Most Led Zeppelin fans are unaware that the band’s first recordings were actually not the songs that became Led Zeppelin I, but rather P.J. Proby’s quirky Three Week Hero album recorded shortly before their debut was and released in 1969. Even if they have heard of it, chances are they haven’t heard the actual music. I’m here to help!
John Paul Jones, who like Jimmy Page, was then a very much sought-after session musician and arranger got the gig working with the, um, mercurial front man—Proby was, and is, a man considered mad, bad and dangerous to know, one of rock’s original madmen, inexplicably still alive—via producer Steve Rowland. Jones asked if he could bring in his own group for the session, thinking it would serve as a rehearsal of sorts before they went into the studio themselves and Rowland agreed. Jones told Chris Welch:
“I was committed to doing all the arrangements for the album. As we were talking about rehearsing at the time, I thought it would be a handy source of income. I had to book a band anyway, so I thought I’d book everybody I knew.”
It’s not known exactly when the two-day recording commenced, but August 25th, 1968 is probably the correct date, and would mark the very first time that Led Zeppelin, then still-known as The New Yardbirds, would enter a recording studio together.
Proby had already worked with Jimmy Page before, as the young rhythm guitarist had played on his 1964 debut long player, I Am P.J. Proby, with legendary session player “Big Jim” Sullivan supplying lead (The slight, baby-faced Page was then informally known as “Lil’ Jim Pea” to differentiate him from the slightly older Sullivan).
From an interview with P.J. Proby on the Led Zeppelin fansite, Finding Zoso:
FZ: One of my favorite records of yours, which was actually your last record with Liberty [Records] was Three Week Hero. A lot of people don’t know that the entire lineup of Led Zeppelin backed you up on that album. Can you tell us a little bit about that album and what it was like?
PJ: Yeah, after that session, Big Jim Sullivan was the most sought after lead guitar player in England so he was on everybody but everybody’s sessions. At that time Jimmy Page couldn’t really pick lead all that well. So he went off and wasn’t heard for a long time and the next thing I knew he was in The Yardbirds. About 1968, a friend of mine from Hollywood, Steve Roland had come over to London and had done pretty well as a producer for [the group] Dave, Dee Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich. So I went down to Steve and asked him to produce my next album, EMI wanted one out now. I listened to some stuff he had there, demos, and he said, “I’ll put a band together for you.”
So when I got to the studio that day, there was what they called, “The New Yardbirds”. There was Jimmy Page, lead guitar player, a great lead guitar player by now and John Bonham and another guy Paul Jones and Albert Lee [Huh?]. Anyway, we recorded that album, I think it was in two days. We even undershot, we recorded it with about thirty-five minutes left over, and so Roland yelled down, “Why don’t you all busk it? We shouldn’t waste the studio time.” I told the boys, “Y’all start picking and I’ll write as you pick.” So the three last numbers on the album, [the medley], I just made up as the boys played.
Afterwards, I said, “Man, y’all did a terrific job. I’ve got some tours coming up, would you back me?” They said, “We’d love to, we’ll be your backing band, but first we’ve got two obligations we’ve got to honour in California and they named two places in California that I had just come back from playing with a band of mine that was called Canned Heat. The boys told me they were going over to play in San Francisco and all that, and I said, “Look, from what I’ve heard and the way you boys played tonight, not only are you not going to be my backing band, I’m going to say goodbye right now, because I don’t think I’m ever going to see you again. That’s how successful you’re going to be. You’re exactly what they want, you play all that psychedelic stuff and everything.“
The heavy metal word hadn’t been invented then, it was just hard blues and stuff. So I said, “You’re going to go over there and go down so great I don’t think you’re ever going to come home.” They didn’t ever come back until they changed their name to Led Zeppelin and stayed over there and came back huge huge stars.
FZ: Did you ever manage to catch up with them once they became big stars?
PJ: No I never have and I have never seen Jimmy Page since. I said goodbye that day when I cut that album and I haven’t seen one of them since.
In case you’re wondering, Robert Plant played harmonica on Three Week Hero. He doesn’t sing on it.
If you’re a Led Zeppelin fan and you’ve never heard “The Day That Lorraine Came Down,” before, prepare to have your ever-lovin’ mind blown. Easily in my top 100 favorite songs:
This improvised in the studio number, “Mery Hopkins Never Had Days Like These” was not on the Three Week Hero album, rather appearing on the B-side of the “The Day That Lorraine Came Down” single. As if there could any doubt—trust me, there won’t be—Proby calls the players out by name (including the great Alan Hawkshaw who is playing organ), but I’m not sure if this is John Bonham here as Proby refers to the drummer as both a “fat man” and bald.
“Jim’s Blues”—basically the prototype for Led Zeppelin‘s “You Shook Me.” “Jim” probably refers to Proby (real name James Marcus Smith) and not Jimmy Page.
Below, a scant two years later and Led Zeppelin were headlining at the Royal Albert Hall: