Peter Frampton has climbed the mountaintop a few times in his storied career.
First, with Steve Marriott, as the young, charismatic guitar hero of their band Humble Pie; then as the multi-platinum selling solo artist when his album Frampton Comes Alive! was seemingly everywhere in the late 1970s; later as David Bowie’s foil on the icon’s 1987 Never Let Me Down (recently re-imagined) album and Glass Spider tour; and finally as the Grammy-winning elder statesman of rock.
Frampton is out on a farewell tour right now – resulting from a diagnosis of IBM (inclusion body myositis), a progressive muscle disease that usually develops after age 50 that causes muscles to weaken and waste and thus threatens Frampton’s ability to play guitar – and his fans have been reflecting on just how much the legend’s guitar-playing and songwriting has meant to them over the years.
Not one to wallow in self-pity, the legendary guitarist cheerfully spoke to Rock Cellar Magazine about his health and farewell tour, his early days with Humble Pie, his lifelong love of the guitar, and what’s next.
Announcing Peter Frampton Finale – The Farewell Tour Presented by @SiriusXM! Looking forward to seeing everyone this summer and fall. We have @Jason_Bonham's Led Zeppelin Evening joining us for most of this run & my son, Julian, with @JulianFrampton Band on the west coast dates. pic.twitter.com/B6Lcbh921t
— Peter Frampton (@peterframpton) February 22, 2019
Rock Cellar: To get the heavy lifting out of the way, has your diagnosis given you a perspective now to think, “Oh, maybe I can’t play a 22-date tour, but I can still do this other thing that I’ve never tried before”? Have you thought about it in those terms?
Peter Frampton: Basically, I know where it’s going. Unfortunately. But I know where it’s going. There will be a point over the next few years where I won’t be able to play, at least at this level. So that’s not a nice thought, obviously, but being that I’ve learnt so much, and hopefully gained wisdom along the way, I’ll find new things to do.
I’ve been playing for 60 years. So it’s not that I’m done, at all, but if I have to be done, then I definitely feel I’ve put my time in, and got some playing and some songs that I’m very proud of out of it.
We all have our personal battles. Mine is this. But the other side of it is that, already, we’ve made so many people aware of IBM and myositis. And that’s a great thing, really. Because it’s not a word you hear every day.
Unfortunately, there are more boutique — I use that term loosely — diseases; ones that don’t affect a whole lot of people, like this one. And that means there’s a lack of funding for research about it. So that’s my job now.
If I become the face of IBM, that will make my day. And I’ll gladly do that for the rest of my life. Because I’ve already had people calling in, donating to my fund at Johns Hopkins, some of which are the descendants of people — they didn’t lose their lives to IBM, because it’s not life-threatening at all — but they had it until they passed away.
So to have people see what they went through, and their relatives who had it, and that they are following through, I can’t thank them enough, you know? As well as people that have it now that are also donating.
And I’m hearing from so many different dot coms, and dot orgs, that are involved in doing the same thing for all myositis. So I’ve gained a hell of a lot of new friends right now that are enjoying my help. And I’m enjoying giving it. So that’s the main thing.
Rock Cellar: You’re on the road; you started in Tulsa in June. It’s billed as a farewell tour. I assume that isn’t going to be the last we see of you, but talk to me a little bit about it. You’ve clearly come to realize you’re heading out on what is essentially a final tour. It must be bittersweet. You must not want it to be a farewell tour, in many ways.
Peter Frampton: Oh, absolutely.
I don’t want to stop playing, and I won’t stop playing until I can’t. It’s my battle that I’m dealing with now.
I’m very positive about the future, because I’m always positive. My son and I say, “We’re Framptons. We’re survivors.” And it’s true. I’ve been knocked down many times. And I get back up. And I go on, and I reinvent myself.
So, I think doors may close, but I know that other doors are going to open. I’m never not going to write music or sing or play as well as I can. But I just don’t ever want to go out in public and not be able to play as well as I can today.
And that’s why it’s the farewell tour, just because I have a feeling that come next year, it’s going to be more difficult to play than it is now. And it’s okay right now. But things are, without getting into detail, I know what’s going on.
