Led Zeppelin is considered by many to be one of the greatest bands in the history of rock music, but their roots clearly lie in the tradition of the blues.
Their blues influences got the best of them on a few occasions during their run in the late 60s and 70s. In 1972, the band was sued for copyright infringement by Arc Music, the music publishing company that handled the catalog of Chess Records, one of the premier blues record labels. At the center of the case were two Led Zeppelin songs, “Bring It On Home” and “The Lemon Song.”
Arc Music claimed that the intro to “Bring It On Home” borrowed liberally from Sonny Boy Williamson’s song of the same name written by Willie Dixon, and that “The Lemon Song” borrowed from Howlin’ Wolf’s song “Killing Floor.”
Compare the songs below:
Sonny Boy Williamson’s original version of “Bring It On Home” vs Led Zeppelin’s “Bring It On Home.”
The Electric Flag’s version of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor” vs Led Zeppelin’s “The Lemon Song”
The case was eventually settled out of court for an undisclosed amount of money. Ironically, Dixon himself didn’t receive any money from the settlement until he sued Arc Music over royalties and copyrights.
Dixon sued Led Zeppelin himself in 1985 in regards to another song he felt infringed on his copyrights, claiming that Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” ripped off lyrics from his song “You Need Love.” Again, a settlement was reached out of court, and Dixon was given credit as co-writer of “Whole Lotta Love.”
Jimmy Page, guitarist for Led Zeppelin, commented on the band’s use of classic blues songs in an interview with Guitar World magazine.
I always tried to bring something fresh to anything that I used. I always made sure to come up with some variation. In fact, I think in most cases, you would never know what the original source could be. Maybe not in every case — but in most cases. So most of the comparisons rest on the lyrics. And Robert [Plant, lead singer of Led Zeppelin] was supposed to change the lyrics, and he didn’t always do that — which is what brought on most of the grief. They couldn’t get us on the guitar parts of the music, but they nailed us on the lyrics. We did, however, take some liberties, I must say [laughs]. But never mind; we did try to do the right thing.
Years later, many hip-hop artists would find themselves in a similar position as Led Zeppelin as the laws surrounding sampling became more strict, ultimately changing the sound of the genre forever.