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Man who changed his name to Led Zeppelin dies

Led ZeppelII explained his name change St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “Since I became Led Zeppelmy life has improved thousandfold. . .

Led Zeppelin II explained his name change to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “Since I became Led Zeppelin, my life has improved a thousandfold. . . . I just changed my name from the standpoint that I can be a better person than I used to be."

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Updated: July 3, 2012 9:18AM

His death notice said it perfectly: Led Zeppelin II has climbed the “Stairway to Heaven.”

Mr. Zeppelin, a 65-year-old former Chicagoan who used to be known as George Blackburn, changed his name in 2010 to Led Zeppelin II to honor the rock gods he had worshipped since he was a young headbanger.

He collapsed because of a heart ailment Friday at an auto parts store in Downstate Bethalto. He was wearing one of his many Led Zeppelin T-shirts. Fittingly, a Led Zeppelin song was on the radio, according to Claude Walker, an owner of the Part Stop.

“It was like they were welcoming him home,” said his ex-wife and friend Cheryl Blackburn.

Mr. Zeppelin — who went by “Led,” “Zep” or “LZ’’ but would also answer to George — felt there was nothing life threw at you that a little Led Zeppelin couldn’t make better, said his daughter, who is not named Led Zeppelin III. She is Mindy Baker.

He grew up in Old Town, attended St. Benedict High School and worked 32 years for TWA as a ramp serviceman in Chicago and St. Louis. Most recently, he lived in Bethalto, which is near Alton.

He changed his name after his divorce in a bid to reinvent himself, relatives said. The metamorphosis gave him a “Whole Lotta Love,” he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch last year.

“Since I became Led Zeppelin, my life has improved a thousandfold,” he said, with fellow rock fans apt to treat him to him drinks and dinner when they learned his moniker. “I don’t want to appear to be some off-the-wall, drug-addict idiot,” he said. “I just changed my name from the standpoint that I can be a better person than I used to be.”

Jay Leno mentioned him on “The Tonight Show,” Baker said, adding, “He was actually a question on ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?’ ’’

Mr. Zeppelin looked a lot more like the late rocker Frank Zappa than anyone in Led Zeppelin. Still, the band “changed my life, forever, and that’s my whole reason for doing this,” he told the Post-Dispatch.

“He loved the singing, loved how [Robert Plant] could do crescendos,” his daughter said. “We watched a lot of the ‘The Song Remains the Same’ — a lot”—growing up.

Her parents did not marry in the “Houses of the Holy.” But they were wed by a justice of the peace who let them blast a recording of Plant singing “In the Mood.”

At times, his devotion led to a “Communication Breakdown.” In 1980, Cheryl Blackburn woke up in the hospital after minor surgery. He leaned toward her and said, “Cheryl, I have some bad news.”

In all seriousness, he told her the bad news — which was about Led Zeppelin’s drummer: “John Bonham died today.”

Mr. Zeppelin’s early years were tough. He was born in Milwaukee with club feet, and for several summers he traveled to Chicago to get surgery to repair them, his daughter said. “He overcame so much.”

Even though he wound up with two different shoe sizes, he walked proud, she said, telling his children: “Don’t be embarrassed, ever.”

He loved fast cars, especially the ha-cha-cha yellow 1932 Ford Coupe driven by Paul Le Mat in “American Graffiti.” He built or rebuilt about seven hot rods, including three of those 1932 coupes.

He stood 6-foot-5 when he was young, which helped him get hired as a bouncer at the Cheetah Club, a late 1960s incarnation of the Aragon Ballroom.

Mr. Zeppelin was married twice before Cheryl Blackburn. In the 1970s, he dropped his wife Sharon off at Disneyland with his daughter, Melissa Gray, while he went to see a Zeppelin concert. Despite having a broken leg, crutches and a stick-shift car, he made it to the show. The crutches meant he was shown to a ringside seat. The first song stretched for a psychedelic 45 minutes. He didn’t get back to Disneyland till midnight.

Later in his life, he still went to concerts a couple of times a month, especially to hear Led Zeppelin tribute bands. His house was decorated with framed albums by groups such as AC/DC, Mott the Hoople and Black Sabbath.

But through “Good Times, Bad Times,” it was always Zeppelin that had his heart. One of his license plates was “2 ZPPLN.” He was thrilled with the 1990s Page and Plant concerts by Plant and Zep’s doubleneck-guitar-playing legend, Jimmy Page. He saw Plant in solo shows and at his concerts with country siren Alison Krauss.

Mr. Zeppelin also is survived by his father, Alfonso Blackburn; his sister, Sandy Chernikovich; his brother, Joe Blackburn; one grandchild, and two great-grandchildren. A celebration of his life is planned at 6 p.m. Friday at the former RJ’s Place, now under new ownership as JR’s Place, 418 N. Delmar Ave., Hartford, Ill. His daughters plan to scatter his ashes in Amsterdam, a city he loved.

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