And I can feel it, in my fingertips and my finger flexors, basically, as well as other muscles. But those are the most important to me, obviously. I’m sure I’ll go out and do a show here and there, as long as I feel that it’s to my standards.
I don’t ever want to be the guy who goes out there and says, “I’ve got to go out there,” or “I want to go out there,” and I hear people and see people saying, “He’s not as good as he used to be. He’s lost it.”
That’s never going to happen to me. You know, Monet, he had something good happen to him. He had cataracts. As they grew over his eyes, everything got to that real fuzzy stage that we really love about his art. He kept on having to stand further away each painting he would paint. Which was the good thing about it! But then he had cataract surgery or something — had them removed — and he never felt he was as good again. Or people didn’t think his work was as good. That was good for him, that he could see better.
But in this situation, it was the reverse, unfortunately.
Rock Cellar: Let’s go back a bit. I actually came to the launch for Glass Spider tour, at the Cat Club.
Peter Frampton: The Cat Club! (Laughter.)
Rock Cellar: Way back! That album was recently re-imagined, with new players. Artists like David (Bowie) have catalogs that are constantly ripe for reappraisal, over and over. People are always finding new gems. Now they’re releasing some of David’s early demos and singles. Same thing with Steve Marriott. Same thing with Ronnie Lane. They’re putting out a new box set. So they’re always finding lost songs. And some are pretty great. A lot, of course, are things that only the die-hards care about. How do you feel about these constant reissues, and what’s your memory of working with them and what they might think about all this? And how we make so much of their work now?
Peter Frampton: My feeling is, it’s cool for the listener. If the artist is okay with them, like George Harrison singing his other version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” with the extra verse, that he does acoustically.
We’re lucky enough to be able to hear that. I’m not against the demo situation. David, I know, made some great demos. I don’t know how he would feel, but I would think, before I kick the bucket, I’m going to go through my entire storage facility…
Rock Cellar: “Yes, no, no, yes … “
Peter Frampton: “Yes! No, they can’t touch this one.” (Laughter.) But I’ve got some demos that I’ve done that I’ve thought about putting them out. Just to put it out digitally or something. Just for those people that are interested in that stuff. I’m not quite sure about the Jimi Hendrix reissues, but I guess there’s so much live stuff of his that they can still be releasing stuff of his. And Eddie Kramer is still mixing. He’s a dear friend of mine. But he’s great. So it has to be good.
Rock Cellar: I always hear stories about when you reunited with Steve Marriott, just before he died, and started working on tracks. It kind of fell apart. As a fan of both of you — not to mention your work together — it feels like such a sad and missed opportunity, because it was such a great pairing of guitar and lungs.
Peter Frampton: Yeah. It was fun doing it, I have to say.
Rock Cellar: Reflect on Stevie a little bit, because there are people out there who might not know him. What are your memories of him — not as rogue; the crazy guy he’s portrayed as so often — but as a creative force?
Peter Frampton: I saw the Small Faces on Ready Steady Go, which was out six minutes past eight on Friday night, when I was growing up. And it was live. They’d gone through a phase where everyone came on a mimed, and then the English Musician’s Union said, “No. You’ve got to play live. And if there’s an orchestration on one of the pieces, there’s got to be an orchestra.”
So it changed the show. Now we were seeing The Who, the Stones, the Kinks, and Small Faces, all playing live and singing live. The whole deal! And that’s where Steve comes into his own, always.
And I do too. I think we were very, very different people, but I think where we were kindred spirits. If it’s real and it’s live, we were good. That was our forte. And that, I believe, was always Steve’s forte, playing and singing live. Even though he was phenomenal in the studio. Incredible. We’d do a track, he’d do a guide vocal, and then he’d go out and he’d sing, and we’d just be applauding. It was a privilege to be listening to this as he created the vocal. I was just thrilled to be associated.
And the fact that we both started the band together? Honestly, I was just thrilled to be the guitarist in the band at that point. I was singing a little, but that wasn’t the thing for me. I wanted to play guitar with Steve singing. I learnt so much from him, as far as how to work with an audience, and take command of the stage. But also, I hope I gained some experience from watching him and listening to him sing every night. He could get up and have a quick cough, and then he could sing like he did. He never warmed up. It was there. All the time. I remember, he would do one, “Yeaaaahh!!! That’s me warming up, isn’t it?” Then we’d go on stage.
