With Elvis Presley and Led Zeppelin two of the most successful live acts of the 1970s – and sharing a tour promotor in Concerts West – it's little surprise that the two acts crossed paths more than once.
Jimmy Page had actually turned down the chance to meet Presley in 1969 after flying to Las Vegas to see Presley perform after mixing Led Zeppelin II in New York, accompanied by then-girlfriend Pamela De Barres. Invited backstage by one of the singer's so-called Memphis Mafia, Page turned down the invite, much Des Barres' chagrin. "I never quite got over it," she said.
The first meeting took place at the Inglewood Forum in Los Angeles in May 1974. Led Zeppelin were in town to attend a launch party for their record label, Swan Song, and attended Elvis's Forum show the following night. On a live recording, during Funny How Time Slips Away, Elvis can be heard telling his band, "If we can start together, fellas, because we've got Led Zeppelin out there. Let's try to look like we know what we're doing, whether we do or not."
A second meeting took place in Memphis, at Elvis's home, while the third and final encounter took place by chance, on the tarmac at the Baltimore/Washington airport in 1977. Here, these momentous occasions are recalled by those who were there.
Cameron Crowe (Rolling Stone): "For the first few minutes of the summit meeting, Elvis ignored Led Zeppelin. The room was filled with an awkward silence. Bodyguards monitored the temperature. Jimmy Page – who had first picked up a guitar after hearing Elvis singing Baby Let’s Play House on overseas American radio – began to fidget. What was going on? Did Elvis really want to meet them? Was this a big misunderstanding?
"Finally Elvis turned to his guests. His first question had nothing to do with Zeppelin’s music. It was their roguish reputation that interested him. ‘Tell me,’ asked Elvis, ‘is it true, these stories about you boys on the road?’"
Robert Plant: "The funniest thing about the whole night, apart from the fact that he stayed with us for two hours and he normally only saw people for ten minutes because we were all having a great time, is that our manager, Peter Grant, who weighed about 360 pounds at the time, walked in and sat down, but not looking properly, and he ended up sitting on Elvis’s dad lap, which was hilarious because he nearly broke Vernon’s legs.
"So it was a good way to start the evening. The great thing about the whole meeting was that Elvis’s sense of humour was sharp as a razor and his actual street sensitivity was really fine-tuned. We just talked about Elvis impersonators and Zeppelin impersonators. We sang together; it was great because Zeppelin said, “We don’t do soundchecks very often and when we do they're very disgusting because we only do your songs,” and he said, ‘Oh yeah, which ones do you like?’
"And I sang Love Me: ‘Treat me like a fool, treat me mean and cruel but love me.’ So we say goodbye and I’m in the corridor getting to the elevator and Elvis calls me back and he sang it to me down the corridor. He sang the first bit and there’s me singing the answers to him. It was great!"
Richard Cole (Led Zeppelin road manager): "The first time we actually went to see Elvis was at Madison Square Garden but we didn’t meet him then. That came later. The band met him around the same time as the opening of SwanSong. We’d all been up all night and we went to his show at The Forum. They put the spotlight on Zeppelin. After the show, we all went back to see him at the hotel. We had to go underneath the Forum into the hotel. And we went up and met him.
"I remember Peter [Grant] sat on Elvis’s dad Vernon. It was a funny evening. Everyone was kind of tiptoeing around ‘cause this was Elvis. And this is something different. He’s like lot of people, you meet them for the first time, it’s like, ‘Oooh! I got Elvis’ autograph for my wife.’ I don’t know what Bonzo was on about, he was on speed at the time, I think. But you could hear him going, “ROARRRRRRRR…” [laughs], just making all these car sounds. And Elvis is nodding, “Yeah, man” ‘cause he loved cars as well. So they were talkin’ about cars."
Jerry Schilling (Presley entourage): "Before the evening was over, Elvis said he wanted to make another exchange. He was out of watches, but had another bit of fashion in mind. So he stood, eyed John [Bonham], and said, 'Let's swap pants', while simultaneously, in expert Python fashion, letting his pyjama bottoms drop beneath his robe. Richard was shocked into silence, while quiet Sheila [Ryan, Elvis's girlfriend] and John burst out laughing. Nobody accepted Elvis' offer, but it was a great note to end the night on."
Michael Francis (Led Zeppelin security): "He was just larger than life. All he ever did during the two days we were there was give people presents, like watches, robes and jewellery.
"With Elvis, he must have had 20 people around him all the time; everybody was saying yes. And he was doing cocaine then, so you could see the end coming. We all thought we’d probably meet him again and again, but it was never gonna happen.
"We met [Elvis’s manager] Colonel Tom Parker too. He was the biggest crook who ever walked. When he died he owed the casinos $20 million. Most of Elvis’s movie deals were done to pay off the Colonel’s gambling debts. The rumour is that he killed a lady in Holland, and that’s why he was always scared to leave America. And that didn’t do Elvis much good. But that’s rock’n’roll. It’s all about the characters. The managers are always a lot more interesting than the rock stars."
David Stanley (Elvis's brother-in-law): "There was one other time the Presley tour ran across the band while out on the road. It was at the Washington/Baltimore airport. We (the Presley tour) were playing in Washington and Led Zeppelin was playing at the Capital Centre. We arrived on the Lisa Marie, Elvis’ Private Jet, and Led Zeppelin arrived on the Caesar’s Chariot. It was a hell of a sight to see these two private jets sitting side by side on the private tarmac.
"I asked Elvis if I could go with the band that night for their concert. He just looked at me and said, ‘No.’ When I asked him why he said, ‘Look at the bottom of your paycheck.’ As I entered the limo with Elvis I said they sure have a nice jet. Elvis leaned over and reminded me, ‘They lease their jet from Caesar’s Palace, I own mine.'”