The Peter Principle
Peter Frampton, the man responsible for one of the most successful live recordings of all time, is talking about setting up college funds for his kids as if it's a big challenge. The '70s rock god is the proud father of four, and these days he discusses his career in terms of family.
"The career was a very selfish one at one point, all me-me-me-me, but now it's not," says the 48-year-old, whose Frampton Comes Alive! has sold more than six million copies since its release in 1976. "I'm not the most important person in the family. My job is to look after everybody. We have four college funds; that's a lot of money."
Making money these days doesn't mean making albums. Frampton -- who lives with his wife, 2-year-old daughter, and 16-year-old stepdaughter in Nashville and has a 10-year-old son and a 15-year-old daughter (from a previous marriage) living in North Miami -- hasn't recorded a hit in close to 20 years. And at the moment he doesn't have a record deal lined up, only vague plans to release an album in 1999.
"I've been offered a lot of deals by the smaller boutique labels," he says. "At the moment none of them are willing to give me the long view that I see, or the promotion. It's a more-and-more difficult situation for people of my era, but I think I've got a plan that involves me being much more involved in the release, possibly putting it out myself. The Internet is an amazing thing, and I'm working toward that."
In the meantime performing is what helps fill the college-fund coffers. Frampton is currently on tour with two other '70s pop icons: Lynyrd Skynyrd (or what remains of the original band) and Styx's ex-guitarist, Tommy Shaw. Over the past two years, Frampton also has played guitar for Ringo Starr and ex-Rolling Stone bassist Bill Wyman. He plans to record a rewritten version of "Show Me the Way," one of the hits from Frampton Comes Alive!, for a Disney project called Tigger Mania, and he's been talking with filmmakers about working on soundtracks.
This all may sound like grunt work, considering the superstar Frampton once was, but the singer/songwriter/guitarist doesn't see it that way. If anything he believes he finally has total control of his career, and a rehash of the fallout that followed Frampton Comes Alive! may explain why.
The unprecedented success of Frampton Comes Alive!, which topped the album charts for 17 weeks and spawned three hit singles -- "Baby I Love Your Way," "Show Me the Way," and "Do You Feel Like We Do" -- made Peter Frampton a household name and an instant rock-icon. But it also threw him into a world of immense scrutiny, impossible expectations, and financial impropriety. Frampton claims that, over the years, the album has earned $60 million in income, but much of it never came his way. "One would think that, with $60 million generated, that the artist should end up with a severe chunk of that," he argues. "I want people to know that that's not the case. Greed played an awfully big factor in this, and between all the lawyers and managers, shall we say that their expenses exceeded what they were actually doing."
Despite these problems Frampton admits he's made quite a bit of money, mostly because he now has complete control of his business dealings. But management hassles amounted to only a small portion of the problems he faced. The biggest obstacle was the burden of success itself. Frampton Comes Alive! was a phenomenon, a product of the times. Unlike the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Nirvana's Nevermind, it wasn't an album that changed the face of music or spoke for a generation. Frampton Comes Alive! was more of a feel-good album, one that was sorely needed during the inflation-plagued late '70s. But, while the timing was just right for Frampton Comes Alive!, lightning would fail to strike twice for the then-26-year-old Frampton.
His managers pressured him to cash in on his success by hastily putting together I'm in You, which was released in 1977. Frampton admits the work he did on that album was not up to par, and, despite sales of three million copies, it was deemed a failure. He all but sealed his professional fate with a starring role (next to the Bee Gees) in the 1978 film Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which critics deemed a complete disaster, both musically and cinematically. But Frampton went right back to work, recording Where I Should Be in 1979. The album sold little more than 500,000 copies, another disaster when compared to the phenomenal success, just three years earlier, of Frampton Comes Alive!
What's ironic is that Frampton was no overnight success. Prior to 1976 he'd been working hard, smartly building a reputation throughout the previous decade. The English-born Frampton began playing guitar at age 8, and at 12 years old was jamming with the older boys in his school, including a then-15-year-old saxophone player named David Jones (later known as David Bowie). Frampton played in several bands as a teenager, including the Preachers, a band managed by Bill Wyman. At the age of 16, he joined the Herd, which scored three Top 10 hits worldwide (except for in the United States). He later left the Herd and with Steve Marriott formed Humble Pie, which recorded five albums.
By the time Frampton recorded his first solo album, Wind of Change, in 1972, his guitar-playing was in demand among rock's elite. He played on George Harrison's All Things Must Pass, and Ringo Starr and Billy Preston played on Wind of Change. After recording two more solo albums, Frampton finally achieved gold status (500,000 units sold) with 1975's Frampton. That same year, as he was driving in New York City one day, he almost crashed when he heard on the radio that he was one of five guitarists being considered to replace Mick Taylor in the Rolling Stones. He didn't get the gig, but a year later Frampton Comes Alive! was released.
After the dust of the '70s settled, Frampton spent the next two decades recording albums that received very little attention and playing sideman to fellow rockers, most notably David Bowie, who asked his old friend to join him on tour in 1987. By that time Frampton had taken some time off to start a new family, and, perhaps not by mistake, his career in the '90s has been very low-key. He claims that he's equally comfortable in the roles of headliner, sideman, and opening act, and enjoys playing live as much as he did in the '70s. And, no, he isn't tired of playing the hits.
"I know there are artists who may want to put their old hits in a box, but these songs became hits live," he explains. "The actual performing of them is the most enjoyable part for me. If I said, 'I'm not gonna do them,' that would be awful. If I was an audience member, I would feel totally gypped."
While the ghost of the '70s will always haunt him, Frampton learned early in his career that depending on musical success for personal fulfillment leads to a dead end.
"I've done everything," he states. "I've been one of the chosen few to be, at one time or another, the biggest act in the world. I've been there and done that, and now I look forward to being with my family more than ever. Don't get me wrong. I love playing live, and when my wife and I decide, 'This would be a good thing to do, this would be great -- more stuff in the college fund,' then I do it."
Peter Frampton, Tommy Shaw, and Lynyrd Skynyrd will perform Friday, October 16, at the Coral Sky Amphitheatre, 601-7 Sansbury's Way, West Palm Beach. The show starts at 7 p.m. For tickets call 954-523-3309 in Broward County, 561-966-3309 in Palm Beach County.
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