There was an 18 month stretch beginning in 1976 when Peter Frampton could do no wrong. He released the iconic Frampton Comes Alive album and was sky rocketed to heights his career had never known. Frampton credits the emotional chemistry he had with Bob Mayo (keyboards and guitar), Stanly Sheldon (bass), and John Siomos (drums) for his big breakthrough. Says Frampton 46 years on, “It was the best band I’d ever had. That line-up came together in 1975, so it was a new band, but it gelled so quickly that it took us to a WNL – whole ‘nother level.”
This was the same line-up I was fortunate to see at Northern Michigan University’s Hedgecock Field- house as the Come Alive album was climbing the charts. They were so tight that even with Mayo missing the gig (his absence was never explained – perhaps he was ill?), the trio missed nary a beat. I remember thinking Frampton had the skinniest legs I had ever seen, but that did not stop me from scoring the Alive album ASAP. As far as one can tell, the only mistake Pete made was agreeing to appear in Robert Stigwood’s monumental movie flop Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band that was filmed late in 1977. If you’ve seen it, you know why. If you have not seen it, don’t bother.
On the eve of his final live appearances in the United Kingdom, Frampton sat down and held an extensive zoom interview for Classic Rock Magazine with Bill DeMain (Issue 306, October 2022). It was supposed to be a face-to-face session at Peter’s studio in Nashville’s Berryhill neighborhood, but one of his studio assistants tested positive for COVID the night before. The decision to err on the side of caution was made with a mind toward the safety of his daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter who were staying with him for a month. DeMain described Frampton’s six decade career in a nutshell: “Peter Frampton has lived the rock life to its fullest playing many parts – prodigy, teen idol, guitar hero, global superstar, forgotten man, comeback kid, survivor. Through it all, he’s returned to one defining thought: ‘I’m a musician, first and foremost.’” Indeed, Peter says he really has only two regrets: One is the aforementioned movie and the other was rushing out his I’m In You album to soon after Comes Alive.
With his 2017 diagnosis of inclusion body myositis (IBM), Frampton announced he would undertake a farewell tour in 2019 before his condition dulled his ability to perform. IBM is a painless but progressive degenerative disorder that weakens the legs, arms, wrists, and fingers which pretty much sums up the toolbox a guitarist needs to play. Halfway through his final jaunt, COVID shut down the music industry and disrupted his plans. In the interval, his condition has slowly worsened to the point where he doesn’t trust his legs enough to play standing up. When the final leg of his farewell gears up, he will play seated but he told DeMain, “I am anxious about it. I haven’t played over there in so long, and I have progressed in my disease. It has started to affect my hands, but not enough yet, so I can still play a good lick.”
Peter Frampton picked up the guitar at a young age and surprised his parents with the speed at which he mastered the instrument. His father Owen was an art teacher and he encouraged his son and another student of his named David Jones (later, Bowie) to bring their guitars to school so they could play during lunch hour. Seeing Jones perform with his early band the Kon Rads spurred young Peter to pursue a career in music. By the age thirteen, he was playing professional gigs and was being mentored by future Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman. Wyman recalls, “Pete and I go back to when he was about 14 and used to come round to my house. He had this little band at that time. I’m like his mentor, his confidante. I helped get him into the studio for the first time. After I joined the Stones in December of 1962, my former drummer Tony Chapman bought my old equipment and formed The Preachers. When their guitar player was killed in a car accident in ‘64, he was replaced by Peter Frampton. So you can trace him back to my original band.”
Frampton’s first brush with fame came when he joined The Herd. They were a solid pop band but the press and the girls became fixated on ‘The Face’, as he would soon be called. The rest of the band wasn’t happy about it and Frampton himself found the extra attention annoying. When it became clear that it was the look and not the music that was selling, he set off to find a band where he could just be a guitar player. Enter Steve Marrriott of The Faces. Marriot had also tired of being a teen idol and with Frampton, drummer Jerry Shirley, and bassist Greg Ridley, the band Humble Pie was born. With their hard driving sound and Marriott’s soulful voice, they made a name for themselves as a live act.
