(May 31st 1948 - September 25th 1980)
Bonham was born in Redditch, Worcestershire, England. He first learned how to play drums at the age of five, making a drum kit out of containers and coffee tins, and copying the moves of his idols Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich. His mother Joan gave him a snare drum at the age of ten, and he received his first proper drum kit at the age of fifteen, a Premier Percussion kit. The drummer - nicknamed 'Bonzo' after the dog in a British comic strip - never took any drum lessons though as a teen would knock on the doors of other drummers and ask for advice.
After leaving Lodge Farm Secondary Modern School in 1964, he worked for his father Jack Bonham as an apprentice carpenter in between drumming for different local bands. In 1964, Bonham joined his first band, Terry Webb and the Spiders, meeting his future wife Pat Phillips at a dance in Kidderminster. He also played in other Birmingham bands such as The Nicky James Movement, The Blue Star Trio, and The Senators, who released a moderately successful single "She's a Mod." Bonham enjoyed the experience and decided to take up drumming full-time. Two years later, he joined A Way of Life, but the band soon became inactive. In desperation for a regular income, he joined a blues group called Crawling King Snakes whose lead singer was a young Robert Plant.
In 1967, A Way of Life asked Bonham to return to their group, and he agreed — though throughout this period, Plant kept in constant contact with Bonham. When Plant decided to form Band of Joy, Bonham was first choice as drummer. The band recorded a number of demos but no album. In 1968 American singer Tim Rose toured Britain and invited Band of Joy to open his concerts. When Rose returned for another tour months later, Bonham was formally invited by the singer to drum for his band, which gave him a regular income.
When Jimmy Page wanted to start a band in the wake of The Yardbirds break-up, his first choice for singer was Terry Reid. However Reid had already signed with Mickie Most for a solo career. Reid suggested Robert Plant, who in turn suggested Bonham. Bonham had already drummed with Plant, and knew Page from session work, as well as John Paul Jones. Page's choices for drummer included Procol Harum's B.J. Wilson, and session drummers Clem Cattini and Aynsley Dunbar. Ginger Baker was also rumoured to be on Page's list. However, upon seeing Bonham drum for Tim Rose in Hampstead, north London, in July 1968, Page and manager Peter Grant were instantly convinced that he was the perfect fit for the new project.
Despite an intensive campaign to snare the drummer, Bonham was initially reluctant to join the band, as he thought that the Yardbirds was a name from the past with no future. Plant sent eight telegrams to Bonham's pub, the "Three Men in a Boat", in Walsall, which were followed by forty telegrams from Grant. However, at the same time he was also receiving lucrative offers from established artists Joe Cocker and Chris Farlowe. In the end, though, Bonham accepted Grant's offer. He later recalled, "I decided I liked their music better than Cocker's or Farlowe's."
During Led Zeppelin's first tour of the United States in December 1968, Bonham became friends with Vanilla Fudge's drummer Carmine Appice. Appice introduced him to Ludwig drums, which he then used for the rest of his career. Bonham used the longest and heaviest sticks available, which he referred to as "trees." His hard hitting style was displayed to great effect on many Led Zeppelin songs, including "Immigrant Song" (Led Zeppelin III), "When the Levee Breaks" (Led Zeppelin IV / ), "Kashmir" (Physical Graffiti), "The Ocean" (Houses of the Holy), and "Achilles Last Stand" (Presence). The studio recording of "Misty Mountain Hop" perfectly captures his keen sense of dynamics, and this is similarly exhibited by his precise drumming on "No Quarter." On several cuts from later albums, Bonham rather adeptly handled funk and Latin-influenced drumming. Songs like "Royal Orleans" and "Fool in the Rain" are good examples, the latter displaying great skill with a New Orleans shuffle and a samba rhythm.
His famous drum solo, first entitled "Pat's Delight," later renamed "Moby Dick," would often last for half an hour and regularly featured his use of bare hands to achieve different sound effects. In Led Zeppelin concert tours after 1969, Bonham would expand his basic kit to include congas, orchestral timpani, and a symphonic gong. Bonham is also credited (by the Dallas Times Herald) with the first in-concert use of electronic timpani drum synthesizers (most likely made by Syndrum) during a performance of the song "Kashmir" in Dallas, Texas in 1977. Many modern rappers would later heavily sample his drumming and incorporate it into their compositions, such as the Beastie Boys, who sampled "Moby Dick," "The Ocean," and "When the Levee Breaks."
