The pejorative label “Nepo baby” came into sharper focus late last year thanks to an exhaustive New York magazine package that traced the advantageous lineage of entertainers with the academic zeal of an ancestry website. The gist: Those born to successful entertainment figures have advantages when they enter the business. Not a shocking conclusion, but the presentation — including a magazine cover graced by actresses Zoe Kravitz and Dakota Johnson and others in hospital cribs — helped distill the concept in a way that rankled observers and some of the subjects themselves, igniting a discussion tailor-made for social media.
But could it be that we need Nepo babies? The Hollywood debate will continue, but in the music world, nepo babies are vital.
Let’s take a look at some of the most successful, influential bands in rock music — Led Zeppelin, The Band, the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead — and how their musical legacies, not just their publishing and merchandise rights, are being preserved by the members’ offspring.
Led Zeppelin as an active band died when drummer John Bonham died in 1980, save for a few one-off reunions, most recently in 2007. The absence of any band touring under the official Led Zeppelin banner for more than 40 years has opened up the market for a slew of tribute bands. The most interesting one is Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Evening. Jason, John’s son, seen performing on the drums as a tyke in the classic Zep film “The Song Remains the Same,” was tapped by the surviving members to man the kit at their London 02 Arena reunion. He also leads the tribute act John Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Evening.
The elder Bonham played with the power of a locomotive, a style that has influenced generations of players but has flowed naturally to his son. Jason was 14 when his father died, so it’s reasonable to think that he was old enough to have learned more from his dad than any other drummer could have, either through hands-on instruction or simply being around him and absorbing the rhythms of the way he walked and spoke. And then there’s the matter of genetics, something great athletes and musicians are often blessed with. Having the last name Bonham has certainly benefited Jason. He called his 1980s band “Bonham,” he’s got the surname and the Zeppelin tag in his current project, and being born into rock royalty probably did not hurt him land gigs with Foreigner and Sammy Hagar. But Led Zeppelin fans are also the beneficiaries of his bloodline. I saw JBLZE perform at Madison Square Garden a few years ago opening for Peter Frampton. Jason’s heft and subtlety on the kit was palpable, as was his love and respect for his father and the Zeppelin catalog and mystique. In fact, the only cheesy thing about the performance was the guitarist’s resemblance to Jimmy Page.
The Band, already touring without chief songwriter Robbie Roberston for six years, broke up after bassist and singer Rick Danko died in 1999. Drummer and singer Levon Helm had a career renaissance in the 2000s, recreating the midnight rambles of his Arkansas youth at his barn studio in Woodstock, NY. With the help of guitarist and producer Larry Campbell, Helm won a Grammy in 2008 for his album “Dirt Farmer.” His daughter Amy Helm had much more time with her dad than Jason Bonham did with his — Levon died in 2012. Amy, a singer and multi-instrumentalist, as her dad was, has been keeping the spirit of the Midnight Rambles alive at her dad’s old barn and on tour. She is not a tribute performer, but a creator of original music who also has a love for her father’s music and often performs performing it.
During an interview in 2014, I asked Amy if she thought it was part of her job to continue Levon’s legacy.
“Yes. Yes I do. And I think I share that job with a lot of people,” she answered. “I think that it is our responsibility as artists to always try to continue the legacy of what we’ve learned from our heroes, both gone and still here. I think that it’s your job as a player to pass on to the next generation the good songs and the space inside of the song and the solo, all of the things that we learn and we absorb. It’s our job to pass it along. So I definitely feel connected to that and I think my father’s, his audience has been extremely loving and supportive to all of us at the Midnight Rambles, all of the musicians, and I feel a sense of gratitude. They’re still coming to the shows and having a good time, and I want to share that with them and honor that too.”
Her son Lee, Levon’s grandson, is also a fixture at the barn, sitting in with many of the performers and even, during one of my recent visits to the bucolic venue, happily directing cars in the parking lot.
