The night Led Zeppelin played in Winona and nobody knew it


From: Steve “Cooker” Koch

Having just watched A “Biography” episode on the A&E network about the rock and roll band Led Zeppelin, I recalled the story told to me by my pal Bob Rydman.

Led Zeppelin refers to the flight characteristics of a hot air balloon made out of lead. When four Englishmen in their mid-late twenties formed a band in ‘68 and were looking for a name to call themselves, drummer Keith Moon of the “Who” sarcastically suggested the name by proclaiming, “that’ll go over like a lead zeppelin.”

They kept the name while misspelling “lead” as a marketing ploy. Two of the Zeppelin band were the most sought after studio guitarist and bass player/arrangers in England, having made countless hit records for Donovan/Rolling Stones/Kinks/Hermans Hermits/Dusty Springfield/Petula Clark and Burt Bacharach to name a few. James Page, the guitarist, was particularly skilled at a style of Celtic (Irish folk) guitar called “Skiffel” music which is characterized in the song “Mrs. Brown you’ve got a lovely daughter” by Herman’s Hermits. Who can forget that guitar?

Baby Boomers reading this don’t believe for a second that Zep actually played Winona, because they would have heard about it in the paper or on KWNO news with Wayne Valentine right after Paul Harvey just before the Ernie Reck show...but they did and were nearly booed off stage, the most commercially successfull band in the history of music who went on to fill arenas the size of Rhodesia.

Famous affluent people do come to our region. I was walking down the street in Trempealeau twenty years ago when I looked up to see the only other human being on the sidewalk, he looked me right in the eye when I said, “Hey Mickey you’re looking good!” He said, “thank you,” and kept walking…Mickey Dolenz of the Monkees. I know others who talked with him a day or two earlier prior to a show he was in. (Peter Tork played to four people at Betty Jo’s in ‘79) Or Bob Dylan sitting on a stone bench at the Levee in La Crosse watching the river and boats go by after riding his bicycle all over in a gray hooded sweat shirt and aviator sunglasses, four days prior to his concert. Bob even mentions Winona in his book “Chronicles.” Steve McQueen came to WIZM radio in La Crosse while I worked there. I didn’t see him, but he was there after flying to La Crosse to buy a classic car from some farmer in ‘81 or ‘82.

Still though, Zep fans can’t believe they actually did a “one nighter” here.

Back to my pal Bob Rydman, who played bass guitar with a very skilled and respected local band called New World Congregation in the late ‘60s. On drums was Jay Epstein who went on to some national fame by playing in a commercially successfull band called “Gypsy” with hit records still getting air play. On organ was Dave Heyer (music teacher/WEDG band,) on guitar was Roy Berger (North Country Band.) NWC were a class act who even cut a “45” which was a real big deal then. (A “45” is a round black plastic disc called a “record” that produced music when scratched by a tone arm with an actual diamond on the tip transfering the sound to loudspeakers via an amplifier.) The reason I explained this to younger readers is because a 35-year-old TV producer in the Twin Cities asked me recently “What’s a hit record Steve?” after I told him a guy in our band had one in the mid ‘60s. Being patient, I translated: “some musicians participated in the development and construction of a popular audible I-pod download.” (Now we’re talkin’.) Actually there was nothing in the known universe this guy now could have done to re-engage me in conversation after that question. He might as well have wet his pants in front of me, cause I was done with him. However he did assure me of his professional credentials by proudly asserting, “I college graduated am...”

Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, I remember now. NWC from Winona re-arranged the song “Day Tripper” by the Beatles (another popular I-pod download) by slowing it down at least half time, and adding some heavy soulful Hammond organ and “Vanilla Fudge” sounding vocals and rhythm. It didn’t make the big time but it did draw a lot of admiration. I understand even the Beatles knew of it. I hear Sam Nottleman still has 20 copies.

I was in the 8th grade that spring of ‘68 at the Winona High/Jr.High on Broadway, (I think it’s a pizza parlor video store hair salon or something now.) I recall the buzz in school that day...the YARDBIRDS, a popular British band with songs on the radio, were coming to Winona State College that night. A big deal fer sure man. They had some neet songs too (Eric Clapton played with them at the time although we didn’t know him yet) like “Heart Full of Soul,” “For Your Love” (all beginning guitarists had to learn that...E-G-A-Am) “Shape of Things to Come,” “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor,” “Over Under Sideways Down,” “Train Kept a Rollin’,” and more that I forget.

As I write this, Bob Rydman is out in California, and the other NWC members have flown the coop too, so I’m sure a detail or two will get misconstrued like the color of somebody’s shirt or who said what to whom, but to the best of my recollection, the Winona band would open for the international act and get a couple hundred bucks (HUGE sum) while the New Yardbirds, as they were billing themselves, would get at the very most maybe $2,000 tops. The Brits arrived in a converted Greyhound bus type coach…pretty heavy man! The New Yardbirds would use the NWC sound system and microphones. One was a SHURE SM58 I procured from Emil McAndrew 22 years later and used myself for years. (However I sound more like Frankie Yankovich than Robert Plant.) The Brits brought their own amps/drums/instruments and snotty arrogant personalities. Bob told me, “Jay showed up first that afternoon with his drums and walked in on the other drummer named John, who was setting his own drums up. Not enough money for “roadies” then. Jay smilingly introduced himself and stuck out his hand, while the English drummer literally turned his back and refused to speak.” Blatantly rude to the younger enthusiastic fan and now colleague. The entire British entourage treated the local “Yanks” with the same disdain. (I’ve heard that also about some corporate Brits who’ve come to our area.) The psychology behind that is thought to be because the British tend to believe we Yanks don’t deserve the milk and honey prosperity we’ve been blessed with, especially since most of us never attended Oxford, and despite our not attending Oxford, our non-Oxford soil still produces abundant record crops,iron ore, lumber, precious metals and oil. (I never went to Oxford either, but I used to have a pair.)

Oh yeah, back to the story, excitement filled the venue as NWC walked onstage to a sold out roaring packed house. Bob told me,”we were psyched, we were the hometown band working with an international act of older musicians we highly respected. (Not knowing none of them were actual Yardbirds anymore.) We played for over an hour and got at least two standing ovations and repeated demands for an encore.”

When the New Yardbirds’ turn came, they blasted out their first notes fronted by a handsome Celt with an oversized full head of long blond hair that looked like an electrocuted Doris Day while screaming bloody murder into the vibrating auditorium. Not what anybody here expected after just listening to NWC perform “A Taste of Honey” made famous by Herb Alpert and the Tiajuana Brass. The English band’s way-too-loud guitarist never turned down or even stood, quite peculiar too, he just stayed seated (a trait of a studio guitarist) and occasionally screeched a violin bow across the strings of his overbearing Fender Telecaster electric guitar. Fans began shouting out requests for their hit songs since that’s why most came, only to be ignored by the New Yardbirds who were intent on experimenting with their “new” sounds and songs. Half the audience got up and left while booing and cupping hands over their aching ears, the epitome of insults. Bob summed it up, “they freaked people out!”

A few months later a new popular album came out by an English group. Bob said,”one of the guys in the band brought it to practice. We looked at their photos on the back cover and sure enough, pictured were the guys we opened for at Winona State. The drummer named John, that bass player name John, that guitarist named Jimmy and that screaming lead singer named Robert. But they changed their name from the New Yardbirds to Led Zeppelin.”

Bob concluded, “I can honestly say I played in a band that up-staged Led Zeppelin.” And he did.


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