VIDEO: Heart’s Ann and Nancy Wilson Talk Partying With Van Halen, Opening for Rod Stewart, and Covering ‘Stairway to Heaven’ in Front of Led Zeppelin

Rock legends join the Stern Show ahead of upcoming “Royal Flush Tour”

April 10, 2024

One of the most celebrated rock bands of all time stopped by the Stern Show on Wednesday morning as Heart — featuring sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson — joined Howard and co-host Robin Quivers for an epic interview and live, in-studio concert. While the Rock and Roll Hall of Famers’ decades-long career has produced nine Top 10 hits, sold out countless arenas, and moved over 35 million records, the Wilson sisters told Howard they came from humble beginnings, growing up in a music-loving military family that moved around so often it might as well have been a touring band. As they explained it to Howard, the only constant in their lives back then was their passion for rock and roll, fueled in large part by their love of the Fab Four.

In 1970, Ann began singing in a band called White Heart. Over the next six years, the band moved to Canada, dropped “White” from its name, added Ann’s younger sister Nancy on guitar, and released its seminal debut “Dreamboat Annie,” which boasted blistering hits like “Crazy on You” and “Magic Man.” They were taking over the rock world, and by most accounts they were one of the first female-led acts to do it.

“We were just little military brats who thought we could just be the Beatles,” Nancy said of their early days. “So, why not? Who says no? We didn’t feel like we needed any kind of permission to go be a rock band … There was no rule about it, so we just did it.”

Heart toured with everyone from ZZ Top and Bachman-Turner Overdrive to Led Zeppelin in the ‘70s, but the band’s first break came in 1975 when they got a chance to open for Rod Stewart in Montreal.

“[His] opening act got sick,” Nancy said, explaining the timing was fortuitous because they’d just been fired from a regular gig in Alberta for daring to criticize the venue’s food.

“I think I said something like, ‘Gee, I hope you enjoy your Lysol dinner,’” Ann laughed. “Then the very next day we got this offer to come open up for Rod Stewart.”

“It was the biggest stage we’d ever been on,” Nancy told Howard. “We opened with ‘Magic Man,’ and the people of Montreal … put their lighters in the air. And we were like, ‘What? they know our song?’ It was a really stellar moment.”

Covering ‘Stairway to Heaven’ in Front of Page and Plant

Ann and Nancy have covered Led Zeppelin songs to perfection since the ‘70s, but they raised the bar on themselves at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2012 when they teamed up with Jason Bonham to deliver an epic performance of “Stairway to Heaven.” The audience that night included not only Dave Grohl, Jack Black, and the Obamas, but also Led Zeppelin founders Jimmy Page and Robert Plant.

“Robert Plant starts crying, I think, that’s how moved he is,” Howard said of the performance.

“He wells up a little bit,” Nancy agreed.

“[Plant was] emotional for a bunch of reasons,” Ann said, theorizing it also had something to do with watching Jason Bonham, the son of founding drummer John Bonham, play the drums. “[Jason] was probably just a little kid running around at their band practice when they were writing ‘Stairway to Heaven.’”

Honoring Led Zeppelin was a surreal experience for Ann and Nancy, who told Howard they didn’t even know which song they’d perform when they agreed to participate. Even so, the sisters needed only one rehearsal to get it just right. Nancy recalled the soundcheck, explaining it was so freezing cold out that day that her fingers needed time to warm up before she could play the guitar. “They offered to shadow [the guitar part] for me … but I was like ‘No, no, no, no — my hands are just cold. It’s okay.’”

“It had to be the real deal, like we do,” Nancy continued before vividly recalling the moment she and her sister took the stage: “We looked at each other and took a very deep breath. [It was] like a Zen gathering of yourself, centering and focusing. You just can’t screw that up.”

“You have to be absolutely present in the moment,” Ann agreed.

Most people thought the performance was perfection, but when Plant and Page gave their review that night at a star-studded celebratory dinner, the sisters weren’t sure what to expect. “Plant let us know that he usually hated people’s covers of ‘Stairway,’ but he liked that one,” Ann recalled.

“He said, ‘You guys pulled it off,” Nancy added. “And then Jimmy Page goes, ‘Wow, you nailed the guitar part. [It was] really great.’ I was like, ‘Oh my God,’ … I could die.’”

On Chris Cornell Inducting Them Into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

When Heart was finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013, the Wilson sisters were thrilled.

“I thought it was an honor,” Ann told Howard.

“It’s a complete honor,” Nancy agreed of the recognition. “It’s an award, yeah, which is kind of an acknowledgement for all of the hard work — the 10,000 hours and the travel and balancing family and home … it was a proud moment for us.”

