When telling a legend, one ought to begin at the beginning. On May 31, 1948, in Redditch, Worcestershire, UK, John Henry Bonham was born. Following 26 hours of labor, his heart stopped. The drunken doctor who had been on duty was gone; thankfully, the nurse fetched another doctor, who revived him. Alcohol nearly killed him before he ever held a drumstick.
Reminiscing about the beginning of his drumming, he remarked "I used to play on a bath salts container with wires on the bottom to get a snare effect." His parents were also wonderfully encouraging of his habit, and set up pots and pans for him to bang on. The improvised drums would disappear when he got his first real drums, but it appeared in his arsenal later on. At the tender age of ten, he received his first real snare drum, and at age fifteen, his dad bought him a whole set. History doesn't reveal the condition his snare was in at that time, but I'm willing to wager it was on its last legs.
At age sixteen, he was already a large young man, and quit school to help with the family finances, pulling in money as a hod carrier and developing his arms at the same time. He pursued his drumming actively, playing with Terry and the Spiders for a year before leaving them for A Way of Life. At age 17, he married his sweetheart Pat Phillips, and promised her he'd quit drumming. He also quit smoking, just to afford the rent. Unfortunately, drumming was a harder habit to kick, and he was soon back behind the kit again, hoping to make a living at it. He played with Robert Plant in the Crawling King Snakes, honing his skills, and occasionally being refused entrance to certain clubs--his drumming was too loud for them, thanks. Along the way, he learned by listening to the greats (as they were defined then): Ginger Baker and Keith Moon each get a little credit for originating the heavy bass drum sound that Bonzo went on to perfect. His jazzier roots were outgrowths of the styles of Zigaboo Modeliste, Benny Benjamin and Clyde Stubblefield, but his respect was for volume and precision. He quit the Crawling King Snakes when money became tight and he couldn't afford transportation to and from the clubs.
He played on and off with Robert Plant's Band of Joy, but his lucky break came when he was offered a very high-paying position with Tim Rose. This not only got him the money he so desperately needed, but it got him noticed all over England as the best drummer around, and a young man named Jimmy Page soon got in touch with him (through an old friend) about maybe joining a different band.
In July of 1968, a year before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a year before Woodstock, John got over 40 telegrams--his home had no telephone--from his old mate Robert and a lad named Jimmy, and by August he had been convinced. The New Yardbirds had themselves a drummer. By October, they had changed their name, and were Led Zeppelin.
I won't go into the history of Led Zeppelin here; it's covered so much better on the node of the same name. Suffice it to say that the band would not have been the same without him.
He didn't focus as much on the technique of drumming as the sound. Where Neil Peart, Jon Fishman, Carter Beauford, or Ginger Baker--or even Keith Moon--might be able to handle a long, intricate solo, and play their drums as an instrument, Bonzo played a more straightforward (but to many, more inspiring) straight-out, 100% rock and roll beat. There was to be no buggering around... there was to be drumming. That's not to say he wasn't talented; he is still regarded as the father of the "Heavy Rock" drum sound. Listen to Four Sticks to hear his substantial talent; if you play an instrument, try to count the time signature, and consider that he played the piece with (gasp!) four drumsticks, and of course, both feet. Listen to any Led Zeppelin, and you'll understand: he was technically skilled, but his true love was that deep thunderous snap every time he hit the bass drum.
In his search for the deepest, most primal sound possible, he would often augment his setup with tympani and a giant gong, or place sheets of aluminum foil in his drums for a gargantuan snare effect: shades of the bath salts. To achieve the tectonic rumble in When the Levee Breaks, he placed his drums in a stairwell; the modifications to his drums at the time are the subject of many rumors, ranging from pillows to aluminum foil and beyond. Along the way to Kashmir, he switched from using his arms to power his sticks to a wrist-based approach. This only served to make him more monstrous; more and better sound came from his drums with less effort. Furthermore, the bass drum didn't limit him to slow, heavy beats; his fast right-footed triplets were an instant trademark.
Sadly, the rock and roll lifestyle caught up with him. On tour with Zep, in the early morning hours of September 25, 1980, he choked to death in his sleep on his own vomit. He had been drinking, heavily, and went to sleep as he had done a thousand times. It was a stupid high school-caliber drinking death, and it broke up Led Zeppelin forever. His bass drum on When the Levee Breaks can still be heard all over the place; it's the most-sampled rock drumbeat ever, and a fitting legacy to Bonzo, one of the greatest rock drummers of all time.
"You're bangin' on the bongoes like a chimpanzee..."
--Dire Straits, Money For Nothing