Rock Cellar: Your Phenix guitar — if it were just a ’54 Les Paul Custom, would be a remarkable guitar — has an amazing story. Tell me a little bit about it, getting it, and how it became your number one guitar, and what it meant to you before everything happened with it.
Peter Frampton: Well, to give it its manufactured name, it started life as a 54-55 Black Beauty. So it started its life with two P-90s — two different-shaped P-90s — and that was it. And then this friend of mine, who I made when Humble Pie started playing San Francisco, Mark Mariano, he would buy and sell guitars and do them up, because he was just a tinkerer, and he loved guitars.
So he had this secondhand Les Paul that I think he said he bought for 50 bucks. It was beat up. And it was green, he said. Someone had painted it green. Anyway, he decided that what he was going to do with it, is that he would experiment with it. And he figured out it was a Black Beauty, because it still had the P-90s, I guess. So he decided to route it for Humbuckers. And then he decided that he wanted to have one in the middle, to make it perfectly like a ’57. So he did all that, and then he sent it back to Gibson to be refinished black. Because there’s nothing more eye-catching for a guitar player.
But before he did that, he tried to get rid of the green, and he shaved it and he over-sanded it. So it’s actually a little thinner than most Les Pauls. A little bit. And the neck — he didn’t like the neck shape — so he sanded that, too. But he did it as if he was making a pair of gloves for me.
Rock Cellar: So it was always with you in mind.
Peter Frampton: No, no, no. It was not. No, not at all. He just came to see Humble Pie, I think probably four nights, at the Filmore West. I think it was the Grateful Dead we were opening for, or somebody like that. I had been playing a ’62 SG Gibson that I had used on Town and Country. I had exchanged it for a 335 right before we got to San Francisco, because I thought I wanted to go 335.
Of course, I wasn’t thinking about how now I had a semi-hollow body guitar, with Humble Pie, and we were playing Marshalls full-tilt. And so, every time I turned up for my solos or loud riffs, it would go woooooooo.
Rock Cellar: And Steve would make for your neck.
Peter Frampton: Yeah, exactly! I was so pissed off and disappointed. I thought I should have never sold the SG. So Mark comes to me after the first set and he said, “I couldn’t help noticing you were having a little problem there.” I said, “You could say that, yes. (Laughter.) I should’ve never got rid of the SG.” And he says, “Well, I’d like to help out. I’ve got this Les Paul I just got back from Gibson that I wondered if you’d …”
I said, “I’m not big on Les Pauls. I like SGs, but Les Pauls are a little fat for me.” So he said, “Look, would you like to try it?” I said, “Absolutely. Anything, at this point.” So we met in the coffee shop the following morning for breakfast, and he’s got this brand-new Gibson case, and opens it up, and it looks like a brand new ’57 Les Paul custom. It looks like the guitar on the front cover of the first Smokey Robinson and the Miracles album. Exactly. So I just went, “Ooh, ah …” It was sort of spectacular looking.
Rock Cellar: As we do when we see a guitar we want, that we have to have.
Peter Frampton: Yeah. We are addicts. For everything! (Laughter.) So I decided to try it. “Let’s go to my room.” So I took Mark and the guitar to my room and I just sat on the bed — no amp obviously — and I was just playing it, and it was just like playing, as they say, it was like butter. And it fit. I fitted it; it fitted me. And then I tried it that night at the Fillmore and it was like my feet didn’t touch the ground. It was like I had been lifted off the ground by about two inches the whole night.
The sound, the feel, it was … This was something spectacular sounding. It was the SG, but more. It just felt great and sounded great. I went to Mark after — he let me use it for both of the last nights, I think — and I said, “Look, I’m just going to offer to buy it. But I’m sure you don’t want to sell this, it’s such a great piece.”
And he said, “No, I don’t want to sell it. I’m giving it to you.” So I said, “Wait a second, what?” He said, “Yeah, I want you to have it, because I can see what this is doing for you.” He was a huge Humble Pie fan, too. I said, “You’re kidding me.” So when we recreated all the different Gibson Peter Frampton Les Paul Customs — and there have been two incarnations now, or three with Epiphone — he always gets number one. I always send him the very first one, and he always sends me back a video from his iPhone, opening the box.
