Achieving commercial success in the arts is often as much about luck as it is about talent. The era which began in the middle of the 1960s and ended in the early ‘70s offered some of the most lushly beautiful pieces of art and music since the Renaissance. While the obvious contributors enjoyed the perks of commercial success, one who is too often overlooked is Terry Reid, the wildly talented vocalist and unsung architect behind Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple. For this reason, Reid has been called “the unluckiest man in rock,” but according to him in a 2008 interview with Uncut magazine, “It does not feel like that at all.”
Born in 1949, Reid’s vocal talents were apparent at a very early age. At five, he would reportedly belt out the hits of the day with enormous power alongside his working mother. He joined a local band at the age of twelve and caught the eye of several established musicians such as Peter Jay, who he later joined as vocalist of the Jay Walkers at age sixteen. Reid became restless after a year in this group, leading to his introduction to the electric blues explosion that was Jimi Hendrix and Cream. The mastery of this genre of music would become totally definitive in his compositions and performances.
Not unlike the iconic Janis Joplin, Terry Reid was able to embody rather than emulate that southern blues style, and he managed to do it in a way that was totally his own. The chilling Superlungs recordings best show off what Reid does best. Jimmy Page thought so too, and in 1968 he approached Reid to front his upcoming project called The New Yardbirds. Reid had just signed a contract to support the Rolling Stones and, due to legal impasse, had to decline. The New Yardbirds ultimately became a gargantuan success: a slug of blues reinvention called Led Zeppelin.
“Meanwhile,” said Reid to Uncut, “I was doing a gig. I think it was in Buxton with the Band of Joy. I’d seen them before, and I knew Robert Plant and John Bonham. And this time, as I watched them, I thought: ‘That’s it!’ I could hear the whole thing in my head. So the next day I phoned up Jimmy. He said, ‘What does this singer look like?’ I said, ‘What do you mean, what does he look like? He looks like a Greek god, but what does that matter? I’m talking about how he sings. And his drummer is phenomenal. Check it out!’”
Reid’s high voice and general delivery is totally evocative of the vocals Robert Plant recorded for Led Zeppelin several months later. His guitar work in “July” echoes the opening half of “Stairway To Heaven” to the extent that it seems to predate the classic by several years. When asked in the same Uncut interview about making the first Led Zeppelin album, Robert Plant, who himself has topped Greatest Vocalist lists several times, admitted, “I knew there were much better singers who could have brought it on home in a different way, like Steve Marriott or Steve Winwood or Terry Reid… But with them, the band would have gone in a different way.”
On the Superlungs album sleeve, writer Peter Doggett suggests that Terry Reid’s producer, Mickie Most, may have been the major factor that held Terry back from the stardom he deserved. Most’s contract with Terry forced him to turn down another very high-profile proposition: a chance to replace Rod Evans as the Deep Purple vocalist. The producer’s decision to not release Reid’s debut album in the United Kingdom led to years of litigation.
Listening to the beauty of Terry’s vocal performance and guitar work on his tracks is jaw-dropping, maybe even more so for having been neglected all these years. Despite his lack of mainstream recognition, his influence has been subtly pervading the music world ever since his debut. Crosby, Still, Nash and Young recorded Terry’s “No Expression.” John Mellencamp has cited him as a huge influence. Cheap Trick recorded “Speak Now Or Forever Hold Your Piece” and Marianne Faithful recorded her own version of “Rich Kid’s blues.” In interviews he explained that he does not feel at all jaded by the way things turned out, but rather very fortunate to still be doing what he loves.
“I play every Monday night at this club called The Joint in Beverley Hills with Waddy Watchel,” said Terry to Uncut. “Robert Plant dropped by recently and we did ‘Season of the Witch,’ which he said he always wanted to sing with me. Keith Richards has been down a couple of times and Roger Daltrey turned up and we did ‘Stand By Me.’ We do songs by everybody from The Ronettes to The Zombies. People say I’m the unluckiest man in rock, but it doesn’t feel like that. Come down The Joint next time you’re in LA and you’ll see how I love what I do!”