In 1974, Bonham appeared in the film Son of Dracula, playing drums in Count Downe's (Harry Nilsson) backing band. This was an Apple film made by Ringo Starr. Bonham appeared in an overcrowded drum line-up including Keith Moon and Starr on the soundtrack album. Bonham's action sequence for the film The Song Remains the Same featured him in a drag race at Santa Pod Raceway to the sound of his signature drum solo, "Moby Dick."
During his time with Led Zeppelin, Bonham was also an avid collector of antique sports cars and motorcycles, which he kept on his family's farm called The Old Hyde. He even bought The Plough pub in the nearby village of Shenstone, which shows signs of conversion work to allow him to drive his bikes or cars right behind the bar. This was not, however, the pub featured in the film The Song Remains the Same. It was in fact the New Inn which is currently boarded up, the only clue to its famous past being a picture hanging close to the bar.
As well as recording with Led Zeppelin, Bonham also found time to play on sessions for other artists. In 1969 Bonham appeared on The Family Dogg's A Way of Life, with Page and Jones. Bonham also sessioned for Screaming Lord Sutch on his album Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends in 1970. He also played drums on Lulu's 1971 song "Everybody Clap," originally written by Maurice Gibb and Billy Lawrie. Later in his career, Bonham drummed for his Birmingham friend, Roy Wood, on his 1979 album, On the Road Again, and for Paul McCartney's Wings on their Back to the Egg Rockestra project.
On September 24, 1980, John Bonham was picked up by Led Zeppelin assistant Rex King to attend rehearsals at Bray Studios for the upcoming tour of the United States, the band's first since 1977. During the journey Bonham had asked to stop for breakfast, where he downed four quadruple vodkas (roughly sixteen shots, amounting to about 2/3 imperial quart or 400 ml). He then continued to drink heavily when he arrived at the party. A halt was called to the rehearsals late in the evening and the band retired to Page's house, The Old Mill House in Clewer, Windsor. After midnight, Bonham had fallen asleep and was taken to bed and placed on his side. Benji LeFevre (who had replaced Richard Cole as Led Zeppelin's tour manager) and John Paul Jones found him dead the next morning. Bonham was 32 years old.
An inquest at East Berkshire coroner's court recorded a verdict of accidental death, the cause being asphyxiation from vomit. A subsequent autopsy found no other drugs in Bonham's body. The alcoholism that had plagued the drummer since his earliest days with the band ultimately led to his death. John Bonham was cremated and on October 12, 1980 interred at Rushock Parish Church, Worcestershire. A cymbal sits in front of his headstone in his memory. His headstone reads:
"Cherished memories of a loving husband and father, John Henry Bonham Who died Sept. 25th 1980. aged 32 years. He will always be remembered in our hearts, Goodnight my Love, God Bless."
Despite media rumors that Cozy Powell, Eric Carr, Phil Rudd, Simon Wright, Carmine Appice, Peter Criss Barriemore Barlow, Simon Kirke, or Bev Bevan would join the group as his replacement, the remaining members decided to disband Led Zeppelin after Bonham's death. They issued a press statement on 4 December 1980 confirming that the band would not continue without its drummer. "We wish it to be known that the loss of our dear friend and the deep respect we have for his family, together with the sense of undivided harmony felt by ourselves and our manager, have led us to decide that we could not continue as we were." It was simply signed "Led Zeppelin".
John Bonham's younger sister, Deborah Bonham (born 1962), is a singer-songwriter. His younger brother, Mick Bonham (1951-2000), was a disc jockey, author and photographer. John Bonham's son, Jason Bonham (born 1966), is a rock drummer, who recently played with Led Zeppelin on their one-off reunion show in December 2007, as well as their previous reunion at the Atlantic Records' 40th anniversary show in 1988. Bonham's daughter, Zoë Bonham, is a singer-songwriter and also appears regularly at Led Zeppelin conventions and awards.