The complicated journey towards legend of Led Zeppelin's Whole Lotta Love

Led Zeppelin arrive at Honolulu airport on their 1969 US tour
(Image credit: Robert Knight Archive/Getty Images)

Jimmy Page initially came up with the classic Whole Lotta Love riff at his Pangbourne home in the late summer of 1968. Some nine months later in April 1969, it was this song that kick-started the sessions for Led Zeppelin II at Olympic Studios in Barnes.

The song originally took shape around Page’s killer three-note riff with its octave E conclusion, and a descending chord structure which made use of a backwards echo, an effect that the guitarist had first used on a Mickie Most session.

Further overdubs were added at A&M Studios in Hollywood. The final work on it took place at a marathon mixing session at New York’s A&R Studios on August 29 and 30. Overseeing this session with Page was Eddie Kramer, known for his production work with Jimi Hendrix.

‘’The whole thing with Jimmy was that we liked to leave in little mistakes and ad libs and things, it added to the whole vibe. So on Whole Lotta Love we left in that cough at the beginning,” Kramer recalled. “Then on the ‘Way down inside’ Robert vocal part, we found we had a leakage from track eight – a previous vocal track that we couldn’t seem to lose – so Jimmy and I cranked up the reverb and left it in. Big mistake? Happy mistake!’’

Lyrically it borrowed wholesale from Willie Dixon’s You Need Love – recorded by Muddy Waters in 1962. Dixon successfully sued Zep in 1985 for royalties. Following an out-of-court settlement Dixon’s name was added to the songwriting credits. At the song’s fade out Plant also threw in lines from Dixon’s Shake For Me and Back Door Man.

Whole Lotta Love made its live debut on their second US tour at a show at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco on April 26, 1969. Zeppelin also played the song on their support gig for The Who in Columbia, Maryland on May 25, 1969. In June 1969, they previewed it on a BBC session, but the band didn’t play it again until 1970. From then on it became an integral part of their set, extended to include a riotous rock’n’roll medley.

In America, where singles extracted from albums gained valuable airplay and in turn led to album sales, Zeppelin’s manager Peter Grant had no real problem with Atlantic Records issuing an edited version of Whole Lotta Love as a single. Its ascent to the Top 5 of the Billboard chart by January 1970 confirmed their appeal as the hottest act of the new decade.

However, Grant had no plans to allow such a release in the UK. Atlantic here presumed wrongly that Grant would sanction a release and went ahead and pressed an initial quantity of the 3.12 minute edit of the song backed with Living Loving Maid (She’s Just A Woman)

Allegedly, copies were distributed to press and radio stations and around 500 ended up in a warehouse in Manchester ready for release. Grant immediately requested their recall, pointing to a clause in their contract which stated he and he alone would have control of any single releases. Original copies are much sought after on the collectors’ market.

In November 1970, CCS, the big band rock outfit formed by bluesman Alexis Korner, scored a Top 20 UK hit with their version of the song. It was this big band arrangement that was subsequently adapted as the theme tune for the UK weekly TV chart show Top Of The Pops, thus ensuring that it would seep into the consciousness of every pop fan in the land, whether or not they were fans of Led Zeppelin. 

In 1996, dance act Goldbug took Whole Lotta Love into the UK Top 5 with an arrangement that merged the Pearl & Dean cinema ad theme. A year later, in September 1997, the surviving band members finally relented and sanctioned a belated UK single release for a new edit of Whole Lotta Love which was issued as a CD single to promote the re-issuing of the Zeppelin catalogue to mid-price. It reached No.21 on the chart. Download sales of the song at the time of their Mothership compilation took it to No.64 in November 2007.

Whole Lotta Love loomed large again and gained a new worldwide audience when Jimmy Page performed a version of the song with Leona Lewis on vocals at the closing ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

The 2014 Led Zeppelin II reissue included a rough mix vocal version of Whole Lotta Love recorded at Olympic Studios on April 19, 1969, while in the same year the reissue appeared, the Whole Lotta Love riff was voted the greatest guitar riff of all time by listeners of BBC Radio 2.

Early US pressings of the Led Zeppelin II album cut by mastering engineer Robert Ludwig were deemed to have too much bass and dynamics. This pressing was recalled and replaced by a cut with less bass. The now sought-after original pressings can be identified by a small RL etched into the lead out groove area.

Dave Lewis is a freelance journalist and the editor and publisher of the Led Zeppelin magazine and website Tight But Loose (opens in new tab), and author of several books on the band. Through the magazine and books, the Tight But Loose website and his Facebook page (opens in new tab), Dave's objective remains to continue to inform, entertain and connect like minded Led Zeppelin fans new and old throughout the world – bringing them closer to the greatest rock music ever made.