Grahame Lesh, a son of Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh, performed at the barn that night. Aside from it being a musically accomplished and entertaining show (and might end up as a sleeper pick when it comes time to pick my favorites of 2023), it was a poignant display of love and respect for the family business. Grahame is not needed to keep the Dead flame burning. His father has been doing that without him, and more recently with him, in Phil Lesh and Friends; Bob Weir leads various Dead-related groups, including the stadium act Dead and Co with John Mayer. And there are many phenomenal players on the post-Dead scene, even nearly 30 years after Jerry Garcia died. Seeing someone with the last name Lesh playing any music, including some well-chosen Dead tunes, at Levon’s barn was about as good as it gets for someone who was too young to see the Dead and The Band at Watkins Glen in 1973. Again, the lineage serves the performers, but it also serves the fans.
Amy and Lee sat in with Grahame’s band that night.
Amy, who produced the upcoming Midnight North album, talked about the Helm-Lesh connection when we spoke for another interview two years ago.
“When I see Grahame doing this, it’s a reminder that having music passed down to you from your parents is so deeply important, and to have the opportunity to carry it on a little bit and share it with other people and collaborate with other people, it’s a beautiful thing. I’m always inspired by Grahame and Phil and how they do that. I do connect with Grahame on that stuff. Growing up with anybody who has a mom or a dad who has done something big in their community, there’s an echo there, and there’s a lot of gifts in that echo, and there’s a lot of projection you have to walk through in that echo.”
The Allman Brothers — the other massive act at Watkins Glen, which was said to have been attended by 600,000 people — kept going after Duane Allman died in after a motorcycle crash in 1971. When fellow guitarist Dickey Betts was fired in 2000, the band replaced him with a young Derek Trucks, the nephew of Allmans drummer Butch Trucks. The band played its final shows in 2014. Gregg Allman and Butch both died in 2017. There are several bands continuing to play the Allmans’ music, including the Allman-Betts Band, which is not an Allmans tribute. The namesakes are Allmans “nepo babies” Devon Allman, a son of Gregg, and Duane Betts, whose dad is Dickey.
“I was just very resistant to doing an Allman Brothers sons thing,” Duane Betts told me in 2020. “I didn’t want it to be that.” He acknowledged the heaviness of his and Devon’s last names. But like Midnight North, the flavors of the past are in the music of the Allman-Betts Band, but those flavors might be in the mix regardless of the members’ lineage. Let’s not forget that the Allman Brothers have had an impact on millions of people, most of them not named Allman or Betts.
The recent Genesis reunion and farewell tour might not have happened without drummer Nic Collins — son of Phil and brother of actress Lily, NY Mag-annointed nepo baby.
In the 1990s, Jakob Dylan was a much bigger star than Bob Dylan. Like everything Dylan, it’s complicated. Would Jakob’s band The Wallflowers have made it if his last name was Smith? With songs like “One Headlight,” “The Difference” and “Three Marlenas,” there would have at least been a good chance. But have you heard of Pablo Dylan, the rapping grandson of Bob?
Being the son of a Beatle is an unfathomable legacy. Julian Lennon had one big hit in 1984-5 with “Too Late for Goodbyes,” and he continues to work as a songwriter and photographer (his appearance on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast in 2019 is a must listen, where he opens up about his relationship with his father and his legacy as a Lennon). Sean Lennon has taken a more avant garde path, working with groups such as The Lennon-Claypool Delirium. Neither Lennon son is a household name. But did you know Paul McCartney had a son named David, whose most recent release came in 2016? The point: even with the most famous surnames in music, you are guaranteed little besides a call back or an answered email.
In our thirst for authenticity, we sometimes turn our noses up at anything other than the original. But that comes with the risk of self spite: Should we never listen to a performance of Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” because hearing the original 18th century composition isn’t an option? If a body of work connects with people in a meaningful way, it deserves to live on, and it needs stewards to ensure that it will thrive, maybe adapt, and reach new listeners. Who better than nepo babies to be the caretakers of the legacy?
Lead photo: Amy Helm performs with Grahame Lesh at Levon Helm Studios in Woodstock. By Sam Watson.