(Pictured: Led Zeppelin at work, 1975.)
(Note to patrons: It has been brought to my attention that in last week’s post about “Free Bird,” I misspelled “Lynyrd” every single time. This is a change from my usual practice, which is to misspell “Skynyrd” every single time. Consider it an homage to 14-year-old boys such as I who couldn’t spell either one of them in 1974. Please enjoy today’s post about Lead Zeplin.)
Led Zeppelin released its fabled fourth album (Led Zeppelin IV or Four Symbols or Zoso or Runes or whatever you like to call it) in November 1971. “Black Dog” was released as a single shortly thereafter, and rose to #9 in Cash Box, #10 in Record World, and #15 on the Hot 10. After that, Atlantic Records pressed “Stairway to Heaven” onto 45s for promotional use at radio stations, with the song in stereo on one side and in mono on the other. The existence of this 45 leads to the widespread belief that “Stairway” was released as a commercial 45, but it was not, not in America at least.
According to ARSA, the first station to chart “Stairway to Heaven” was WSRF in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in April 1972, but they’re an outlier. The record didn’t pick up adds in bunches until July and August. CKVN in Vancouver, British Columbia, showed it leaping from #12 to #1 on its chart dated August 7, 1972. It appeared on surveys from such influential stations as WPGC in Washington DC, WCOL in Columbus, Ohio, and WAVZ in New Haven, Connecticut, during the summer. In September, it went to #1 at WAMS in Wilmington, Delaware (just ahead of “Nights in White Satin”). WHYI in Fort Lauderdale made it #1 in September and October; in October and November it was #1 at WFIL in Philadelphia. It was a Top-10 hit in Phoenix, San Diego, and some smaller markets. Another Vancouver station, CKLG, ranked it as the #1 single for all of 1972. WFIL ranked it #7 for the year, and WRKO in Boston had it at #12.
There’s no way to reconstruct the history from ARSA alone, but it would be interesting to know whether these stations played the whole 7:55, or if they cut it shorter. One station that did the latter was WLS in Chicago. But they didn’t do it until 1975.
According to a 2019 post at the WLS Musicradio Facebook group that quotes Jim Smith, who was WLS music director in 1975, management was trying to forestall something they’d seen in other markets—album-oriented rock stations taking audience share away from Top 40s. So WLS elected to start playing some album cuts at night. “Stairway to Heaven” was one of Smith’s first suggestions, but the station’s program director declared that it was too long. (Smith pointed out that the station played other long songs, including “American Pie,” “Mac Arthur Park,” and “Layla,” but was told, “Those were hits.”) Initially, Smith was told to cut it to three minutes. He found a way to cut it to 6:05, and that’s the version that WLS played for a while. He says the station began playing the full-length version only after night jock John Landecker talked to a couple of high-school kids while doing an appearance, found out it was an edit (he didn’t know), and told the program director that the station had to start playing the long version or risk being perceived as un-hip. Smith marveled that listeners had succeeded in persuading the program director where he had not. He was, however, already prepared, he said. “The long version was already on cart, ready and waiting for this inevitable moment.”
As 1975 turned to 1976, Led Zeppelin IV was back on the WLS album chart (with the title Runes). And given how influential WLS was, it’s likely that other Top 40 stations, in markets large and small, followed its lead and added “Stairway to Heaven” to their playlists. (This would have been the time I first heard it.)
At the end of 1976, Atlantic tried to capitalize on the song’s new popularity by releasing another promo 45 of “Stairway to Heaven,” this one featuring the live version from the newly released album The Song Remains the Same. [See comment from our man Yah Shure below; this is another reissue of the original. My bad.] It didn’t go anywhere, but by then, “Stairway to Heaven” didn’t need any additional help. It had become what it remains today.
Recommended Viewing: The documentary Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice, which was on CNN earlier this month and is now at Amazon Prime Video and elsewhere. The film is an officially authorized bio and as such is a little bit rose-colored, but it nevertheless does justice to Ronstadt’s historical importance, and just how damn good she was, and it’s mandatory homework for readers of this website.