Peter Frampton reflects before Foxwoods show Friday
Yes, Peter Frampton has been asked about the origin of his talk box guitar solo in "Do You Feel Like We Do" more times than there are ticks in Old-, East- and just-plain-Lyme. After all, it's THE hit song — all 14 minutes of it! — from "Frampton Comes Alive," one of the biggest-selling in-concert recordings ever, and the tune is pretty much carved into the memory of anyone whose ears worked in the '70s.
Even so, in a recent phone conversation from his home in Nashville, Frampton told the talk box story once more — with total good cheer and humor.
Here's the thing, though. One of the goals of the interview was actually to spare Frampton that subject. A question was asked instead about the original, talk box-free version of "Do You Feel Like We Do," which was released two years earlier on a studio album called "Frampton's Camel," and which is a much shorter rendition actually preferred by many career fans. Bless him, though, Frampton misunderstood — or perhaps the conditioned-response governor in his brain heard a reference to "Do You Feel" and instantly flipped a metaphorical "Peter, pleasantly go into the talk box story" switch — and he was off.
Well, hell, it was pretty cool to hear about it from the source, particularly inasmuch as Frampton will undoubtedly do the song Saturday when he shares a bill with the Steve Miller Band at Foxwoods' Grand Theater.
Basically, Frampton was familiar with the surreal way a talk box distorts the human voice from his childhood, when British and American radio stations would use the effect when announcing their call letters. The sound fascinated him.
"A few years later, I heard 'Music of My Mind' by Stevie Wonder and went, 'There's it is again! What IS that?!'" Frampton remembers, sounding as excited as if it had happened yesterday. From there, the story takes an incredible leap from innocent youth to dazzling stardom — at least to the listener — when Frampton segues into calmly discussing his next talk box experience.
He says, "Then, in 1970-71, I was in the studio with George Harrison for 'All Things Must Pass,' and (pedal steel wizard) Pete Drake came over from Nashville and set up his stuff. Suddenly, he put this tube in his mouth and started playing, and I almost fell over. 'This is it!'"
By that point, of course, Frampton had experienced teen fame in The Herd and was a big star as cofounder with Steve Marriott of Humble Pie. (In fact, Frampton's blasting main chord sequence on "I Don't Need No Doctor," from the Pie's "Performance: Captured Live at the Fillmore" masterpiece, gives the guitarist two of the great iconic riffs in rock history along with "Do You Feel.") By that juncture in his life, then, maybe recording with an ex-Beatle was no big thing. Anyway, it turns out Drake had built the talk box himself, later loaned it to Frampton's pal Joe Walsh, who also built one and famously used the device on his hit song "Rocky Mountain Way."
"Joe's use on 'Rocky Mountain Way' is the ultimate, period. Forget 'Do You Feel,'" Frampton says graciously and probably incorrectly. Walsh ultimately sent a talk box to Frampton's girlfriend so she could give it to him for Christmas. In the meantime, Humble Pie sound man Bob Heil started a talk box company, and HE gave one to Frampton.
"Well, clearly," Frampton laughs, "all that was left was for me to learn how to use it." As millions know, he did, and the subsequent versions of "Do You Feel Like We Do" as well as another "Comes Alive" hit, "Show Me the Way," became synonymous with talk boxery.
It's also clear talking with Frampton that there's still a great deal of fan and media interest in what might be called the glory days of his career, from Humble Pie through "Comes Alive" and the chart-topping "I'm in You" — and before the critical and popular backlash that invariably follows big success. This takes into account his participation with the Bee Gees in Robert Stigwood's much-loathed film version of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band." Frampton was also nearly killed in a 1978 car accident, lost several of his vintage guitars in a cargo plane crash, and spent years working through domestic setbacks in his married life.
Well, sprint forward a few decades. Frampton still sells out medium-sized halls and has continued to make competitive and creative rock albums. His 1981 album, "Breaking All the Rules," with its sizzling lead-off rocker "Dig What I Say," should have been huge. His 2006 instrumental album, "Fingerprints," won a Grammy, and his two most recent releases, "Thank You Mister Churchill" (2010) and "Hummingbird in a Box" (2014) are extremely good — although they've been commercially underappreciated.
And a brand-new single, the gorgeous true story-song, "I Saved a Bird Today" — the creature flew into Frampton's glass patio window and knocked itself out, and the guitarist nursed it to health — indicates that Frampton continues to produce world-class material. The song, with its Harrison-esque melody and Django Reinhardt-style acoustic guitar work, is something Frampton considers one of those Big Gift moments in life. With no thoughts of anything musical, Frampton told the bird story to his longtime friend and collaborator, Gordon Kennedy, who showed up a few days later with a set of lyrics. Frampton had no choice, he says, but to finish the song.
"It's a true story, and maybe there's a lesson in it," he says. "I know it's maybe a trite sentiment, but with what we're getting berated with every day in the world, maybe we could use a bit more compassion. To care for each other is the reason we're here, and sometimes I think that gets forgotten. Maybe the bird was sent to rescue me and remind me."
It's a great song, and it's sad to wonder, though: is anyone but the hardcore faithful listening?
Frankly, Frampton, who's as much a realist as he is an artist, understands the situation — and to continue slurping at the fountain of fame or worrying about the music business have never been his motivations in the first place.
"Hey, time marches on," he says philosophically. "Each generation has its pop culture heroes — sports figures or musicians or film stars — and that's just the way it goes. For me, 'Comes Alive' overshadowed everything I did before and after, and that's okay. Every day of my life, I create a riff or a melody because it's not in my genes to NOT do that. Just because there's no outlet, well, it's still my love. I do it for me."
And while his voice, the rich and searing guitar tone, and songcraft are pretty instantly identifiable, Frampton's continually restructures and experiments with arrangements and ideas. To listen to his work in chronological fashion results in an affectionate appreciation for his journey as an artist.
"I always try to do something different," Frampton says. "I think if you listen to the instrumental album or 'Mr. Churchill' or the (delicately acoustic) new single, you can see I'm trying new things. I'm very much a combination of all my influences, but I like to think there's some of me in there as well. If I can't play something today that I didn't or couldn't play before, that's a wasted day. If I can't improve, what's the point? I may never be the best, but I won't ever stop trying to be the best."
If you go
Who: The Steve Miller Band with special guest Peter Frampton
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Grand Theater, Foxwoods Resort Casino
How much: $65-$100
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