When Led Zeppelin Debuted ‘Whole Lotta Love’… At a Concert

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The poster for the April 1969 San Francisco run of Led Zeppelin shows

Did the audience at San Francisco’s Winterland realize that it was hearing a song that would become a bona fide rock classic? We may never know the answer to that, but when Led Zeppelin presented the live debut of “Whole Lotta Love” on the night of April 26, 1969, they were well on their way to becoming one of the most popular rock bands in the world. Chances are good many of the hippies who’d come to see them left that building shell-shocked.

They had only played their first show in the States the previous December, opening for Vanilla Fudge in Colorado. Zeppelin took off instantly after that, becoming a sensation on the concert scene, and by the spring their debut album, simply titled Led Zeppelin—released in January—was inching its way up the Billboard album chart, where it would peak at #10. San Francisco concert promoter Bill Graham booked them for four shows at his Fillmore West in January, and by the time they returned in April, the buzz around them was huge—this was a band to see.

Graham again booked them for four shows, splitting the gigs so they’d play two each at Fillmore West (April 24 and 27) and two at Winterland, the former ice skating rink, on April 25 and 26. To open for them, he chose two bands: the British soul-rockers Julie Driscoll and Brian Auger & the Trinity and Colwell-Winfield, a Boston-based blues band.

‘Whole Lotta Love’ 45 picture sleeve

Most of Zeppelin’s set at the time consisted of material from that debut album, but on the third night, to close out the show, they rolled out a chugging, blistering psychedelic masterpiece. “We’d like to do one more featuring the newly acquired tambourine, so if I lose the beat…” says singer Robert Plant and then, there it is, that riff that has since become enshrined as one of rock’s most familiar.

“I’d worked on the structure of ‘Whole Lotta Love’ on my own at home,” Jimmy Page writes, “and I couldn’t wait to bring the band together to get this whole thing going. I knew deep inside that this was a riff that everyone was going to enjoy playing. It was so infectious.”

The freewheeling mid-section of the song is included, although—focused on a raucous Page guitar freakout rather than the electronics and the otherworldly sounds that would be injected into the studio version—it’s nowhere near as trippy yet as it would later become. The “Whole Lotta Love” we’ve all now heard a thousand times opened Led Zeppelin II when it was released six months later, on October 22, 1969. An edited single would peak at #4 in Billboard.

As Atlantic Records’ head of radio promotion, Jerry Greenberg recognized that the song wouldn’t be an AM radio hit at its existing 5:33 length because it didn’t fit the shorter lengths that were essentially required by Top 40 programmers. Read how Greenberg solved the problem here.

The album, which dislodged the Beatles’ Abbey Road from the #1 position, would—deservedly—go on to become one of the all-time classic hard-rock recordings.

Set List: Led Zeppelin at Winterland, San Francisco, April 26, 1969

1st set: Communication Breakdown, I Can’t Quit You Baby, Dazed and Confused, You Shook Me, How Many More Times (medley incl. Roll Over Beethoven)

2nd set: White Summer/Black Mountainside, Killing Floor, Babe I’m Gonna Leave You, Pat’s Delight, As Long As I Have You (incl. Fresh Garbage, Shake, Mockingbird)

Encore: Whole Lotta Love

Listen to the debut live performance of “Whole Lotta Love”

Related: The story of Led Zeppelin’s debut album

Best Classic Bands Staff

3 Comments so far

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  1. Wearwolf
    #1 Wearwolf 26 April, 2020, 20:25

    I saw them before their first album came out, on Feb 1, 1969.
    They were 2nd billing to Iron Butterfly.
    No one knew who they were or how good or bad they’d be.
    They came out and played an hour of songs from their album, and we all were in awe of how incredible they were.
    Then Iron Butterfly came out. They did a couple of songs, but they really sucked compared to Zep. All of us in the audience started booing them. They did one more song and we bood even louder.
    So they said Fuck You and walked off the stage.
    I think I actually still have my ticket stub from that concert.

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  2. Cisley
    #2 Cisley 27 April, 2024, 01:41

    I saw them at Winterland on November 8, 1969. Issac Hayes was on the same bill. My friend and I worked our way up to the front of the stage. We were standing between Robert Plant and Jimmy Page with a great view of John Bonham. Blew me away how good they were. Their sound was just so different from anything else at that time.

    I had seen The Yardbirds a few years earlier with Jimmy Page but this was an entirely different sound. Love ’em both.

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  3. Jmack
    #3 Jmack 28 April, 2024, 11:16

    Heck Plant was barely out of his teens then! He was truly a lion hearted Viking wailer back then, powerful voice those first few years. Probably a little too much use of the word “baby” however…

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