Ron Onesti: The 'Heart' of Led Zeppelin … Ann Wilson!
When I think of the greatest voices in rock 'n' roll, many come to mind. I think if I were to "personify" an official voice of rock, it would probably be Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin.
My other favorites include Steve Perry of Journey, Peter Cetera of Chicago, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, Getty Lee of Rush, Dennis DeYoung of Styx and Lou Gramm of Foreigner. But really, just like you, I could go on and on, including Jeff Lynne of the Electric Light Orchestra, Jon Anderson of Yes and Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull.
But among this "boys club" of singers, there are two female voices that have also been there all the while, consistently producing hit after hit: Ann Wilson of Heart and Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac.
But for me, Ann Wilson truly represents the power of rock, and the music of the era. As powerful as it is, even her ballads command rockin' respect.
I had just graduated from Our Lady of the Angels grammar school in 1976 and the songs "Magic Man" and "Crazy On You" were all over the airwaves, and high on the WLS-AM weekly surveys. I couldn't wait to save up the money to buy those two 45 RPM records from that record store on North Avenue and Pulaski Road in Chicago, my weekly Saturday morning haunt at the time. A dollar a piece was a lot in those days!
As a freshman at Weber High School, I met a junior who was a pretty big guy -- so much so that Celebration Flipside, the company that promoted most of the Chicago rock shows back then, had him work "Yellowjacket" security at the stages of their shows.
Through him I met Jack Stack, Flipside's chief of security, who with my friend Joe got me backstage at all the shows at the International Amphitheatre in Chicago's old meatpacking district on the South Side. Zeppelin, Rush, Yes, Alice Cooper … I saw them all-with backstage access. That is where I caught the "bug" to put on shows myself!
Recently I found a ticket from a Heart show on June 5, 1980, at "The Amp." The band had appeared at The Auditorium a couple of times before, but I was never able to go (I was only 14!). But finally, I got to see the Wilson sisters, Ann and Nancy (oh, and the guys from Heart that "backed" them, too).
I couldn't believe how nice they were! They were absolutely beautiful, especially to myself going through puberty! It was almost hard to believe that these major rock stars were humble girls who made everybody feel important. I can remember Ann talking to one of the security guards backstage about how crazy Ted Nugent was. The guard introduced me to them and Ann gave me a hug. Yep, puberty definitely set in!
The sound at The Amp was so loud and cavernous. It was everything that "arena sound" used to be. Sound is generally better now, of course, but there was something about the natural reverb at The Amphitheatre that seemed like home. Maybe it's because the show was almost 40 years ago.
The concert was incredible as Ann's voice filled the hall with "Barracuda," "Tell It Like It Is," "Heartless," "Even It Up," "Dreamboat Annie" and all their other hits. What I also thought was cool was that they performed a cover of Led Zeppelin's "Rock 'n' Roll." Not until just recently did I find out about Heart's connection to Led Zeppelin.
Just a couple of years ago, I was watching the Kennedy Center Honors on TV and Led Zeppelin was receiving the award. The finale of the show was an amazing rendition of "Stairway To Heaven" sung by none other than Ann Wilson! I never would have dreamed she would be the voice of this heartfelt tribute. But she absolutely, positively, killed it! And the drummer for that song was Jason Bonham, the son of John Bonham, original Zep drummer who passed away several years before.
From watching that tear-jerking performance, I reached out to Jason's management the next day, and just a few months later, he was performing his Led Zeppelin Experience at our Arcada Theatre! Incredible.
After the show, I asked him how Ann Wilson came to be the singer for that 100-person choir extravaganza that night. "It was actually my idea," Bonham said. "The girls (Ann and Nancy Wilson) were always favorites of Robert (Plant) and Jimmy (Page). And if you think about Plant's voice, it was close to Ann's."
Getting back to that fabulous concert in 1980, the show seemed to last hours, but I knew every song! That's why they came out with a Greatest Hits album later that year.
As they did their final encore, the girls walked off the stage, smiling as always. I remember backstage at The Amp was quite vast, with a whole lot of people around. Ann was holding a rose, one of many thrown onto the stage in her direction by fans.
After speaking with a person who I assumed was her manager, she walked to her dressing room. But before that, she made it over to me and handed me the rose. If puberty didn't fully happen when I received that hug from her earlier, it surely happened then!
• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of The Onesti Entertainment Corp. and The Historic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Celebrity questions and comments? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.