Casual rock fans know Jimmy Page mainly as the pioneering guitarist for Led Zeppelin. For years, however, Page was one the busiest session players in London, laying down tracks for everyone from The Who to Tom Jones to Donovan to The Kinks. Page himself has often been reluctant to talk about this period, for the simple reason that he was too busy to recall many of the details. "They needed a kid to play on the rock-oriented dates," he once told writer Brad Tolinski, "but soon I started playing on all sorts of things, including acoustic guitar on folk albums and rhythm on jazz sessions. I took the bit in my teeth and went for it. It was a great apprenticeship."
Page’s earliest sessions—starting in 1963--were mostly with artists who have since been relegated to obscurity. Brian Howard and the Silhouettes ("The Worrying Kind"), Tony Meehan and Jet Harris ("Diamonds," which actually topped the U.K. charts), and Carter-Lewis and the Southerners ("Your Momma’s Out of Town") are among the first recordings on which he appeared. It was during this time that Page’s reputation as a versatile player took hold. "He was a fast player, he knew his rock 'n' roll, and he added to that,” said John Carter, of the Southerners. "He was also quiet and a bit of an intellectual."
Page biographer George Case asserts that 1964 was Page’s most productive year as a session player. Though many of the recordings he played on are mostly forgotten, songs like "Tobacco Road" (The Nashville Teens) and "I Just Can’t Go to Sleep" (The Sneekers) feature memorable riffs that foreshadow Page’s work in Led Zeppelin. A hit single that year titled "Leave My Kitten Alone," by one-hit-wonders The First Gear, saw Page deliver one of the first-ever solos on his newly purchased "Black Beauty" Les Paul.
Other sessions from 1964 saw Page apply his skills to monumental hits, both in England and in America. The first was Tom Jones’s "It’s Not Unusual," which featured Page on steady, straight-up rhythm guitar. The Tom Jones session was followed by appearances on several songs that have since become classic-rock staples.
As the year wore down, Talmy summoned Page into the studio again to "strengthen up" the riffs for The Who's "I Can’t Explain." Page also devised a scorching lead on the song’s B-side, "Bald-Headed Woman." Other noteworthy contributions that year include an appearance on Marianne Faithfull’s "As Tears Go By," and showing Keith Richards the solo that Richards employed on the Rolling Stones' "Heart of Stone." Indeed the version that appears on the Stones outtakes album, Metamorphosis, features Page on guitar.
Page kicked off 1965 by partnering with lounge-pop artist Burt Bacharach, helping the American songwriter record instrumental versions of classics like "Walk on By" and "Always Something There to Remind Me." British blues greats The Yardbirds then tried to recruit Page to replace Eric Clapton, who had left the band. Page declined, suggesting instead the group hire his friend Jeff Beck. Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham then brought Page on board as guitar player, writer, and in-house producer for his upstart record label, Immediate Records. Under Oldham’s direction, Page worked with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers (which then featured Clapton), future Velvet Underground singer Nico (for whom Page and Oldham wrote songs, hoping to turn her into the next Marianne Faithfull), and R&B singer Chris Farlowe. Page also recorded a single of his own, "She Just Satisfies," on which he sang lead vocals. During the first half of 1966 Page also recorded with Petula Clark, Lulu, Herman’s Hermits, and David Jones, a brash upstart who would soon change his name to David Bowie.
First as the band’s bass player, then as co-lead guitarist with Jeff Beck, and finally as the group's sole guitarist, Page was a member of The Yardbirds from mid 1966 through much of 1968. This part of the Page history constitutes a lengthy story unto itself. Since it doesn’t involve session work, we'll leave that chapter for another time.
Page resumed his session work in 1968, joining Joe Cocker in the studio for the British singer’s cover of The Beatles’ "With a Little Help from my Friends." Page went on to play on five songs on Cocker's debut album. The most momentous session of this era, however, occurred when Page joined Donovan for Donovan’s "Hurdy Gurdy Man." In an attempt to emulate Pete Townshend, Donovan recorded the song playing power chords on his acoustic guitar. Page listened to the track, plugged in his guitar, and delivered what Donovan called “rock’s first power-chord solo." Controversy has always surrounded Page’s presence on "Hurdy Gurdy Man," with some asserting it was Alan Parker—not Page—who played guitar. In an interview with Uncut, Donovan himself clarified the issue.
"Originally I wanted to give 'Hurdy Gurdy Man' to Hendrix," he explained, "but he couldn't come in. So [producer] Mickie Most suggested Jimmy. [Musical director] John Cameron told him, 'All you’ve got to do is listen to Donovan’s guitar. Although it’s acoustic, the way he’s hitting it is the way the power-chords would go.’ So I guess Page listened. Jimmy added power and pagan rock. To this day, everyone wants that sound."
The "Hurdy Gurdy Man" session was significant for another reason as well. On hand to serve as arranger was John Paul Jones, and years later, drummer John Bonham recalled being present for the recording as well. In addition, future Led Zeppelin manager Peter Grant's office door adjoined that of Mickie Most, the session's producer. In summary, every key person in one of rock and roll’s most legendary bands—except one—was directly or indirectly involved with the session. The rest, as they say, is history.