THE COMPLAINT: In 1969, British group Led Zeppelin released the massive-selling single "Whole Lotta Love", which appeared on their smash hit LP, Led Zeppelin II. Although the songwriting was credited to the band, many blues fans noticed immediately that large swatches of the song's lyrics were lifted directly from a 1962 Muddy Waters single called "You Need Love", which had been written by Willie Dixon -- widely considered to be the greatest and most influential blues songwriter of all time.
Dixon himself heard the song on the radio from time to time, but assumed that the song was simply a cover version of his own composition. For years, he never bothered to check whether or not he was receiving royalties from Led Zeppelin -- at least in part because he wasn't aware of just how big Zeppelin's record was, being that he wasn't much for following rock music. It wasn't until his children alerted him to the situation in the 1980s that he realized that there were several Led Zeppelin songs that borrowed from his work without giving due credit -- with "Whole Lotta Love" being the most flagrant example. In 1985, Dixon sued Led Zeppelin for plagiarism.
THE DECISION: Led Zeppelin was quite candid about how they tended to appropriate blues lyrics from other artists for use in new musical settings. They felt that they were merely following a time-honoured blues tradition by interpreting the words of past masters.
Vocalist Robert Plant summed this up by saying, "Page's riff was Page's riff. It was there before anything else. I just thought, 'well, what am I going to sing?' That was it, a nick. Now happily paid for."
It was paid for. The case was settled out of court, with Led Zeppelin granting Willie Dixon songwriting credit and royalties for "Whole Lotta Love", which remains one of the biggest-selling records of its era.
While the actual amount that Willie Dixon received from this agreement is not known, the proceeds went to fund a widely-known charitable organization called the Blues Heaven Foundation. The foundation's mission statement is "to help artists and musicians obtain what is rightfully theirs, and to educate both adults and children on the history of the Blues and the business of music." It was a cause that Dixon believed passionately in, and he gave the untold millions from his Led Zeppelin lawsuit (as well as royalty money he received for writing thousands of other blues songs) to the Foundation. Willie Dixon passed away in 1992, but the Foundation continues to operate -- with Willie Dixon's daughter, Marie Dixon, as president and CEO.
Ever the poet, Willie Dixon described his feelings about this whole matter with a famous statement: "The blues are the roots and the other musics are the fruits. It's better keeping the roots alive, because it means better fruits from now on."
Listen to Muddy Waters' 1962 recording of the Willie Dixon song "You Need Love":
Watch Led Zeppelin's extended 1973 performance of "Whole Lotta Love", live from Madison Square Garden as part of their concert film, The Song Remains the Same:
Featured on April 4, 2013
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