It’s a lifetime friendship, through one incredible action of his, and one great guitar.
Rock Cellar: In the 70s, when you were using it — when it became your main guitar for such a long time — did you ever loan it out? Did you ever let people use it for sessions or recordings?
Peter Frampton: No. Well, I don’t know about that. Because when KISS were doing an album at Electric Lady, and we were in the other room, I think doing Frampton’s Camel, someone from the KISS crew came and said, “Do you have a guitar here? We need to do an overdub. Paul needs a guitar.” And that might have been the one that I lent him. But that’s the only time that it’s ever been lent to anybody, apart from when I was without it; when it went AWOL.
Rock Cellar: Let’s talk about that. Because that was such a strange set of circumstances. I’ve lost things over the years, even master tapes, where you never quite shake the haunting feeling that you want to look for it — you want to find it — or there’s just a little piece of you lost without it. In the aftermath of losing it, did you move on and get another guitar? Or did it haunt you for a while?
Peter Frampton: It always haunted me. Basically, I had the Les Paul, I had a ’55 Strat from Bumblebee Bob in Chicago, and I had a white Les Paul. So that was it. When I lost all three of them at once, because of the air crash, it mattered so much to me. I play meticulously, I loved them.
My Strat was my favorite Strat, because I only had one. (Laughter.) But with the Les Paul, it was like I couldn’t … I found it very difficult — even when I had it in those 10 years that I first handled it — I found it very difficult to walk into a music shop, or pick up somebody else’s guitar for a session, and play. Because the neck was all the wrong shape, and, you know, we had morphed together.
The guitar and I were joined at the hip. You could put a guitar in my hands, but unless it was that one, I wouldn’t play.
I’m all about feel and sound. And I couldn’t tell you what it was about the Les Paul — the Black Les Paul that we call the Phenix — that made it so great. When I pick up that guitar, every time, I go, “Wow!” There’s something about that guitar that I really like; that makes it special. And I hope I never find out what it is. Because whatever it is, it works on me. And that guitar is the epitome of that.
Rock Cellar: Let’s talk too about the Epiphone Texan. I have a ’65 Texan, a blonde one. It’s a guitar that every guitar player knows, even though it’s much less associated with you than an electric guitar. Talk a little bit about that guitar.
Peter Frampton: Well, that one, I bought, I think, the first day of our first ever session for Humble Pie. I had my tech go out to find one like Steve’s. Steve had a Frontier, and I loved it. So I said, “Well, go get me one of those, if you can.”
So they came back and said, “We couldn’t find a Frontier, but here’s this Texan.” So I loved it instantly. It sounded great. I pretty much used it, and wrote every song from 1968, the end of 1968, to 1980. Everything that I wrote was on that guitar, basically. Continuing the story, we had the huge flood, the 2010 flood in Nashville, and afterwards, I almost sold it or donated it, because it was water damaged. And still is. But I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of it. But Gibson’s guys I took it, and they brought it back, and it sounded great again. It still has a little water damage on it. On the neck and everything.
That guitar is three months older or younger – I can’t recall — than Paul McCartney’s blonde one, which he wrote “Yesterday” on. And I wrote “Baby I Love Your Way” and “Show Me the Way” on mine. So that’s very interesting, I think. Same year: ’64. But I’m using a reissue of it over the original now. It’s spectacular. They did an incredible job. Especially for the price, you know. I have the upgraded electronics version. But acoustically, it’s no different whatsoever.
Rock Cellar: Just to wrap up — put a bow on it — you said earlier about how doors close and other doors open. I thought that was a good perspective, and it occurred to me: I remember being reacquainted with you on the Glass Spider tour, and then I remember being reacquainted with you again through Fingerprints, and then reacquainted with you again when you appeared on the Simpsons.
And then Ringo’s All-Starr Band. Then I saw you on Tiny Desk. People think of you as Peter Frampton from Frampton Comes Alive! I’m sure, but we now can see it as part of the long arc of a career, certainly with ups and downs. As a creative person, it’s like being an actor, being a musician. You never know when that next door is going to open, don’t you think?
Peter Frampton: Exactly! (Laughter.)