B.B. Seaton’s Tune Hit UK Dancehalls in 1971; Led Zep’s Tune Hit The Worldwide Charts In ’73
A friend of mine recently slapped me in the Facebook with an article about Led Zeppelin being the “Greatest Song Thieves In Rock History.” Ouch! It’s no secret that in addition to being a reggae lunatic, I’m a big-time Zeppelin appreciando. I’ve spent enough time listening to Led Zep live to be able to identify concert dates and venues blindfolded. Don’t test me. I’ve also listened to enough music and read enough about the band to know of their tendency to, ahem, adapt the work of others. Judge For Yourself After The Jump…
Given the nature of creativity itself, this is not something that I ever felt was a major strike against Zeppelin. My love of Jamaican music has liberalized my notions of originality (see reggae/dancehall for further info). When folks start throwing around words like “T’ief,” they’re talking about breaking the law. Copyright laws by their very nature establish the border between individual and community ownership. Compulsory licensing was conceived to allow for covers, adaptation, and a spirit of reinterpretation (see the blues and jazz for further info).
Led Zeppelin’s propensity to pull directly from previous writers’ work without crediting them has remained a nagging and sometimes vicious criticism for the group and came to light again after their nomination to the Songwriters Hall of Fame. In some cases, Zeppelin’s cover versions were appropriately documented on the original release, but in many cases not. In most instances the writers have been noted on subsequent releases, famously Willie Dixon for his compositions “I Can’t Quit You” and “You Need Love,” the latter adapted into “Whole Lotta Love”—a rare “rough mix” of which was released only a few days ago.
I’ve always thought that if there’s a thing called ‘transformative adaptation,’ Led Zeppelin was particularly good at it, whether it was in the radically modernized form of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” Kansas Joe’s “When The Levee Breaks,” or the more literal reading of Anne Bredon’s “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” (known via Joan Baez) or Jake Holmes’ “Dazed and Confused,” Led Zeppelin had a knack for making good songs better. Purists need to chill.
Regardless, it’s unfortunate that an experienced musician like Jimmy Page didn’t demonstrate that he knew better by 1969 when the band’s first album was released. Was he not forthright with Atlantic Records/Warner Music, or was the band’s manager Peter Grant the one with the “fuck them, let them come after us” attitude, as some have suggested?
Atlantic Records was ultimately responsible for the copyright violations as the entity issuing copies to the public, but moral culpability is probably shared. Aside from the significant monetary issues relating to any particular song—in this case a song that peaked at No. 20 on Billboard‘s Hot 100—simply depriving an author of attribution denies the author of the ability to advance his or her creative reputation and resultant future opportunities.
The real shame here is that unless a timely lawsuit was filed on behalf of an original author or copyright owner, the statute of limitations closed the door on collecting royalties for those works covered or adapted when Zeppelin was a multi-million-selling act, as Jake Holmes is no doubt painfully aware. Going forward, such claims are still relevant and valuable to the extent that the catalog is active. It certainly appears to be, what with the band’s Spotify deal, live concert film Celebration Day, and “Super Deluxe Edition Box Set” including a handful of previously unreleased tracks.
Notions of race and power also inform this conversation, given the number of original blues compositions that Zeppelin covered or adapted into stadium anthems. A real tribute to those blues elders and original authors would have been a compulsory license and royalty stream from day one. Of course, that would assume that a blues writer could establish original authorship or possess the sort of publishing arrangement capable of effectively managing his or her rights.
Similar stories have been told and retold many times over, but one more curious congruence came to my attention a few years ago while I was spinning antique vinyl discs at a Lower East Side bar. As I played one of my favorite solo cuts by former Gaylads frontman Harris ‘B.B.’ Seaton, a patron said to me, “that’s the Led Zeppelin song.”
I had never noticed before, but in a flash it was obvious: Robert Plant’s five-note vocal melody from Zeppelin’s cheeky “D’yer Mak’er” (pronounced “Jamaica”) is right there, clear as the lead organ figure in “Forgive Them Lord.” Judge for yourself.
B.B. Seaton “Forgive Them Lord,” 1971
Led Zeppelin “D’Yer Maker,” 1973
Granted, Zeppelin’s tune was far from a remake, and there are many other musical elements at work in “D’yer Mak’er” than its central melody. Loosely intended as a reggae song, the hit single was one of the few songs on which all four members were credited as songwriters (the liner notes also mention Rosie & The Originals). “I didn’t expect people not to get it,” Jimmy Page said of the tune. “I thought it was pretty obvious. The song itself was a cross between reggae and a ’50s number, ‘Poor Little Fool,’ Ben E. King’s things, stuff like that.” The origin of the phrase ‘D’yer Mak’er’ as it relates to ‘Jamaica’ is recommended for enthusiasts only.
I spent a lovely spring afternoon with B.B. Seaton in Mamaroneck, New York in 2007, along with the equally brilliant Gaylads alumnus Winston Delano Stewart and have since kept in touch. Without mentioning the Zeppelin connection, I recently asked Seaton about the release date of “Forgive Them Lord,” and he said without pause that it “was written in 1970 and recorded in 1971.” I asked him if he knew “D’yer Mak’er,” and he said he had never heard of it and never (knowingly) listened to Led Zeppelin.
“Forgive Them Lord” was released in Jamaica on Andy Capp and Lee Perry’s Upset label and in the U.S. on the Sporty’s label in New York as “Yesterday I Preferred.” (Click Thru Photos Above) The song would have been fresh in London dancehalls, record shops, etc., well before Robert Plant and Jimmy Page were constructing their fifth album, Houses of the Holy in 1972. ‘Access ’ which is at the heart of a successful copyright infringement claim, is the essential concept here.
I’ll leave it to the IP experts to determine whether this adaptation rises to the level of infringement. If it weren’t for Zeppelin’s demonstrated propensity to appropriate musical expressions in just this way, I’d be more inclined to call this one a stretch and forgive them (like the song says). A similar plotline involves the Spirit instrumental “Taurus” as an antecedent to Zeppelin’s “Stairway To Heaven.”
In the end, some credit is certainly due to the creativity of Mr. Seaton, who with a broad catalog of original songs is unquestionably one of Jamaica’s great writers, even if he too has been accused of [deep sigh] songwriting/crediting shenanigans. Without so much as a single Google hit on the connection between “D’yer Mak’er” and “Forgive Them Lord,” I wanted to bring to light a great yet obscure reggae song may have been part of Zeppelin’s bubbling cauldron of influences. And to give credit where credit is due to the bar patron who first called this to my attention… but I’m sorry man, I just can’t remember your name.