"You can’t play Stairway to Heaven with cold fingers in front of Jimmy Page!": What happened when Ann and Nancy Wilson performed Stairway To Heaven for Led Zeppelin

Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and John Paul Jones at the Kennedy Center Opera House, and Ann and Nancy Wilson onstage
Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and John Paul Jones at the Kennedy Center Opera House, and Ann and Nancy Wilson onstage (Image credit: Riccardo S. Savi/CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)

On December 2, 2012, Led Zeppelin received the Kennedy Center Honors from President Barack Obama. 

It's an award bestowed upon those considered to have contributed greatly to American culture, with other recipients including Ella Fitzgerald, Leonard Bernstein, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Sammy Davis Jr., Dizzy Gillespie, Johnny Cash, Carole King and Joni Mitchell. In a world where awards are handed out like lollipops, The Kennedy Center Honors are a big deal. 

Every December, the awards climax with a gala event at the Kennedy Center Opera House in Washington, D.C., and in 2012 the show included an emotional performance of Stairway To Heaven by Heart’s Ann and Nancy Wilson, with Jason Bonham on drums.

Did we say emotional? It's almost startlingly so. It's the looks the surviving members of Led Zeppelin give each other during the performance. It's Robert Plant's eyes watering as he watches Ann Wilson singing a song he famously has a difficult relationship with. It's the gospel choir paying tribute to John Bonham in the most unexpected way. It's Jason Bonham lifting his eyes towards the heavens as the song climaxes. It's extraordinary. 

"I knew we did a lot of damage to people's brains and ear drums, and I knew we wrote some great songs, but it was a very humbling experience," Plant told LA Weekly. "When I saw Heart perform Stairway To Heaven, I just couldn't believe that song had anything to do with this 64-year old man that was sitting next to John Paul Jones. I thought to myself, 'This is me... How did this happen?'"    


Nancy Wilson: “Oh my god, no pressure, right?! [laughs] Jimmy, Robert, John Paul, a few dignitaries, the President, the First Lady. Good Lordy! It was one of those moments where your professionalism has to be there. You have to have the most focus of your life. Before we went out there, I had to get my fingers really warmed up. It was winter, and it was cold and drafty backstage. You can’t play Stairway to Heaven with cold fingers in front of Jimmy Page! 

“When we walked out, Ann and I gave each other a really long look and took a deep breath. I had to start all by my little old self. I thought: ‘Okay, I’ve played this song all my life and I know how it goes.’ Of course, my knees were shaking. But once Ann started singing, I thought: ‘We’re in!’ [laughs]. 

“We didn’t see the broadcast until a few weeks later and couldn’t see what was going on in the balcony. I think a lot of the emotion between the guys was not just about the song itself, but also us having Jason Bonham on the drums. He was the little kid who grew up around Led Zeppelin’s practice rooms. And he played with Heart for quite a while. Then the reveal of the smaller choir, the larger choir, then the orchestra. It was really well put together. If anybody deserved a tribute like that, it’s Led Zeppelin.

“At the dinner afterward, each member came up to us," elder sister Ann told Classic Rock Revisited. "Plant was like: ‘Oh my god, I’ve grown to hate that song so much because everybody murders it so badly. But you guys did great!’ Then Page told me: ‘You played that so well.’ And I just kind of swooned. What a night.

“When we were done we walked backstage and there was a feeling of awe. We were like, ‘What just happened?’ We weren’t nervous when we were doing it – but afterwards our nervous system came back to life and it all kicked in."

Fraser Lewry

Online Editor at Louder/Classic Rock magazine since 2014. 38 years in music industry, online for 25. Also bylines for: Metal Hammer, Prog Magazine, The Word Magazine, The Guardian, The New Statesman, Saga, Music365. Former Head of Music at Xfm Radio, A&R at Fiction Records, early blogger, ex-roadie, published author. Once appeared in a Cure video dressed as a cowboy, and thinks any situation can be improved by the introduction of cats. Favourite Serbian trumpeter: Dejan Petrović.