Sunday, February 04, 2001

No fade in Frampton's future

Former teen idol comes alive with marriage, move to Indian Hill, movie role and Grammy nomination

By Larry Nager
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Peter Frampton
(Michael Snyder photo)
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        When Peter Frampton moved here in June, it may have seemed that the '70s rock superstar was ready to retire, play the occasional oldies show and enjoy middle age with his Cincinnati-born wife, Tina Elfers, and their daughter Mia. But the newest member of the Tristate music community has been too busy even to unpack.

        The man who made the best-selling live album of all time — 1976's Frampton Comes Alive! (18 million U.S. sales and counting) — arrived here in the midst of a major career resurgence.

        Within the past year:

        • His early solo albums — Wind of Change, Frampton's Camel,Somethin's Happening and I'm In You came out on CD.

        • He released Live in Detroit, a DVD/VHS/CD package of a 1999 concert.

        • He appeared in Almost Famous and served as consultant for the film as well (director/screenwriter Cameron Crowe wrote the liner notes to Frampton Comes Alive! when he was the teen-aged rock critic the film depicts.)

        • Gibson Guitars came out with a Peter Frampton Signature Les Paul model.

        “No one was interested at all two years ago,” he admitsduring a late breakfast recently at the Cincinnatian Hotel. “I think it's a combination of everything, but it all stems from me playing live and it always has.”

Frampton in 1976.
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        Playing live is what made him a '70s rock icon, and his most recent project took him back to that milestone: the 25th anniversary edition of Frampton Comes Alive!

        It's an expanded, two CD-set that adds four tracks to the '70s touchstone, a radio-savvy blend of guitar flash and pop song craft. For anyone who doesn't want to tamper with history and must have it in the LP's running order, “you still can get the original Frampton Comes Alive!,” he says.

        Remastering those old reel-to-reel tapes was tougher than anticipated, he recalls. The tapes were held together with a synthetic oil that deteriorated with time.

        “So what you had to do was bake each tape individually for eight hours on a low oven,” he says. “And then it takes eight hours to cool before you can put it on a multitrack player, and then you get only one try all the way through to archive it to digital.” If tapes had to be replayed, they also had to be rebaked and recooled.

        Mr. Frampton's also been coming alive on the road. He headlined 1999's Pepsi Jammin' on Main and last year did a co-headlining tour with Styx.

Taste of city life

        Even though he'd lived in London, New York, Los Angeles and Nashville, it wasn't until he and his family moved into a Cincinnati apartment that the British singer/guitarist got a real taste of city life.

        “I'd never lived downtown,” he explains. “Even when I lived in London, I lived, like, 10 minutes out of town. I never lived in Manhattan, I lived in (suburban) Westchester. So living here I sort of enjoyed (being able to say), "I'm just going to walk to CVS. I'm just going to walk wherever.' ”

        The couple were married here in 1996 and moved to Cincinnati to be closer to Tina's family. They'd planned to live downtown while they built a place in Indian Hill.

        His urban adventure was short-lived when three months later a Realtor showed the Framptons a house in Indian Hill with the features they'd wanted, including a huge unfinished basement that Mr. Frampton could convert into a recording studio and guitar vault.

        “We really lucked out,” he says. “We have a beautiful area to live in. There are so many trees, it's like we live in a treehouse.”

Not exactly settled

        Conservative Indian Hill seems to have accepted the rocker (he has partied with his neighbors, the Lindners). And he's becoming acquainted with the local fare (his favorite Graeter's flavor is black raspberry chip).

        But it doesn't look like he'll be settling in any time soon. This summer, he'll be hitting the national amphitheater circuit, co-headlining with a reunited Journey. (Look for him at Riverbend.)

        He looks ready for another go, trim enough to wear his '70s polyester shirts, had he kept them. But where those trademark blond curls once cascaded, only a short-cropped, thinning pate remains.

        He's says he's quite happy no longer to be “the guy with the hair.”

        “The looks are gone, thank God,” he says with a hearty chuckle. “They can't pin me up anymore. People actually have to listen to what I play.”

Early influences

        He started playing as a kid in Beckenham, England, inspired by the early records of Cliff Richards & the Shadows, (featuring guitarist Hank Marvin) and American rockers Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran.

        His father, a jazz fan and amateur musician (“He played in college dance bands before the Second World War,” says the younger Frampton), introduced him to the recordings of French gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt.

        Like any other self-respecting teen, Mr. Frampton's immediate reaction to his father's favorite guitarist was disdain.

        “I couldn't get upstairs fast enough,” he says with a laugh. “Then I realized, "Wait a second! This guy's really good. My dad gave me that, basically, without knowing. I've always got at least one of Django's (CDs). I've got to have my fix.”

        Nonetheless, when he joined the British pop group the Herd at age 16, it was his cherubic looks, not his guitar, that had the English girls screaming.

