Texas.” And when it was time to take it on the road, the Honeydrippers’ modus operandi was just as lean and mean as their sound.

Back in 1972, when Paul McCartney and his new band Wings were embarking on their first tour, McCartney – who had even more musical and emotional baggage to shake off than Plant would – hit the road guerrilla-style, showing up at various British universities unannounced and playing sans promotion anyplace that could accommodate their modest gear. It’s likely that Plant was aware of this and, consciously or not, it may very well have been his model for the 1981 Honeydrippers tour.

Starting either at Keele University in Staffordshire on March 3 or at a bar in Stourbridge on March 9, depending on the source, the Honeydrippers hit a string of small venues including pubs, colleges, and small clubs, each show unadvertised – and all well clear of London, either in the Midlands or points north. It wasn’t just that they took the stage with their amps stacked on beer crates, in stark contrast to the convoy of trucks that hauled Led Zeppelin’s equipment around, or that Zep’s outsized hard-rock extravaganzas been replaced by the two-and-a-half-minute wham-bam of classic blues and rock ‘n’ roll tunes. A more symbolic but equally striking alteration had occurred.

Even Plant’s long, curly locks (surely one of the most legendary heads of hair in rock history) had gone under the chopper. Granted, he wasn’t sporting a crew cut or spiky New Wave ‘do, but the sweeping changes he was instituting to put the past behind him clearly extended all the way to his stylist. And in rock ‘n’ roll, of course, image counts as much as anything – maybe even more.

The original Honeydrippers’ lifespan would be brief. By 1982, Plant (with Robbie Blunt by his side), would return to a mainstream rock feel for his first solo album, Pictures at Eleven, but the precedent had been established for the kind of mercurial moves Plant would continue to make throughout his career. From his Alison Krauss collaboration to his repeated refusals to reunite with Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones, no one would ever accuse Robert Plant of resting on his laurels.

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