Did you know Led Zeppelin played their first American concert on December 26, 1968 at the Denver Auditorium Arena? The Auditorium and Arena, built in 1908 and holding over 12,000 people was the sight of so many great rock concerts in the 60s and 70s. Torn down in 1990, the sight is now home to the Temple Buell Theatre and Ellie Caulkins Opera House.
But in 1968, Led Zeppelin was added at the last minute to a sold-out bill at the Auditorium and Arena, under American bands Spirit and Vanilla Fudge. Led Zeppelin ended up playing much of that tour as the opening act. In light of how historically significant the band has become, it’s kind of hard to believe promoter Barry Fey had to have his arm-twisted to add them to his already sold-out show in Denver. Reportedly the band was paid $500 for their performance! Yet it was the beginning of an ascent to greatness matched by very few other bands.
The fact that Zeppelin started this incredible climb right here in our home town is a cool enough story; however there are a few footnotes that make this story even more historically relevant. First is the relationship that existed/evolved over the years between Zep and Spirit. In ‘68, ‘69 and ‘70 Zep occasionally covered the Spirit song Fresh Garbage in their sets. Spirit, formed in California in 1967, originally consisted of guitarist/songwriter Randy California, drummer Ed Cassidy, Colorado Music Hall of Fame inductee Mark Andes (later a member of Firefall), Jay Ferguson and John Locke. Over many years and lineups (always including California and Cassidy), Spirit became a highly respected and prolific band; although aside from a couple of fantastic singles, mainstream success eluded them.
In 2014, Mark Andes filed a copyright infringement suit against Led Zeppelin saying that the opening chords of their epic hit Stairway To Heaven was ripped off from the Spirit song Taurus. A quick listen will confirm the similarity; however Led Zeppelin ended up prevailing in the suit. It was a very interesting case to follow and one has to marvel at the fact that such a large case started at a gig on the night after Christmas –right here in Denver.
On a more personal level, this show has loomed large in my world because of the photograph you see displayed. Early in my career at Twist and Shout, I had a great customer named Steve “Jellyroll” Morton, who fronted a Denver cover band called Sticky Fingers for many years. Steve came in all the time, and we became friends. He told me he had been at Led Zeppelin’s first show and that it had been in Denver. I was disbelieving (this was before the internet, so affirmation was more of a challenge) and asked him to prove it.
The next day, Jellyroll came in and pulled a photo out from inside his trench coat. My jaw dropped. An absolutely pristine photo of Jimmy Page looking like a young angel with his bow across the strings of his famous, psychedelically painted 1959 Fender Telecaster—the same one he had used on stage for years and to record such iconic songs as Stairway To Heaven. The picture was unreal, and Jellyroll said: “I was there to see Spirit, and I just stuck my camera above my head and that’s the photo I got.” I asked him to make me a copy, and he graciously obliged. It hung in Twist and Shout for many years.
Fast forward to 1995 and I get a call from the office of Denver rock promoter Barry Fey. He’d heard about the photo and wanted to present a copy to Jimmy Page at his upcoming Page and Plant concert at Fiddler’s Green. It seems somewhere in the 70s, a roadie, thinking he was doing Page a favor, painted over Jimmy’s personal customization. The guitar had been a gift from Jeff Beck in 1967 and in spite of it being broken, it was a favorite item of Page’s. He wanted a photo of that original paint job. So arrangements were made and a photo was presented to Page backstage at his memorable Fiddler’s Green concert.
Less than a year later, I get another call. This time it is a bigtime guitar gear collector in England who has heard about the picture and that a rare Marshall amplifier head can be seen behind Page in the photo. Again, we go through a bunch of back and forth and eventually he gets the image and publishes an article about it in a British guitar magazine. Funny.
The photo now sits on my wall at the top of a stairway, so that every time I emerge from my listening room and head upstairs, it is the first thing I see. I love that photo, and I love that everything ties back to one Denver fan who randomly stuck his camera up in the air in 1968 and made history. Thanks Jellyroll!
– Paul Epstein, Co-Chair, Colorado Music Hall of Fame; founder/former owner of Twist & Shout; music historian and archivist
“I moved to Colorado in 1968 and started going to concerts almost immediately. I eagerly grabbed posters, flyers, ticket stubs, advertisements, concert recordings, pretty much any proof I could find that the event happened. In 1988, I started a record store called Twist & Shout, and my collecting of memorabilia went into even higher gear. Over the next 34 years, I had rare access to memorabilia of all types and sizes. Now that I’ve retired, the time seems right to start sharing these things, and the stories that go with them. So, every other Tuesday, I will ask you to Let Me Take You Down (to the basement) to check out some of the good stuff!” – Paul Epstein