Led Zeppelin was the premier hard rock band in the world in 1978 when the Kennedy Center Honors were first presented. But if someone had told you then that Led Zep would someday be selected to receive the honor, you’d have thought he was out of his mind. That first crop of honorees included such old-guard legends as Fred Astaire, composer Richard Rodgers and conductor Arthur Rubinstein. It took the Kennedy Center’s Board of Trustees nearly 20 years to acknowledge rock, in the person of Bob Dylan. At that rate, it seemed likely that they would never get around to hard rock, metal, rap and other edgier forms of music.
Never say never. On Wednesday (Dec. 26), we’ll see Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones, the three surviving founding members of Led Zeppelin, become the first hard rock musicians to receive a Kennedy Center Honor. This year’s other honorees are David Letterman, Dustin Hoffman, blues great Buddy Guy and ballerina Natalia Makarova.
Kennedy Center Honors recipients are “recognized for their lifetime contributions to American culture through the performing arts—whether in music, dance, theater, opera, motion pictures, or television,” according to a statement on the site.
Led Zeppelin is one of the biggest acts in music history. The Recording Industry Assn. of America credits them with sales of 111.5 million album units, the fourth highest total of any act, behind only The Beatles (177 million), Elvis Presley (134.5 million) and Garth Brooks (128 million). (The RIAA counts each disk in a multi-disk package as a unit.)
Led Zep has had seven #1 albums on The Billboard 200, a total matched by only three other bands in history. The Beatles are in the lead here too with 19 #1 albums, followed by The Rolling Stones with nine and U2, also with seven.
Here are some key events in Led Zeppelin’s unlikely journey to the Kennedy Center Honors.
May 17, 1969—The band’s eponymous debut album cracks the top 10. Three other rock bands (Blood, Sweat & Tears, Iron Butterfly and Creedence Clearwater Revival) had albums in the top 10 that week, but Led Zep rocked harder than all of them put together. The album includes the Hot 100 hit “Good Times Bad Times.”
Dec. 27, 1969—The band’s second album, Led Zeppelin II, reaches #1 in its eighth week. The album is either #1 or #2 for 18 consecutive weeks. Its chief rival is The Beatles’ Abbey Road in 15 of those weeks.
January 1970—The group becomes the first hard rock act to receive a Grammy nomination as Best New Artist. The Grammys were far less friendly to rock then than they are now, so this was a real achievement. The other nominees were Crosby, Stills and Nash (who won), Chicago, pop singer Oliver and one-hit-wonders Neon Philharmonic.
Jan. 31, 1970—“Whole Lotta Love” reaches #4 on the Hot 100. It’s one of the hardest-rocking hits ever to make the top five. (One rung above it: B.J. Thomas’ jaunty “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head.” As always, the charts make for strange bedfellows.)
Oct. 31, 1970—Led Zeppelin III rockets to #1 in just two weeks, faster than any other album in 1970. The album spawns the top 20 hit, “Immigrant Song.”
November 1971—“Stairway To Heaven” appears on the band’s fourth album. Though it was never released as a single, it goes on to become the most played rock track of its era, a song that become synonymous with AOR (album-oriented rock) radio. It receives more airplay than either of the two hits from the album, “Black Dog” and “Rock And Roll.” The song has sold 1,386,000 digital copies, more than any other Zeppelin song.
Jan. 8, 1972—Led Zeppelin IV spends its fourth straight week at #2. It never makes #1. It’s the band’s only studio album (outside of its debut album) to fall short of #1. So what albums were so hot to keep the mighty Zep out of #1? Sly & the Family Stone’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On (the album with the #1 smash “Family Affair”) and Carole King’s Music (her follow-up to Tapestry). Led Zeppelin IV sold more far copies than either of them in the long run.
May 12, 1973—Houses Of The Holy (the band’s first album with a non-eponymous title) hits #1 in its fifth week. The album spawns the top 20 hit “D’jer Mak’er.” The album also features “Over The Hills And Far Away.”
March 22, 1975—Physical Graffiti, the band’s first two-disk album and its first on its own Swan Song label, hits #1 in its second week. The album spawns the Top 40 hit “Trampled Under Foot.” The album also features “Kashmir.”
May 1, 1976—Presence hits #1 in its second week, even though the album doesn’t spawn a Hot 100 single.
