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FROM HUMBLE TO HUGE . . . AND BACK : In the Late ‘70s, Peter Frampton Was Playing Sold-Out Football Stadiums; These Days He’s Content Just to Be in the Game

<i> Mike Boehm covers pop music for The Times Orange County Edition. </i>

It’s hard to say whether Peter Frampton is one of the luckiest fellows ever to strap on an electric guitar or one of the most snake-bitten.

In 1975, the slightly built British rocker was a hard-working yeoman who had achieved a modicum of respect and success over the course of five albums with the band Humble Pie and four albums on his own.

In 1976, Frampton became a sudden pop sensation. His double-live album “Frampton Comes Alive!” sold 1 million copies within a week of its release. It went on to dominate the charts during the bicentennial year, spending 10 weeks as No. 1 and ultimately selling more than 6 million copies in the U.S. At the time, no album had ever sold more.

From this peak of fortune Frampton stumbled, then plummeted. His 1977 follow-up album, “I’m in You,” went platinum, but its smarmy title hit put his rock ‘n’ roll credentials in doubt. Those doubts turned to certainties in 1978, when Frampton starred in the disastrous film version of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” the charmless musical that wove a woeful sub-cartoonish plot around neutered renditions of Beatles songs.

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Poor Frampton’s job in his musical, non-speaking role was to look cute, pal around with the Bee Gees, and serve as a sexless, soft-focus love interest. He came off looking like a fluffy-haired lap dog. The man who had played lead guitar in the raucous blues-rocking Humble Pie, who had done a respectable cover of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” on his first solo album, seemed to be staking a claim as the next Davy Jones or Bobby Sherman.

Frampton’s subsequent albums did nothing to change those unfavorable impressions, and he was left to spend the ‘80s trying with no great success to make a comeback. Two late ‘80s albums for Atlantic Records failed to reignite his career. Now the rocker who once headlined sold-out football stadiums is looking for a new record deal.

Discussing his prospects for the ‘90s in a recent phone interview, Frampton, who will be 42 on April 22, sounded like a man who has found some balance and equilibrium--proud of his past success, able to cope with the late ‘70s fall, and game for another try.

It hasn’t been easy, though. In 1990, Frampton conceived a plan that would carry him back to his beginnings: Instead of being a solo act, he’d start a band like Humble Pie, in which the singing and songwriting would be shared by two or three members.

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Frampton, now based in Los Angeles, started looking for another singer-guitarist to split time with him fronting the band. “Every time I went through these stacks of tapes, I’d go, ‘No, no, not as good as Steve, not as good as Steve,’ ” he said--Steve being Steve Marriott, who had founded Humble Pie with Frampton in 1969 and carried on as the band’s leader after Frampton left to go solo in ’71.

Frampton’s solution was to seek out Marriott himself.

“The first day, after not working together for 20 years, we wrote a song. His voice was fantastic still.” After that initial get-together in England, Marriott returned with Frampton to Los Angeles, and the two set about writing an album and putting together a band. Frampton says they recorded demo versions of a half-dozen new songs, lined up a record deal, and prepared to join the ever-expanding ranks of ‘70s stars making ‘90s comebacks (the list includes Little Feat, the Doobie Brothers, the Allman Brothers Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Ted Nugent).

“We had it going. We were on the springboard, just about to leap off. People were very excited about it. (Marriott) went back to England to sort things out. Then his house burned down, and he was in it.”

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Frampton’s account of Marriott’s death last April 20 (Marriott was 44 years old) may be couched in dry, stiff-upper-lip British humor, but the experience was wrenching for him both professionally and personally.

“That was devastating to me. I’d put so much energy into the project. I tried to keep going and bring the band together, looking for somebody to complete the lineup. But my heart wasn’t in it. It was too soon, I think. It was Steve’s and my band, so it wasn’t right” to continue.

Among the names being kicked around for the Frampton-Marriott led band was Chalk and Cheese, Frampton said, “because the English have an expression that two things ‘couldn’t be more different than chalk and cheese.’ As great as it was that we worked together, we were very different people and we pushed each other to each other’s limits. I’ve always said that life with Steve and I was--I don’t want to say love and hate, but there was a lot of tension between us. When we played or wrote music together, tension adds to that.”

Frampton’s first public appearance after Marriott’s death came last fall at a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert at the Universal Amphitheatre.

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“We had a long history of playing big stadium dates together in the ‘70s. I went to see them, and they got me up there jamming. I hadn’t played in a while. The audience let me know very loudly that it was about time I came around again: ‘Where the hell have you been, and why haven’t you been on the road?’ It was the thing that snapped me back into reality after the horrible thing with Steve. I said to myself, ‘I’m the guy that did the big live record, and I haven’t been on the road.’ ”

So here comes Frampton, a live rocker once more, playing his own music on stage for the first time since 1986, when he traveled as opening act for Stevie Nicks (Frampton also spent most of 1987 on the road as a sideman with an old school mate of his, David Bowie). His band consists of Bob Mayo, a veteran of the “Frampton Comes Alive!” lineup, on keyboards; bassist John Regan, who co-wrote a song with Frampton on his 1989 album, “When All the Pieces Fit”; and drummer Jamie Oldaker, a former Eric Clapton band member.

