An Oral History of 'Frampton Comes Alive!': "I Felt Like I Had Lost Before I Started the Next Part of My Career"
"We came off stage and that’s where you usually go, 'Wow, I wish we'd recorded that.' And then we said, 'Oh my God, we recorded this,'" recalls Peter Frampton.
In 1975, a year before the release of Frampton Comes Alive!, Peter Frampton’s manager, Dee Anthony, made a fateful proposal to his 25-year-old client. Anthony also managed Humble Pie and had broken that band with the 1971 live album, Performance: Rockin’ the Fillmore, shortly after Frampton left the group. Now Anthony — with the blessing of A&M Records co-founder Jerry Moss and Frank Barsalona, a powerful booking agent who guided Frampton’s career in lockstep with his management — wanted to try the concept again.
FRAMPTON: Dee Anthony, Frank Barsalona had great success with live albums. We just went, "Look what we did with Humble Pie, should we go there again? Should we try it?" And we followed the template, basically. We said, “The audience wants the show? Let’s give them the show.”
New York promoter Ron Delsener presented Frampton concerts at Madison Square Garden.
DELSENER: [Barsalona] was the biggest guy in the agency business at the time. He zeroed in on the Engish invasion — he coveted those guys.
Jerry Moss signed Frampton to A&M when he was 19.
MOSS: Peter had paid his dues. He was with Humble Pie, he put out his own albums. So it wasn’t like this was a new guy.
FRAMPTON: The old adage, which is still true today, "Get in front of as many people as quick as possible and the word of mouth will spread" ... well, that's turned into the Internet now. But, in those days you physically had to go around the country, around the world, and build that following person by person. I literally did what you do on social media, I did it physically — by just never stopping touring for, what was it? Five years.
Bob Garcia was A&M’s director of artist relations.
GARCIA: By virtue of playing every podunk city and venue across the States, he was building a base.
MOSS: San Francisco and Detroit, which is where he was really successful as a live performer, those are like beacon cities. They were rooting for him and wanting him to be successful.
Shortly before Frampton embarked on the 1975 U.S. tour that would yield the concerts recorded for Frampton Comes Alive!, he replaced two members of his touring band: Bob Mayo (immortalized by Frampton’s “Bob Mayo on the keyboards” during “Do You Feel Like We Do?”) was hired after Frampton stumbled upon his old acquaintance playing a Holiday Inn in Mt. Kisco, N.Y. Bassist Stanley Sheldon had three weeks to learn Frampton’s repertoire after auditioning on the recommendation of Frampton’s first choice, Kenny Passarelli. Only John Siomos, Frampton’s longtime drummer and an ace New York sessionman (Todd Rundgren’s “Hello, It’s Me”), renowned for his feel and technique, remained from the previous lineup.
FRAMPTON: We had the A Team, all of a sudden, the most powerful band, right there.
SHELDON: We rehearsed for a week and then we hit the road. I remember that Boise, Idaho, was the very first gig, opening for Black Oak Arkansas. We blew them away, so we knew we were on to something.
Three weeks later, the band arrived in San Francisco to record what would be the heart of Frampton Comes Alive! The show at Winterland was coincidentally Frampton’s first headlining gig in San Francisco.
SHELDON: It captured the freshness of the new band. We were all just at the top of our game. Man, it was a special night.
FRAMPTON: We were so hot, we were so well-oiled. We had that show down. We came off stage and that’s where you usually go, ‘Wow, I wish we'd recorded that.’ And then we said, ‘Oh my God, we recorded this.’
SHELDON: I remember the four of us going out to Wally Heider’s remote unit that they’d pulled up behind Winterland after the show to listen. We heard the first bars of “Somethin’s Happening,” and we looked at each other with just the hugest smiles on our faces. We knew right then and there we had something.
FRAMPTON: Me, Bob Mayo and Stanley just sort of got knocked backwards as soon as it came on, because the energy that came from the tape just leapt out of the speakers. I started laughing. I just said, “Oh my God, we're good!”
In December 1975, Frampton and engineer Chris Kimsey played the sequenced, mixed-down tapes of the completed album for Moss at Electric Lady Studios in New York.
FRAMPTON I think there were three tracks on one side, and two tracks the other — “Lines On My Face" and "Do You Feel.” Because of the time constraints, that's all we could do. Jerry Moss came to Electric Lady and sat down at the console. And we played him the whole single album, both sides. I remember he stood up and said, "Where's the rest?" I'll never forget that. So, that was it — it was a personal decision by Jerry Moss.
MOSS: They had enough good material to make another record. He had left out some really good songs. So I wanted to do more.
With only weeks remaining before the album’s release, a remote recording truck was dispatched to capture Frampton concerts in Commack, on Long Island, and Plattsburgh, N.Y. The additional material included what would become two of the album’s enduring hits, “Show Me the Way” and “Baby I Love Your Way.” Eddie Kramer, who had engineered the studio album Frampton’s Camel, recorded the Commack concert.