        Singer Steve Marriott, playing in Small Faces, also wanted to escape the teen idol trap. In 1969, the two formed the scruffy blues-rock band Humble Pie. In 1972, the band released its most successful album, the gold double-LP Performance — Rockin' the Fillmore.

        A few months later, Mr. Frampton went solo, releasing Wind of Change, which in the fashion of the times, was packed with big-name guests, including Ringo Starr and Billy Preston. Like most such solo projects, it flopped. But with the support of A&M Records, he recorded three more LPs and steadily built a career with constant touring.

The "Live' pinup days

        By 1976, it was time for a live album.

        “All I was doing was mimicking exactly what happened with Rockin' the Fillmore,” he says. “For Humble Pie, it was a gold record, so I thought "Well, it'll be a gold record. We had done 250,000 with the previous studio record, Frampton, which was a major achievement then.”

        It was a turning point for the record business. In the '60s, the most important records were hit singles. In the '70s, as rock began to be perceived as art, LPs became the artistic expression of choice. Just as important, the post-war baby boom was old enough to buy those LPs.

        With Frampton Comes Alive!, he made history — and found himself back in the teen-idol biz. He traces a lot of that to his shirtless, 1976 Rolling Stone cover. That photo made him as common a sight in teen-aged girl's bedrooms as Farrah Fawcett-Majors was on boys' walls.

        “I guess that I was partly responsible for letting that happen. It wasn't a conscious thing. That was the last thing I wanted to happen,” he recalls. But he knows the seductions of success. “All those years when you thought, "Oh if I could just get a little piece in Rolling Stone, that would be great.' And then it's virtually your issue. Overnight, it's all of a sudden, front cover. All hell broke loose.”

        Doing the photo shoot with photographer Francesco Scavullo, he remembers, “I just didn't want a picture of me with my bare chest. But Mr. Scavullo was wonderful. It was right at the end of the session, (Mr. Frampton adopts husky Italian accent), "Just one, for me, just one with the shirt off.' And snap! There it is, front cover. And I should have known better.”

Personal, career slips

        His pinup status didn't keep him from being named Rolling Stone's 1977 Artist of the Year. But his career and personal life were beginning to slide.

        He acted in everything from TV's Black Sheep Squadron to the universally panned movie musical, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

        He also kept a hectic pace of touring and record production. Little more than a year after Frampton Comes Alive!, he released a new studio LP, I'm in You.

        Whether it was oversaturation or changing times, his career slowed in the new-wave/MTV '80s. In 1981, he left A&M. When his 1986 album, Premonition, released on Virgin, peaked at 80 on the charts, he signed on as lead guitarist for David Bowie's 1987 “Glass Spiders” world tour.

        In 1991, a planned reunion album and tour with Mr. Marriott ended with the latter's death in a house fire. Ignoring record label's demands for an all-star band, Mr. Frampton, who is his own manager, went back on the road with a group of his choosing.

Family responsibilities

        He documented that phase of his career with 1995's Frampton Comes Alive II. But until last year, his comeback remained a low-key affair. With a young child at home, the old road warrior has had to juggle the roles of rock star and dad (his two children from a previous marriage, Jade, 17, and Julian, 12, live with their mother in South Florida; Ms. Elfers also has a daughter from her first marriage, Tiffany, 18).

        “Having the 4-year-old, and having to go away, we really really try to restrict the amount of time (on the road),” he says. “Sometimes I have to say no. Yes it would be great for my career, but no, I've got to go home.”

        It seems likely he'll be facing those decisions more often. He's writing songs for a new CD and was planning to mail out demos to prospective labels after breakfast at the Cincinnatian.

        A career-spanning, multiple-disc anthology is in the works. And the guitar hero/gadget freak has begun marketing a line of guitar accessories under the Framptone brand, including his signature TalkBox, used so effectively in his 1976 hit “Show Me the Way.”

        He's actively involved in his Web site: Along with touring with Journey this summer, he'll be promoting his various projects.

        Tina and Mia go with him for part of the summer tour, traveling in a custom bus. He's looking forward to family time back at the Indian Hill house, where he hopes to set up his studio, unpack his guitars and gold records and maybe do a little gardening.

        But before he can do that, another career milestone is coming up. Feb. 21, he'll be at the Grammys in Los Angeles, a nominee for best rock instrumental for “Off the Hook,” from Live in Detroit. The second Grammy nomination of his career, it's a genuine thrill for the lifelong guitar fanatic, who refuses to be photographed without an instrument at hand.

        “I got the shock of my life when I got nominated,” he says with a wide grin. “And the icing on the cake, it wasn't for me singing, it was for me playing guitar. All right, be it a little late, but I'm getting the recognition. Maybe we've pushed that shirtless kid out of the way, maybe he's actually fading away in people's minds.”

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