It didn’t hurt that fellow Seattle rocker and friend Chris Cornell inducted them. “It was incredibly, insanely beautiful how he did it … I cry just thinking about it,” Nancy admitted before adding that it was the Soundgarden frontman’s idea to present them. “He volunteered and [I’m] so happy the way that worked out because, as it turns out, he’s gone now … you don’t get that stuff back.”

The guitarist also noted her experiences with the singer – who passed away tragically in 2017 — at some of Ann’s parties over the years. “He was always really quiet around us,” she recalled. “I just assumed he was stuck up because he was so talented and good-looking and had everything … [but] he was just kind of shy.”

“He had this special brand of gallows humor … dark humor,” Ann remembered. “When he met his end, I wasn’t really that surprised because he had laid breadcrumbs all the way through the time I knew him.”

She also remembered Cornell’s sense of humor – like when he dressed up as “Black Hole Sun,” one of Soundgarden’s biggest hits. “He came in this gigantic gold, paper lamé, full-bodied suit with his face blacked out,” the singer explained. “It was really cool.”

On Touring with the Devils in Van Halen

When Heart opened up for Van Halen on their World Vacation Tour in 1979, the Wilsons were taken aback by the wild ways of Eddie and Alex. “They were nuts,” Nancy said affectionally before acknowledging the brothers’ penchant for partying. “[They’d be] having cosmos and stuff and they would start fighting … and then they’d be like, ‘I love you, man’ and then they’d be hugging.”

“It was sure interesting to watch,” Ann recalled, adding that she was surprised their hosts got so inebriated before going onstage. “I could never do that myself … I’m not saying that I never imbibed back then — I did, but I always waited until after.”

As fellow sibling bands on tour, Eddie and Alex even once suggested things turn romantic, but the sisters didn’t take the bait. “Sounds like a publicist’s kind of dream,” Nancy cracked.

‘Magic Man’

Before the band kicked off a trio of performances with a thunderous version of “Magic Man,” the second single off “Dreamboat Annie,” Howard was curious about the song’s meaning. When he asked Ann if she was alluding to the title character’s prowess in the bedroom, the singer didn’t deny it. “The whole thing was magic,” she said with a smile.

In fact, when Ann’s boyfriend decided to move to Canada to avoid getting drafted during the Vietnam War, she decided to follow him. Wilson’s concerned mother confronted her about it, and that conversation fueled the song’s lyrics. “She was pretty Victorian,” the rocker explained. “The whole idea of me waltzing off to a different country with a man, and we were obviously going to be up to the devil’s business, didn’t sit well with her.”

‘Going to California’ Cover

Heart slowed things down for their next song, a cover of the beloved Led Zeppelin ballad “Going to California.” Howard wondered if this was a tune the sisters had perfected back in the ‘70s when they were known for their Led Zeppelin covers.

“We didn’t do the acoustic things yet in those days,” Ann told him. “But a song like ‘Going to California’ can’t be underrated just because it’s acoustic. It takes so much skill and discipline to play these acoustic guitars and the mandolin,” she continued. “It’s a storyteller song,” she added.

“It’s a second-nature type of acoustic song to me,” added Nancy as she readied her guitar. “It’s got that Celtic, Zeppelin-y, beautiful, wide-open, ‘on the moors’ kind of a feeling.”


Closing the morning out with “Barracuda,” the sisters explained that a sleazy music industry-adjacent man who suggested they were also lovers inspired the track off 1977’s “Little Queen.”  “It just made me go, ‘God, I guess we’re in the entertainment business now,’” Ann recalled.

“That wasn’t the message we were trying to send,” Nancy added.

The guitarist then spoke on the track’s legendary riff. “I think it was an instant match for Ann’s vitriol,” she remarked before playing a snippet. “[It’s] very angry … there’s teeth involved.”

Robin Quivers Has a Heart to Heart … With Heart

Robin Quivers — a longtime Heart fan — couldn’t let the Wilson sisters go before telling them what they’ve meant to her. “This is very special for me, and I might cry,” she said, fighting back tears. “As a woman growing up loving rock and roll and just never having enough women expressing life through rock and roll … and having a woman’s point of view in rock and roll, thank God you guys came along.”

Robin went on to recall the a-ha moment she had upon first hearing Heart’s 1975 debut. “I was just like, ‘Oh my God!’” she said. “It’s not said enough how much influence you have had, [and] I love you to the bottom of my heart.”

Blown away by Robin’s words, Nancy expressed the band’s gratitude for being able to still rock out after all these years before addressing their lasting influence. “We didn’t have female models to follow … we had guys like Zeppelin,” the guitarist said. “And now, girls can follow people like us … Olivia Rodrigo and Boygenius and Taylor Swift – there’s a lot of empowerment going on with the new stuff that these cool women are up to.”

Heart’s “Royal Flush Tour” begins April 20.