KRAMER: The intensity of the playing and the way the audience was reacting was just spectacular. I mean, I have done a lot of live recordings [Kramer recorded the 1969 Woodstock Festival], but these were so animated, the audience was so tuned in, it was magnificent. And Peter’s playing just soared. It seemed as if the band could hardly put a foot wrong or play a note wrong, and even if they did, so what?
MOSS: I think every artist has their moment when they just hit a brilliance that’s unexplainable. The audience and the sounds and the music sort of come together into a thrilling combination. And that album had that.
KIMSEY: It must have been nerve-wracking for Peter because this really was when it was make-or-break for him.
MOSS: You put out records that sold 200,000 or 300,000 and then you’d try to stretch it out and do some more. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t.
GARCIA: A&M at that time was small enough and snappy enough to be able to just jump into the breach and kill for that album and that artist. So much groundwork had been laid, Peter had been going all over the place gladhanding our reps, meeting retail, just doing everything he could for the release of this record. But if it wasn’t in the grooves, so to speak, it wouldn’t have happened.
Lenny Bronstein was A&M’s director of radio promotion and had worked Frampton’s previous album, Frampton, released in 1975.
BRONSTEIN: I told [San Francisco FM rock station] KSAN, “I’m going to give you the world premiere at 10 o’clock. I’m going to have Peter call you at 1 in the morning [from New York].”
MOSS: The jocks always loved him.
GARCIA: Peter was so well-liked. This was not an abrasive rock star. He was always a very friendly guy in whatever he did and whoever he had to engage. I think everybody wanted to return his graciousness and it came back in spades.
BRONSTEIN: Frampton was No 1 on West Coast rock radio for 11 months starting in ’75. We launched [Frampton Comes Alive!] right on the heels of Frampton still being an active record, We had built this incredible base and it was being played to death at album stations.
Radio consultant Lee Abrams pioneered the Album Oriented Rock format.
ABRAMS: [Frampton Comes Alive!] defined AOR during that period, which was anchored by being as commercial as possible without losing its progressive identity, and deeper tracks, which is what the A in AOR was all about. The album had a wide range of styles and was tied together with great melodic songs and a minimum of indulgence, making it easy to program on a mass-appeal station.
FRAMPTON: [New York’s WNEW-FM] had always been right on the case but not pop radio. Now it was like wall-to-wall, it was a noticeable change.
BRONSTEIN: We were lucky enough that in the mid-'70s you could still get rock records on top 40. We were very active at promoting to radio that we would have never had a chance.
Frampton’s core audience, curated from a thousand-and-one gigs and assiduously courted by hip FM radio programmers, now included millions of teenage girls.
Chip Rachlin was a top concert booking agent.
RACHLIN: That was an audience, for lack of a better term, losing their musical virginity. You had 13-, 14-, 15-year-old girls, and this was their first brush at having their own idol. Frampton was an idol.
FRAMPTON: Now it's on the radio, but it almost didn't seem to matter at that point. I think that the album coming out on top of all the preparation we'd done, the word-of-mouth by playing everywhere 19,000 times — we’d built such a following that this is the one they were waiting for.
MOSS: I thought this could be something and happily it was. We were achieving this moment, and he had this in him all the time. It was just the right time to bring it out, and it worked.
As the stadium tour supporting Frampton Comes Alive! wound down in late 1976 with the album still in the top 10, Frampton was beginning to show the strain of his sudden superstardom.
MOSS: He became Mr. 1976. I saw him at different times during that year, because we were pretty close at the time, and you could see the ebullience, and the beginning of the exhaustion. He got tired. The last two shows of that year, they were not great shows, because he’d given it all up.
FRAMPTON: Everyone was saying, "Oh man, this is so good. You must feel so great.” Yeah, I do, but I've got tomorrow to deal with. Hell, I've got to do a studio record to follow this up. And in my mind I'm not proven in the studio, like I am now. I’m stamped "The Live Guy." So I felt like I had lost before I started the next part of my career. Before there was nothing to compete with. Now, I felt, I’m competing with “Peter Frampton.”
Frampton began recording I’m in You, the follow up to Frampton Comes Alive!, in 1977.
FRAMPTON: That was probably the least favorite period of my life. The pressure was so great. There was absolutely no need to do I’m in You then and there. The biggest mistake was just not shutting down at that point. I had so much out there, the world was going crazy about Comes Alive! I didn't need to go and rush into something else. You're only as good as your last record, so don't put one out for a while.
SHELDON: Peter was feeling intense pressure from Dee Anthony when he really should have just been taking a break. We had a lockout at Electric Lady and Peter would write the songs right there in the studio.