The first time the Pie played at Madison Square Garden, they opened for Grand Funk Railroad. Offered time to do a sound check (something opening acts are not always given time to do), Frampton strapped on his guitar and filled the 22,000 seat arena with a thunderous E chord, followed by E-minor, G, and then an A chord. What happened next was typical Humble Pie magic as Peter recalled it to CRM: “Jerry yelled, ‘One-two-three-four’ and he was in. Greg fell in. Steve was at the mixing console a mile away, and I saw him sprinting full-speed towards the stage. He didn’t even pick up a guitar. He gets to the mic and yells, ‘Hold it on the E! and starts to sing; I don’t need no doctor!’ And that was that. Steve picked up a guitar, then we did it again, we arranged it, rehearsed it, and it became the last number of our set that night. It tore the place apart. We saw the power of the song, and it became our closer of every show we ever did. That was Humble Pie – all we needed was a riff and we were off. And that was one hell of a riff.”
The record that broke them big in America was a double live album recorded in New York City on May 28-29, 1971 (Performance Rockin’ the Fillmore – released in November 1971). Still hailed as one of the greatest live albums ever made, it proved to be Frampton’s swan song with the band. He and Marriott were beginning to have creative differences as the album was peaking. Marriott’s increasing drug use was probably the wedge that pushed Peter to leave the Pie to try his hand at a solo career first as Frampton’s Camel, then under his own name. It was all ground work leading up to the massive success of Frampton Comes Alive.
The last attempt at a Humble Pie reunion began in the 1990s when the two former bandmates met up in England and wrote a song called The Bigger They Come. Encouraged by their collaboration, Frampton invited Marriott to Los Angeles on one condition; he had to be sober. Marriott said, “All right mate,” and they had a pretty productive two week stretch working at Peter’s makeshift studio in North Hollywood. When Steve’s voice started to slur, Frampton realized the ever present Perrier bottle Marriott was toting around was filled with wine, not spring water.
They still attempted to get a label deal as ‘Marriott-Frampton’ but the suits wanted to make it a Humble Pie project. “That was the past,” they told the label and stuck to their guns. As these negotiations dragged on and Marriott’s drinking continued, Frampton told him. “Steve, I’m sorry, this is not going to work for me. Steve said, “All right, mate, I understand,” and he decamped back to England. Peter thought he would go home and think it over and call him to give it another go, however, fate had other plans. Frampton sadly recalls, “The day Steve got home, he fell asleep with a cigarette in his hand. And the rest is history, unfortunately.” Marriott died in the resultant fire that swept through his home in Arkesden, Essex on April 20, 1991.
Frampton’s Comes Alive album marked his high point and everyone knows there are valleys between the peaks. Peter’s valley was much deeper than one would expect, but the slide to the bottom was gradual. He got to be great friends with George Harrison after John Lennon’s personal assistant Terry Doran invited Peter to ‘meet Geoffrey’ (George’s Beatle code name). They walked into Trident Studios, George said, “Hello, Pete. Nice to meet you man. Do you want to play?” Frampton was surprised a Beatle even knew who he was and the next thing he knew, he was playing Harrison’s red Les Paul guitar nicknamed ‘Lucy’ on a track George had written for Doris Troy called Ain’t That Cute? As he strummed rhythm guitar to the chord pattern Harrison showed him, he noticed Stephen Stills sitting there to his right as George stopped the tape and said, “No, I want you to play lead.” Frampton then laid down the lead fills in the intro for the song that was soon released as a single.
A few weeks later, George called him up and said, “Pete, I’m making my own album with Phil Spector. Would you come and play some acoustic? Phil wants, like, nineteen of everything.” Frampton ended up playing on If Not For You, Behind the Locked Door, and My Sweet Lord plus a few other tracks. The pattern would repeat as Phil ‘Mr Wall of Sound’ Spector kept adding more guitars to the tracks. Pete says, “It was just me and George sitting on two stools in front of the glass at Abbey Road, and there’s Phil Spector [in the booth]. I don’t know how many songs I played on, but if you hear an acoustic guitar, I’m probably on it.” As I recall, there are alot of acoustic guitar parts spread across George’s masterwork All Things Must Pass.