Frampton says the audience enthusiasm he sensed as he was jamming with Lynyrd Skynyrd has been confirmed as he serves up shows that mix songs from “When All the Pieces Fit” with favorites from the “Frampton Comes Alive!” period. He set out in mid-February on a club tour that was supposed to last four to six weeks; it has since been expanded to 13 weeks, with plans for another round of touring in the summer.

Frampton’s summer touring will coincide with A&M; Records’ planned July release of a two-CD retrospective compilation. He said that he is involved in choosing material for that album as well as tracks for a Humble Pie CD reissue due out late this year. Frampton said his solo collection will include two of the new tracks he recorded with Marriott.

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Along with the reissue activity, “right now the plan is to do a (new) Frampton record in the fall and have it come out next year.” While the main point of his current tour is to have fun playing, Frampton acknowledged that one of its side benefits has been to show record industry scouts that he still is an act with a following.

Perhaps if Frampton stages a hit comeback, it will put an end to the key questions about his past, namely: How on earth did he get so big so suddenly? And why on earth did he slip so fast?

“As for the success of the live record, we will never know why it was as big as it was,” Frampton said. But only the magnitude took him by surprise. Frampton said he knew he had a hit on his hands before the album was released.

“The energy that came off that record even knocked us against the wall when we listened to it,” he said. “I knew it would be successful. I didn’t know it would become quite as big as it did.”

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“Frampton Comes Alive!” featured a singer with a cheery, non-threatening disposition, a voice less commanding than companionable, and eminently catchy, well-crafted (if lyrically bland) tunes such as “Show Me the Way,” “Baby I Love Your Way” and “Do You Feel Like We Do?” Frampton’s jackpot seems less a fluke when one considers that similar qualities helped Phil Collins’ solo career take off in the ‘80s.

Like Collins, Frampton first became known as a respected instrumentalist. The son of a high school art teacher, he took up the guitar at age 8, and began playing professionally at 16. In 1968, when he was 18, Frampton enjoyed his first British hits, as a member of the Herd. Focusing on his fresh, almost pretty looks, one British publication dubbed Frampton “the face of 1968.”

In 1969, Frampton abandoned pop with the Herd to play tougher, bluesy rock with Marriott in Humble Pie. That band’s commercial breakthrough came in 1971, with a double live album, “Performance--Rockin’ the Fillmore.” By the time of its release, though, Frampton had left, first to do session work (some of the best playing of his career can be found on “Whistle Rhymes,” a 1972 solo album by the Who’s bassist, John Entwistle), then to launch a solo career.

Frampton toured almost nonstop, frequently opening for better-established acts, while releasing a succession of albums: “Winds of Change,” “Frampton’s Camel,” “Somethin’s Happening” and “Frampton.” Although none of them was a hit, the touring had exposed his tuneful material and friendly, upbeat stage style to a broad base of fans. When the live record arrived, recapitulating highlights from the studio albums, Frampton’s hard work paid off.

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In retrospect, Frampton says, the mistake he made after “Frampton Comes Alive!” was to continue the exhaustive regimen of touring and recording that had worked for him on the way up.

“Everybody wanted a piece of Frampton. You couldn’t stop it, but you could have controlled it. (But) it wasn’t controlled,” he said. “If anything it was controlled by the greed of the management, not thinking in the long term. Longevity was talked about, but it was management for today.”

“I’m in You,” released in 1977, continued Frampton’s usual album-a-year output. Frampton says the hurried follow-up was a mistake. “I could have taken three or four years to come up with something” more impressive. “Not that I think ‘I’m in You’ is a bad record. It sold 3 million copies, but it just was too soon.” (In a 1986 interview with the Times, Frampton had a tougher assessment of the album: “I think ‘I’m in You” was lackluster and way too light.”)

In the Atlantic Records biography that accompanied his 1986 album, “Premonition,” Frampton assessed the impact of the “Sgt. Pepper’s” fiasco: “As the critics quite rightly said, it was basically a movie for 7-year-olds and under. It was just an expensive mistake, as far as I was concerned. It was very unfortunate that everything that happened after the live album belittled all of its success. It wiped the slate clean, got rid of all the credibility that I’d built.” Frampton’s more recent official bios delete all mention of the film.

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On “When All the Pieces Fit,” Frampton deals indirectly with his career rise and fall. In several songs, some of them couched as romantic scenarios, he sings of losses sustained and hopes for recovery. The most bitter song, “My Heart Goes Out to You,” begins with a man looking at himself in the mirror and concluding:

You got everything that you wanted,

You went and threw it all away.

Is this forever? Is this forever?

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But Frampton ended the album hopefully, accepting the past and predicting better things in “This Time Around”:

No one breaks this time around,

Life just takes us where we’re bound.

Hear the music playing, we know what it’s saying now,

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Lost until we’re found,

And we’re found, this time around.

“Now it’s business as usual,” Frampton said. “I’m doing what I enjoy doing the most. I don’t care if I do something that big again or not.”

“I would like to be No. 2, but never No. 1,” he added, in a wry voice of experience. “When I was No. 1, all eyes were on me. No. 2 slips out the door quietly and makes another great record.”

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Who: Peter Frampton.

When: Tuesday and Wednesday, April 14 and 15, at 8 p.m. With the Northern Pikes.

Where: The Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano.

Whereabouts: San Diego Freeway to the San Juan Creek Road exit. Left onto Camino Capistrano. The Coach House is in the Esplanade Plaza.

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Wherewithal: $28.50. Both shows are sold out.

Where to call: (714) 496-8930.


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