MOSS: He was perhaps victim to that thing where you make a huge record and you think of following it up. Michael Jackson had the same thing after Thriller, and it ended up, well, maybe killing him. Because they feel that unless they sell more millions of records, they’re disappointing their fans, they’re disappointing themselves. I always tell people: It’s a career, man. One record will sell 6 million, the next record will sell 2 million, what’s the difference? You’re playing the same guitar, you’re coming up with songs, what’s wrong with that? But everybody has that feeling like they want to top it.
Frampton was drinking heavily throughout the recording of I’m in You.
SHELDON: He just kind of had to numb himself up to get through it.
FRAMPTON: I remember coming in to the office when it needed to be handed in. I took the master tapes and threw them across the room. They landed on the couch and I said, “There it is. I'm out of here.”
Released in June 1977, I’m in You went platinum and the title track hit No. 2, but compared to Frampton Comes Alive!, the album was considered a failure.
SHELDON: I played on most of it. I think it’s a good record, it’s a better record than the press it got.
KIMSEY: He should’ve had a break. But this always happens when you get an artist who suddenly hits it big and the manager wants more, more, more.
I’m in You’s pin-up style cover depicting an open-shirted Frampton, plus the sentimental title ballad, alienated Frampton’s hardcore fans and his supporters at hip FM radio.
RACHLIN: That's when there began to be some distance from FM radio — when the idol and the teen pop star and Seventeen magazine and all that took over. Younger kids want to be like their older brothers and sisters. Older brothers and sisters don't reach down and see what their 14-year-old sister likes, and that's when Frampton crested, before that audience separated.
ABRAMS: Those things positioned him as a pretty boy, not a rocker. He could have been the Bon Jovi of that era in that he was "cute" but also could play.
GARCIA: I don’t remember one promotion man or sales rep saying, "Oh my god, he’s betrayed his rock roots!" Nobody even thought about that. They thought they could coast to another mega album after the success of Frampton Comes Alive!, and believe me, the door was open. Peter probably could have made the worst album of his life, within reason, and the door would have remained open.
MOSS: He’s got to play what he’s famous for and maybe he wasn’t doing that anymore. I think Dee was taking more charge of what his career was. God bless him, he did what he thought was right for the kid.
At the height of Frampton Comes Alive!’s popularity, Anthony had arranged for Frampton to star with the Bee Gees in a movie based on the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
FRAMPTON: I remember Dee came to me, he had two things for me that day. He said, “Here's your very first American Express card, because now you have credit. And here's a contract for this movie I think you should do. They're going to pay you this amount of zeros."
DELSENER: Dee got a three-picture deal — he was walking around with these treatments. I was in one of the last scenes of that stupid film, with Tina Turner. It was just a clusterf---.”
Released in 1978, Sgt. Pepper was savaged by critics and failed at the box office. It also further maimed Frampton’s credibility as a rock star.
Frampton continued releasing albums throughout the ‘70s with diminishing returns before A&M, in what Moss characterizes was a “very difficult” decision, dropped him from the label.
MOSS: He worked with a number of producers and most of them kept coming back and saying, “I’m not getting anything,” And we thought he’d be better off with somebody else, because we tried everything.
GARCIA: There was a pall [at the label]. It was almost an embarrassment.
After a five-year hiatus, Frampton signed with Atlantic Records and in 1986 released Premonition, a return to form that delivered his first hit in years, “Lying.” David Bowie, a childhood friend, heard the album and invited Frampton to play lead guitar on his 1987 album Never Let Me Down and Glass Spider tour.
FRAMPTON: He reintroduced me in an arena that I couldn't fill throughout the world anymore. He reintroduced me as the musician, the guitar player. And I can never, ever, thank him enough. And after that, I started hitting the boards again.
Frampton revived his career as he had built it, by touring — first with Ringo Starr and then on his own, with a new band. His 2006 album Fingerprints, produced by Chris Kimsey, won a Grammy for best pop instrumental album. Frampton kicks off a tour March 9 in Tucson, Ariz., in support of his just-released Acoustic Classics, which features unplugged versions of “Do You Feel Like We Do?” and other songs from Frampton Comes Alive!
KIMSEY: He’s enjoying himself immensely — he discovered himself again. So that was quite lovely for me to be back in his life after that whole thing. I saw the Peter I knew when I was 19.
FRAMPTON: I never gave up. I’m a fighter. You can't change anything in the past, nor would I wish to, because I wouldn't be the person I am today if I hadn't been through all this. I believe I'm an artist that just shines live — it's just something that happens. And my belief is that when you sit down, or you're in your car, and [Frampton Comes Alive!] comes on, whatever track it is … you smile. You don't know why you smile — there's obviously Frampton Comes Alive! haters out there that shoot the radio, I'm sure, like Elvis shooting his TV. But there's that indefinable thing — I don’t want to say “magic” — but there’s something there.
This article originally appeared on Billboard.com.