It was a warm night in Charlotte, NC, on August 30. I was at the beautiful PNC Music Pavilion to enjoy a concert by 1970s rock icon Peter Frampton. I’d never seen him during his heyday, although like millions of others, I had played his breakout album, Frampton Comes Alive, literally to death.
After a rousing opening set by Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Experience, the audience was primed for the headliner — and when Frampton hit the stage, he delivered the goods for slightly more than two hours.
Long gone were the flowing, wavy locks that (to the detriment of his career) made him the heart-throb for millions of teenage girls. Unashamedly sporting a bald pate and gray goatee, Frampton absolutely owned the stage and kept the crowd on its feet for most of the concert. Some of the songs from Frampton Comes Alive were in the set list, along with songs from other points in his career, from his time as the guitar slinger for Humble Pie through his most recent albums, which showcase a more fusion, jazz and blues-oriented sound.
A muscular disease called Inclusion Body Myositis is slowly robbing Peter Frampton of the ability to play the guitar. After the diagnosis four years ago, he virtually erupted into a frenzy of activity, recording music at a feverish pace, anxious to produce as much as he could before his guitar was silenced. Always more renowned for his live performances versus recorded output, plans for a farewell tour were also quickly drawn up in late 2018. So, the Charlotte show was bittersweet for me and the thousands of others attending.
However, while his days as a touring artist may be numbered, Frampton has said he intends to record music for as long as he is able. Between songs, he spoke excitedly about returning to the studio at the tour’s conclusion.
This post isn’t so much about the show itself, which was amazing. Rather, it’s a dive into Frampton’s over 40-year history as a performing artist. It’s an interesting story of how a career can be derailed but then get back on track years later. After the Charlotte show, I thought I needed to put my thoughts into words, given that Frampton is on his final tour.
Flashback to the late 1960s. A very young Peter Frampton had already found some fame back home in England as the front man for The Herd, a pop-rock band that enjoyed modest success. He was only 16. Feeling limited at being pigeonholed by his boyish good looks, and chafing at the limitations of the group’s musical abilities, Frampton departed.
In 1969, Frampton teamed up with former Small Faces vocalist Steve Marriot to form Humble Pie. The new band focused on a blend of hard rock, boogie and blues, and built a following on both sides of the Atlantic as their music found a receptive audience at home and in the United States.
Humble Pie’s live album Rockin’ the Fillmore became a huge hit and made them one of the largest draws on the tour circuit. However, Frampton became disillusioned as the band’s sounded coalesced mostly around hard rock. Always one who had dabbled in other genres, he decided to quit the band in 1971 and focus on a solo career where he would have the freedom to express himself more fully. While his mainstay was still rock and roll, Frampton had always been fond of blues and jazz.
Several solo albums followed, which enjoyed modest success. Fortunately for Frampton, this was a time when album-oriented FM stations were finding their footing and attracting audiences that had grown tired of the increasing blandness and commercialism of AM radio. AOR stations on the West Coast picked up on Frampton’s music, which appealed to progressive listeners in big freewheeling cities like San Francisco.
Seeing the buzz around live albums of the period such as KISS’ Alive! and Deep Purple’s Made in Japan, Frampton and his management pitched the idea of recording a live album to his label, A&M Records. Peter, they argued, had built a strong following on the concert circuit despite the lack of a true hit studio album. His strength, they said, was onstage. The studio bosses agreed, calculating that if even if the album only went gold they would make a profit.
Frampton Comes Alive was comprised mostly of audio recorded at the Winterland in San Francisco, and was released with minimal fanfare in January 1976. It debuted at an unimpressive 191 on the Billboard Top 200. Propelled by fan buzz and Frampton’s tireless touring, it reached the #1 slot by early April. After more than 10 years in the music business, Peter Frampton found himself with a monster hit that eventually ended up staying on the charts for nearly two years. It’s estimated the album has sold 17 million copies.
Unfortunately, things went south with the recording and release of the followup album, I’m In You. The label saw fit to market Frampton on his looks with an album cover more suited to the likes of David Cassidy or Leif Garrett. The songs were written to appeal more to teenage girls than Frampton’s traditional audience, and heavy on ballads. While the album eventually went platinum, it was a decided letdown from Frampton’s previous studio work and the powerhouse Frampton Comes Alive. A shirtless Rolling Stone cover photo only helped to stereotype Frampton as a teen girl idol and pushed his longtime fans (including yours truly) even further away.
Peter himself once again become frustrated at how his career was progressing. While readily admitting he made a mistake in acquiescing to the wishes of the bosses at the label, he also felt they shared in the blame at the lackluster response to I’m In You. His interest in performing and recording waned with his subsequent output dropping to virtually zero. A role in the disastrous 1978 Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band film, coupled with a serious car accident the same year, marked the beginning of a long fallow period for the artist.
The early 1980s saw Frampton return to recording and performing, albeit with only middling success. However, in 1986 he enjoyed a huge hit on the mainstream charts with the single Lying. In 1987, he teamed up with his old friend David Bowie, playing guitar on Bowie’s Never Let Me Down album and the accompanying successful tour.
Reinvigorated, Frampton continued to perform and record, earning a Grammy in 2006 for his Fingerprints instrumental album. On tour, he opened for some of his peers from the classic rock era including Yes and Styx, as well as headlining tours of his own. Old fans and new, younger fans discovering their parents’ music wasn’t all that bad made him a fixture on the arena circuit as a headliner.
In early 2019, Frampton announced he was suffering from Inclusion Body Myositis. In June, his new album All Blues debuted at #1 on the Billboard Blues Album chart.
This brings us back to Charlotte on August 30. Frampton has said the growing weakness in his muscles can now be felt in his fingers, but you would never know from his frenetic fretwork that night. We ate it up, and everyone could tell he in turn was feeding off the enthusiasm of the huge crowd gathered under the summer stars to watch him perform.
We didn’t want him to leave the stage. But after an extended encore that included work from his Humble Pie days, it was time for him to go. Standing alone under the spotlight, he told us goodbye.
“I want to thank you all from the bottom of my heart. Your love is what keeps me going. I can feel it up here and it’s amazing.
“I’d like to think that your love will help to heal me. Good night.”
With a wave to acknowledge endless shouts of “We love you, Peter!”, he was gone. The crowd, now subdued with many people in tears or on the verge of it, began to slowly file out.
As I left, I turned and looked back. The roadies were already tearing the stage down to get everything loaded onto the trucks. They talked as they worked, flashlights bobbing about in the dark corners. A slight breeze was blowing.
On to the next performance; life on the road as a traveling musician.