Ron Onesti: John Bonham's stairway to a heavenly legacy
It's 1975, I'm 13 years old, and I am just starting to figure out what it is I like musically. Chicago is going crazy because rock supergroup Led Zeppelin is coming to town. "Stairway To Heaven," the group's unofficial signature song, is everywhere.
I am breaking all kinds of air-guitar records and belting out lyrics at sold-out performances in front of my bedroom mirror. I had it down, note for note. Yes, I was a guitar hero in front of my throngs of fans. OK, it was in front of my younger sister and brother, but still … they were captivated, and I rocked.
Fast forward 46 years. I'm in the music business living a dream, producing concerts with some of my early heroes. The music of Led Zeppelin is as popular as ever, named on every list from Rolling Stone magazine and beyond as the all-time best. And at our Arcada Theatre in St. Charles, rock 'n' roll royalty came, and conquered. Jason Bonham, the talented son of original Zep drummer John Bonham, brought his incredible live band, multimedia "Led Zeppelin Experience" to St. Charles. His band was nothing short of incredible as he masterfully did what he was born to do behind the drums (including a 32-inch timpani, like his father). Each musician, including the amazing vocalist, had the songs literally coming out of their pores. Watching them was as wonderful as hearing them.
After a two-hour extravaganza of Zeppelin hits and rare, personal video footage, I found myself chatting one-on-one with this musical-family legend on his tour bus.
The original Led Zeppelin band consisted of vocalist Robert Plant, bassist John Paul Jones, guitarist Jimmy Page and drummer John "Bonzo" Bonham. They began in England in the late 1960s, and in the '70s became what the Beatles were the decade before -- international superstars.
It all came to a tragic end in 1980 when the 32-year-old Bonham overdosed on vodka after a long night of rehearsals. The band announced they could no longer continue without their dear friend and bandmate. Bonham's son, Jason, was an impressionable 14-year old, and could have gone in many directions. His father's legacy prevailed, and Jason carried the torch, becoming a drumming force to be reckoned with.
Jason began his journey in music at the age of 4, "power drumming like dad," he said. He joined several bands and played with numerous rock stars. In a 1995 personal high and career moment, he, along with his sister Zoe, joined the remaining members of Led Zeppelin as the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. "My mom (Pat) did not join us. To this day she still can't handle his death. Actually, none of us can. That's why doing this show is so incredibly important" Jason said.
In 2007, the remaining members of Led Zeppelin decided to perform one last time together in a tribute concert to Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun in London. But who was going to be on drums? There was no hesitation. Who better than the closest link to the band itself? Who better than John Bonham's son Jason? "The guys all watched me grow up," Jason said. "I did a few things with the guys on an individual basis, and I of course knew the music. I hit the drums harder that night than I ever had. It was wonderful to be a part of … it was a natural fit."
The concert was magical, yet it would not be released on DVD for another five years. It is called "Celebration Day," and came out this past November. "It was an emotional thing, I really didn't think it was going to come out at all after so long," Jason said.
Another 2012 milestone for the band was receiving the Kennedy Center Honors for Lifetime Achievement. Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page received the awards from President Obama. For the show finale, another Seventies supergroup, Heart, took the stage and performed "Stairway To Heaven." There was a 100-member choir and on drums, Jason Bonham.
"Jason, what was going through your mind during all of that," I asked. He replied, "I was so nervous. The guys didn't know I was going to be there. In fact, if you watch the video, you will see Robert Plant jump up and point at the stage. Robert told me later that night, 'I was just saying to Jimmy that we all have our children with us, Jason should be here. Then you popped up on stage!' He then got very emotional and hugged me."
Very near to the end of the song, Jason paused, looked up and then shut his eyes tightly, physically becoming part of the moment. "How did that cameraman capture that most incredible shot," I asked Jason. "The director actually asked my wife, 'When does he get emotional during that song?' Quite the silly question since it is never planned. But he was watching for it!"
"What were you thinking at that second?" I asked. "Just that he was with us, and after all these years, they were still applauding for dad," he said.
I thanked Jason for sharing that heartfelt moment with the millions of people watching. It was truly an incredible glimpse into Jason's relationship with his father and his "uncles" Robert, John and Jimmy. Jason's expression allowed me to, in some way, feel his pain while sharing his pride in his father.
Still, more than 35 years after his death, John Bonham has been named the No. 1 drummer in history by Stylus, Rhythm, Modern Drummer and Rolling Stone magazines. And nobody fosters his legacy better than his own son.
The "song may have remained the same," but audiences all over the world will be forever feeling a "whole lotta love" for Jason and his heartwarming tribute to his father. This is one Zeppelin full of "Hot Heir" talent!
• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of the Onesti Entertainment Corp. and The Historic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Celebrity questions and comments? Email email@example.com.