FRESNO, Calif. – In the 1970s, the rule for playing female artists on the radio was this: One an hour.
“They would only play one woman an hour, whether it was a folk singer or a disco diva,” said Ann Wilson, vocalist for the band Heart.
It may be hard to imagine in today’s pop-music world, where female artists dominate the airwaves, but when Heart started playing its brand of heavy-hitting rock music in 1974, it was groundbreaking.
The band – which includes Wilson’s sister Nancy Wilson on guitar – rose to fame in the 1970s with a string of singles including “Crazy on You,” “Magic Man” and “Barracuda.” Heart has sold more than 35 million albums, plays to sold-out arenas and is part of the soundtrack of American culture.
But the sisters never rely on past success, and they push themselves to evolve as musicians, Wilson said.
“There will never be a time when we’ll be happy with the five or 10 songs we wrote in the 1970s and ’80s,” she said.
It’s paid off. Heart has found a renewed success. Its 2010 album “Red Velvet Car” was on the Billboard Top 10, and its latest album, “Fanatic,” debuted in the top 25.
The last two years have been good to the sisters in other ways as well.
Their memoir “Kicking and Dreaming: A Story of Heart, Soul and Rock and Roll,” spent several weeks on the New York Times bestseller chart and was released in paperback last month.
The band was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at a ceremony this May – 36 years after the release of its first album.
Of course, none of that prepared them for the aftermath of their performance for the 2012 Kennedy Center Honors.
The center was honoring the English rock band Led Zeppelin and asked the sisters to performance the finale – a rendition of “Stairway to Heaven,” considered one of the greatest songs in rock history. The performance had the Kennedy-Center audience on its feet and the members of Led Zeppelin visibly moved.
“We weren’t expecting to be asked, and we weren’t expecting the kind of response we had,” Wilson said. “It was like having a hit single, basically. And we haven’t had a hit single in many years.”
That performance spawned Heart’s 2013 “Heartbreaker” tour, which had Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Experience as on opening act. Each night’s show ended with a half-hour “tribute to Led Zeppelin” that included a recreation of the Kennedy Center performance. The tour ended in Portland on Aug. 30.
The fans were ecstatic to hear the song, Wilson said.
“People just love ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ Their faces just lit up. It was amazing every night,” she said.