I want to be clear right off the bat that I don’t intend any of this information to detract from the legend of John Bonham. On the contrary, actually, Bonham is in my top three favorite drummers of all time. Everyone has influences. Bonham just drew from some of the coolest and hippest sources to create his own distinct, highly informed style. Knowing where some of his ideas came from and investigating those sources for myself has helped me understand Bonham on a much deeper level and has actually increased my respect and admiration for him. Special thanks to Tony McLung, Mike Dillon, Garry Allcock, and Geoff Nicholls, whose book John Bonham: A Thunder Of Drums, which he cowrote with Chris Welch, was a huge inspiration.
Ginger Baker, Carmine Appice, and other rock drummers may have played the RLF triplets before Bonham made them famous, but you can trace this idea back even further. You can hear Elvin Jones playing pre-Bonham Bonhamesque triplets on the Larry Young record Unity (1965) on the song “Softly As In A Morning Sunrise.” Listen at the end of the tune at 6:10.
At the beginning of his “Moby Dick” (1969) solo, Bonham often quotes Max Roach’s “The Drum Also Waltzes” (1966). Check out the YouTube clip titled “LED ZEPPELIN London Live 1970 - Moby Dick & Drums Solo by BONZO.” He begins his solo at around 0:40 by quoting the beginning of “The Drum Also Waltzes.”
Bonham’s penchant for playing with his hands was definitely influenced by these two cats. YouTube Papa Jo’s 1957 solo and “Joe Morello – 1961 Drum Solo.” Check out some of the similar ideas, especially Morello’s triplet around 0:37!