Whole Lotta LoveMay 03, 2022 03:48PM ● By Leanne Goebel
Robert Plant blew her kisses when she toured with him and Jimmy Page. But she deflected those kisses, preferring the kiss of the bow on the strings of her cello.
Martha Ditto played with the Led Zeppelin duo on their No Quarter Tour in 1995. The tour included a 30-piece orchestra, in which she played the cello, and an Egyptian ensemble. Ditto sat behind the drummer Michael Lee, who performed in a plexiglass cage and was always breaking drumsticks.
“Pieces went flying everywhere,” said Ditto, who now lives in Delta.
From her vantage point she could see the band. Plant was always turned around looking at the drummer. Page would wave at her. The other cellists—all men—told her, “You know what that means. You’re supposed to go to his dressing room.”
But Ditto wasn’t a groupie—she was a gifted and accomplished cellist.
Marinated in music
For 60 years, Ditto has been passionate about the cello…and goats. But the goats came later.
Born in Wisconsin but raised in Louisiana, Ditto grew up in a musical family. Her mother studied to be a concert pianist and was the church organist. Her father had an amazing voice, she said, and played the flute and bass. Her older brother played trombone, French horn, trumpet and bugle, and her younger sister is a violinist.
Her mother had a friend in her music club who played the cello. Watching and listening to her play is how Ditto first fell in love with the instrument.
She began following in her mother’s footsteps and took piano lessons. In third grade she told her mother she didn’t want to play piano anymore.
“My mother said she wouldn’t force me to play,” said Ditto. “My piano teacher cried.”
In fourth grade, when her elementary school handed out musical instruments, Ditto came home with a cello.
“I’ve been blessed with some awesome people in my life,” Ditto said.
By that, she means Leonard Chausow, principal cellist with the Chicago Symphony and Eleanor Slatkin, cellist of the Hollywood String Quartet, who headed the string department at DePaul University between 1968-1970. These were her cello teachers in high school when the family moved to Chicago. Ditto auditioned for Slatkin who told her, “Okay. We’re going to fix a lot of things. But, I’ll teach you.”
She continued teaching Ditto, even after she went to college.
Ditto attended Peabody College at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Slatkin kept in touch and invited Ditto and her husband to visit Cincinnati to see her son Leonard Slatkin conduct. Then she traveled to see Ditto at school and asked to sit in on a quartet rehearsal. Ditto said her cello teacher, dumbfounded that Eleanor Slatkin was coming, had the quartet rehearse for their rehearsal.
While studying music and performance at Peabody, Ditto played music and performed. She freelanced and did studio work for Al Hirt, Loretta Lynn, George Jones, Willie Nelson, Slim Whitman and Dolly Parton. There were three string session groups in Nashville and Ditto played with all of them. She spent 11 years with the Nashville Symphony.
In 1980, a contractor called her to play on a late-night session. Ditto came dressed from her performance with the symphony to the studio where an unknown group came to record a song for music executive Harold Shedd. The song was “My Home’s in Alabama” by the group Alabama. It went platinum.
According to Ditto, session music is very political. She was told: “If you’re going to work in this industry, you need to know who you’re working for, who you’re playing for.”
Often, she didn’t know. Ditto just wanted to play and go home. After she missed a Barbara Mandrell session because she had a baby, she did less and less session work. With three children she focused more on union work, which paid better.
A new love
In 1995, she got a call from a reed player she knew. He had a gig for her touring with Plant and Page in a few towns across the southeastern U.S. Ditto played with them in Pensacola, Florida; Atlanta, Georgia; Knoxville and Memphis, Tennessee; Little Rock, Arkansas; and Cincinnati, Ohio.
She still has the set list from the March 5, 1995 show in Memphis. They opened with “Wanton Song” and ended on the eighteenth song, “In the Evening.” “Black Dog” and “Kashmir” were their encore.
In Little Rock, they played in a stockyard barn. She and the other musicians had lockers. Plant walked through to get to his tiny dressing room and said to her, “It’s so good to see you again,” and signed her credential pass. After the show, as they were loading up, the manager asked her if she wanted to go backstage with the band.
“I’ve got to get on the bus,” she said.
Eventually Ditto tired of the politics, road life and touring. For the next 20 years she worked in a chiropractic office in Brentwood, Tennessee and then, when they opened another office in Pulaski, she commuted back and forth. The chiropractor she worked for asked a client if he knew anyone with a place to rent. Frank Ditto had a studio apartment he built on his 60-acre farm for his son, who only lived there a month.
She continued teaching cello and violin, and practiced in her apartment for her niece’s upcoming wedding in Indianapolis. Her car was failing so she asked Frank if he was up for an adventure. He drove her to Chicago and listened as she and her mother sat in the living room and played music together. Frank fell in love watching her play. They’ve been together now for 11 years.
In 2014, the Dittos moved to Delta, bringing a guard dog, goats and six hives of bees with them. She intended to park her cello, retire and raise goats, but the music keeps calling.
Currently, Ditto plays cello with the Valley Symphony Association, and continues to teach cello. She also recorded cello parts for David Starr’s “Beauty and Ruin” CD in his Cedaredge Studio.