Oct. 20, 1976—The band’s concert film The Song Remains The Same premieres. The film was shot during a show at Madison Square Garden. The soundtrack spends three weeks at #2. It’s the highest-ranking soundtrack on The Billboard 200 for 10 weeks, until it is unseated by Barbra Streisand’s A Star Is Born soundtrack.
Sept. 15, 1979—In Through The Out Door rockets to #1 in just two weeks, faster than any other album in 1979. The album spawns the top 30 hit “Fool In The Rain.”
Sept. 25, 1980—Drummer John Bonham dies of asphyxiation. He was just 32. The band disbands three months later.
Aug. 7, 1982—Plant cracks the top five with his first solo album, Pictures At Eleven.
Dec. 18, 1982—Coda, a collection of previously unreleased tracks, cracks the top 10.
Jan. 5, 1985–The Honeydrippers’ remake of Phil Phillips’ 1959 hit “Sea Of Love” reaches #3 on the Hot 100, which is higher than any Led Zeppelin single. The Honeydrippers marks the first teaming of Plant and Page since Led Zeppelin. The group also includes Jeff Beck and Nile Rodgers.
March 30, 1985—The Firm’s debut album, The Firm, cracks the top 20. The band features Page, Paul Rodgers, Tony Franklin and Chris Slade. The album includes the top 30 hit “Radioactive.”
Nov. 17, 1990—The four-CD box set Led Zeppelin cracks the top 20. On Feb. 17, 2006, it receives Diamond certification, signifying sales of 2.5 million copies (each disk counts as one unit). It’s one of only two box sets to earn Diamond status, following Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band’s live, five-disk collection, Live 1975-1985.
April 3, 1993—Coverdale-Page, a collaboration album by Page and David Coverdale (vocalist of Deep Purple and Whitesnake) cracks the top five.
Nov. 26, 1994—Page and Plant crack the top five with No Quarter, their first album as a duo.
1995—Led Zeppelin is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Other inductees that year include Janis Joplin, Neil Young and Frank Zappa.
April 8, 1995—Encomium: A Tribute To Led Zeppelin cracks the top 20. The tribute album features such acts as Stone Temple Pilots, Duran Duran, Sheryl Crow and Hootie & the Blowfish, as well as a collabo by Plant and Tori Amos.
July 25, 1998—Page returns to the top five on the Hot 100 as the featured artist on Puff Daddy's “Come With Me.”
Feb. 24, 1999—Page and Plant receive their first Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance for “Most High,” a track from their top 10 album Walking Into Clarksdale. (Eight years later, Plant would revisit another track from the album, “Please Read The Letter.”)
June 14, 2003—How The West Was Won, a three-disk live album, becomes the band’s first album to debut at #1. (Debuts at #1 didn’t become commonplace until Nielsen SoundScan began tracking sales for Billboard in 1991.) Also, the Led Zeppelin DVD enters Top Music Videos at #1. It logs 13 weeks at #1 and winds up as the year’s #2 music video, behind 50 Cent’s New Breed.
Feb. 13, 2005—The band receives a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. (Crosby, Stills & Nash, who beat them for a Grammy as Best New Artist, have yet to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award, though they probably will in time.)
Nov. 10, 2007—Raising Sand, Plant’s collabo with Alison Krauss, debuts and peaks at #2. The project goes on to win six Grammys over the course of two years, including Album of the Year and Record of the Year for “Please Read The Letter.” The album returns to #2 on Feb. 28, 2009, following its Grammy sweep.
Dec. 1, 2007—Mothership, a two-CD compilation, debuts and peaks at #7.
Dec. 1, 2012. The three surviving members of the band receive Kennedy Center Honors medallions at a State Department dinner hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The TV show was taped on Dec. 2 for broadcast on CBS on Dec. 26.
Dec. 8, 2012—Celebration Day, which was recorded at the band’s reunion show at London’s 02 Arena in 2007, becomes the band’s 13th top 10 album. This gives the band a 43-1/2 year span of top 10 albums. That’s the record for a hard rock/heavy metal band.
Dec. 16, 2012— Led Zeppelin becomes just the third hard rock/heavy metal band to reach the 25 million mark in U.S. album sales since 1991. The band follows Metallica (53,618,000) and AC/DC (31,901,000). All three of these bands pre-date the Nielsen SoundScan era. But here’s the big difference: Led Zeppelin released its last studio album in 1979. Metallica and AC/DC both released their most recent studio albums in 2008.