For boomers who grew up playing air guitar to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” it’s mind-blowing to think that the 1971 classic rock standard might actually have been copied from another song. Lawyers for the estate of the late Spirit guitarist Randy California reportedly are planning to file a suit claiming that the opening riff in “Stairway” was ripped off from Spirit’s considerably less famous 1968 song “Taurus.”
It’s not the first time that a music icon has been accused of melodic appropriation. Here are some other notable examples:
- George Harrison, “My Sweet Lord” (1971). In possibly the highest-profile rock copyright infringement lawsuit ever, the ex-Beatle was accused of lifting the melody of his spiritually infused hit from the Chiffon’s 1962 single “He’s So Fine.” A court ultimately found Harrison liable, even though it decided that he had only committed unintentional “subconscious plagiarism.” Harrison eventually bought the rights to “He’s So Fine.”
- Rod Stewart, “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” (1978). The British rocker’s foray into disco bore unmistakable similarities to Brazilian songwriter Jorge Ben’s 1972 work “Taj Mahal.” After the original composer prevailed in courts, the song’s royalties were donated to UNICEF, according to Rolling Stone.
- Johnny Cash, “Folsom Prison Blues” (1955). According to Cash biographer Michael Streissguth, the Man in Black was accused of borrowing from Gordon Jenkins’ 1953 song, “Crescent City Blues.” Jenkins’ song was about a lonely woman rather than a convict, but the opening line is identical. Cash had to pay the composer a settlement.
- Led Zeppelin, “Whole Lotta Love” (1969). Led Zep has been plagued by accusations of theft before. Bluesman Willie Dixon sued and obtained a songwriting credit because of the classic’s similarities to one of his 1962 compositions, which was recorded by the Small Faces in 1966 as “You Need Loving.”
- Deep Purple, “Smoke on the Water” (1973). There’s never been any litigation over it, but judge for yourself how similar that opening guitar riff sounds to the beginning of Brazilian singer Astrud Gilberto’s 1966 recording “Maria Quiet,” with Gil Evans on piano.
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