To add insult to the Sgt. Pepper movie debacle, Frampton was in a serious car crash the weekend it opened. It was the third ‘bad luck’ thing in the dreaded ‘bad things happen in threes’ meme. The first was a photo of a shirtless Peter Frampton that appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. It returned him to his unfortunate past as a teen idol and the haters out there branded him ‘just another pretty face pop star’ regardless of his obvious talents on stage. The second in his line of bad luck combined the aforementioned movie and his rushed out I’m In You album into a monumental round of ‘career bashing’ by the press. By the time the car crash in the Bahamas brought him to his knees, he was already doubting his own talent and career. As if he needed more to burden his soul, he began mulling his career while recovering from his multiple broken bones and finally realized that his manager was a crook. His songwriting royalties and massive album sales were nonexistent prompting Frampton to start legal proceedings to break his contract.
By 1986, he hit his lowest point and he knew it – he walked out after the sessions for his latest LP Premonition and let someone else mix the tracks. Frampton was at the bottom of a career swallowing hole looking at an even deeper abyss of failure when he was rescued by his old guitar strumming school chum. David Bowie called to compliment his playing on Premonition (not necessarily the album itself) and asked. “Could you come do that for me?” Later came an offer to tour with Bowie which Frampton says, “My credibility was in the toilet. The gift David gave me was just wonderful. He knew what I was going through and that I’d lost my cred. He single handedly gave it back to me. And I could never thank him enough. He could have had any guitarist, but he chose me.” The renewed Peter Frampton would later tour as part of Ringo Starr’s All Star Band (with Jack Bruce and Joe Walsh) and serve as a consultant, songwriter, and player on the movie Almost Famous.
There is one other aspect about Frampton’s career that has never been fully explained. His use of a talk-box became an iconic part of his sound as heard on the Comes Alive record. Peter told DeMain how it came to be and how it almost got him sued by the makers of Star Wars:
“Let me give you the background first. When I was a kid, I would listen to a DJ on Radio Luxembourg named Kid Jensen. Their call numbers were ‘208’ and they had this robot voice that would say ‘the Fabulous 2-0-8’ and it was a cool computerized sound. I would think, ‘How do they do that?’ Many years go by and I’m with George Harrison at Abbey Road and I meet Pete Drake from Nashville. Pete showed me this talk-box. When his pedal steel guitar started talking to me, I said, “Eureka! Fabulous 2-0-8!’ I asked where I could get one and Pete said, ‘I made this one myself.’”
“Pete lent the talk-box to Joe Walsh who famously used it on Rocky Mountain Way. Walsh told his audio engineer Bob Heil, ‘Hey Bob, I got this from Pete Drake but it isn’t loud enough. Can you make it louder?’ I knew Bob, and he gave one to my girlfriend to give to me for Christmas. I locked myself away for a couple of weeks and learned how to talk with it. I thought: ‘Wouldn’t it be great if I could say hello to the audience through this talk-box?’”
Frampton first used the talk-box on stage in 1974 on the song Do You Feel: “It was insane. It felt like the whole audience moved a foot forward towards the stage. It was a jolt where you felt them saying, ‘What is that sound?’ The more I would talk and ask them questions, it just kept getting crazier. The ultimate moment was me just saying, ‘Do you feel?’ ‘Oh my god, yes, yes, waaaaaaah we do!’ It exceeded my wildest dreams. Then we introduced it to Show Me The Way, and the rest is, as they say, history.” And as Paul Harvey often times said, ‘And now, you know the rest of the story.”
As for being sued by the Star Wars people, Peter said for a while they had a full size R2D2 Droid deliver his guitar to him on stage. That brought a quick ‘cease and desist’ letter from the lawyers and that was that.
Check out Frampton’s Comes Alive! and Comes Alive II! (II was released in October of 1995) and you can hear a healthy dose of his signature talk-box guitar. You can also be sure you will hear plenty of Frampton’s work on WOAS-FM in the days after this article goes to print. So long, Peter Frampton, we are grateful we will still have your music even after you begin your well earned (if not untimely) retirement from the road.
Top Piece Video: Frampton in the Pie days doing I Don’t Need No Doctor Live at the Forum in LA in 1973. It certainly is a monstrous riff Frampton came up with on the spot years earlier at Madison Square Garden!