Stairway to Heaven: The Song Remains Pretty Similar
Stairway’s stature—financially, culturally, and musically—is towering. By 2008, whenConde Nast Portfolio magazine published an estimate that included royalties and record sales, the song had earned at least $562 million. It was so profitable in part because Led Zeppelin refused to release the song as a single, forcing fans to shell out for the entire album, which is untitled but known as Led Zeppelin IV. In the U.S., the album has sold more copies (23 million, according to the Recording Industry Association of America) than any save Michael Jackson’sThrillerand the Eagles’Their Greatest Hits (1971-75). To this day, Warner Music Group cites the song in its annual reports as an example of its publishing portfolio.
For live audiences,Stairway’s power starts with its introductory notes. “Can you think of another song, any song, for which, when its first chord is played, an entire audience of 20,000 rise spontaneously to their feet, not just to cheer or clap hands, but in acknowledgment of an event that is crucial for all of them?”Observercritic Tony Palmer wrote in a 1975 profile. Dave Lewis writes inLed Zeppelin: The Complete Guide to Their Musicthat “Stairwayhas a pastoral opening cadence that is classical in feel and which has ensured its immortality.”
But what if thoseopening notesweren’t actually written by Jimmy Page or any member of Led Zeppelin? What if the foundation of the band’s immortality had been lifted from another song by a relatively forgotten California band?