How Ann Wilson and Her Band Nailed Their Majestic ‘Stairway to Heaven’ Cover With Led Zeppelin Watching

When it came time for Led Zeppelin to receive the Kennedy Center Honors, organizers hinted they wanted Ann Wilson and Nancy Wilson of Heart to perform. So the sisters and longtime Zeppelin fans began preparing mentally. But days before the 2012 event, the Wilsons finally got their assignment: They’d be performing “Stairway to Heaven” for their idols.

“That moment was really something,” Ann Wilson told Vulture in ’20. “I thought, F*ck. This is gonna be a big thing.” She knew better than anyone how large the song loomed in Zeppelin rock lore. Yet Wilson, who tackled the “Stairway” vocal, had a strong band behind her, starting with Nancy on rhythm guitar.

The Wilsons also had Jason Bonham (son of Zep titan John Bonham) playing drums and Shane Fontayne on lead guitar. Then there was that massive choir. All told, Ann Wilson counted about 80 people performing “Stairway.” But it came down to her lead vocals. With Zep’s surviving members in the audience, the pressure couldn’t have been greater.

Ann Wilson might have ‘dissolved into nerves’ singing ‘Stairway to Heaven’ for Led Zeppelin

THE 35TH ANNUAL KENNEDY CENTER HONORS: John Paul Jones, Robert Plant, and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin | John Paul Filo/CBS via Getty Images

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By 2012, the Wilsons had been performing for decades. But the Kennedy Center Honors were different for so many reasons. It’s hard to think of a time when Zep’s surviving members were in an audience together listening to a performance of “Stairway” in their honor. (It had probably never happened.)

Meanwhile, the Obamas were the first couple looming over the gala D.C. event, and it was being nationally televised. So even with 40 years of rocking under their belts, the Wilsons actually felt nervous. “There was a possibility that both of us could’ve dissolved into nerves,” Ann Wilson told Vulture.

She and Nancy looked at each other and took a breath before they took the stage. “We’re not going to think about this right now and we’re going to keep our eyes on the ball,” Wilson recalled she and Nancy telling one another.

Ann had been meditating, and she told Vulture she used her practice to guide her through what she considered “probably the biggest and most epic [production of “Stairway”] I’ve ever seen, anywhere.”

Wilson put Zeppelin out of her mind and ‘felt every second’ of ‘Stairway’

Ann Wilson and Nancy Wilson of Heart on stage in 2012
Ann Wilson and Nancy Wilson of Heart perform ‘Stairway to Heaven’ at the 2012 Kennedy Center Honors. | Jeffrey R. Staab/CBS via Getty Images

Obviously, the epic “Stairway” cover doesn’t come off without Nancy Wilson’s gorgeous acoustic part; Bonham’s rock-solid drumming; and Fontayne’s shredding take on the famous Jimmy Page solo. But Ann Wilson’s vocal soars above everything (choir included) for most of the song. It’s about as magnificent a vocal performance as you’ll ever hear.

You can call it rising to the moment, but for Wilson it was staying present in the actual lyrics — and keeping them in her mind with every breath, every note she sang. “I actually felt every second of it as a real, not to overstate it, but pretty damn close to orgasmic in terms of bliss,” she told Vulture. “I felt the emotional content of the song all the way down to the ground.”

Speaking with Professor of Rock in March ’21, Wilson noted how far away Zep’s members were from her. She couldn’t see their reactions, and that was probably for the best. “It just kept getting bigger and bigger with the choir, and I felt really still,” she said.

Looking at it later, Wilson saw the magic every other viewer got to see in the Kennedy Center Honors broadcast. That is, she brought Robert Plant to tears (and knocked out Page and John Paul Jones besides). After the show, she got the ultimate compliment: Plant told her he liked her version. About 30 million other viewers have come to the same conclusion.