A charismatic guitar superstar comes alive once again

for an unforgettable moment in the mid- to late-1970s, no artist was more ubiquitous than singer and guitar virtuoso Peter Frampton. His 1976 breakthrough solo album, Frampton Comes Alive!, sold six million copies and elevated him to rock superstardom. It also raised expectations that no one could have met. “It was a blessing and a curse,” he acknowledges. Beginning with an ill-advised co-starring role in the disastrous 1978 film interpretation of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Frampton’s star began to fade.

Rather than surrender to self-pity or self-destruction, the Kent, England, native (he became a U.S. citizen in 2004) quietly put his head down and began rebuilding his career—releasing solidly well-received new studio music while reliably rocking crowds, both on his own and as sideman to friends like Ringo Starr and David Bowie. “I think I rise to the occasion live,” he says. “That’s probably the best arena for me—excuse the pun.”

During the past decade he has enjoyed an artistic renaissance, releasing some of the most substantial music of a career that stretches back to his work with beloved British rock bands the Herd and Humble Pie in the 1960s. His comeback was sealed in 2007 when he won his first Grammy for the instrumental Fingerprints—a reminder that long before he was a pop idol, Peter Frampton was a prodigiously skilled guitarist. Now he returns with Thank You Mr. Churchill, the most intimate and topical album of his career. From a suburb outside Cincinnati where he lives with his family—and where he crafted much of the new album in his kitchen—Frampton spoke candidly about his rocket ride to fame and his life and music today.

Thank You Mr. Churchill is a very autobiographical record. Why make an album like that now?

I think it’s the encroaching years (laughs). Five days before the [April 27] release of the album I will be 60. That definitely has made me think about where I came from. Also the fact that I’m working on my eighth year of sobriety. I feel like I have the inner fire of the 19-year-old in Humble Pie, but I have the wisdom that I’ve gained along the way.

One song on the album, “Vaudeville Nanna and the Banjolele,” is about your first instrument.

It was a banjo-shaped ukulele. It was up in my grandmother’s attic. I went up there when I was 7 to get some suitcases down and I saw it. My dad got it out and showed me a couple of songs like “Tom Dooley” and “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore,” and that was it for me.

What was it like becoming a rock idol nearly overnight?

It was pretty cool! But on the other hand it plays havoc with any credibility as a musician. There are so many players who are much better than me, but I do think the fame overshadowed my guitar playing. Look, no matter what I do, Frampton Comes Alive! is going to be the first thing that people say when I leave this planet: “known for…” I know that, and if there’s ever a record album that I would want to be remembered for, I’m thrilled it’s that one, because it’s a great record.

Why do you think that album resonated with record buyers?

I still don’t know. I have no idea except for the fact that things were building to a pitch. It was the best of six years of material, so it really was the best-of for people who had never heard me. It was just loaded with my favorites, and virtually the whole album became hits.

How did you keep your head through all that?

I definitely was affected intensely by the fame. I had my dabbles with all sorts of illicit substances and alcohol. After going through the atomic reaction to Frampton Comes Alive!, an explosion of some enormity, I’m very lucky that I’m still as grounded as I am. My dear friend [writer and movie director] Cameron Crowe said, “It was like he was strapped to the nose cone of a rocket and broke through the ceiling of the sky, and when the rocket came to rest, he got off, looked around and he said, ‘There’s nobody else here.’” It’s great but it can be devastatingly lonely. It’s one thing to look at someone go through something like that, and it’s another thing to be that person.

Look at poor Michael Jackson. I can only compare us on one level and that’s some place that nobody’s ever been to before. I just preceded him on that. I was 25 when that album was recorded. My son Julian is 21 and he’s still a kid. It’s unbelievable that I was that age and went through that.

Is there anything you would have done differently during that period?

Don’t wear the satin pants! (laughs) I know everyone was wearing them, but I wore them much too long!

Why did you decide to become an American citizen?

I’ve reaped the benefits of the U.S. for so long, and it’s my home. Sept. 11 registered with the whole world, but it made me want to become more aware of what was going on. I think it was great to see how we all pulled together for a very short period of time, but then went back to being just as greedy and a me-me-me society. That bothered me.

How did it feel to win a Grammy at last?

I’ve sort of started all over again in my mind and gone back to the guitar and writing for myself. So receiving an award for my guitar playing—as opposed to a live record as a pop star—was very gratifying.

Do you have a large guitar collection?

Not as many as you’d think. I only have multiples of the ones I use on stage. I have a vintage Fender Jaguar, two vintage [Gibson] SGs, one of which I used in Humble Pie, and one vintage Les Paul Jr. ’58. I also have a 1959 Gibson Jazz Box. I really choose carefully. When I’m on the road I’ve got three acoustics and three of the electric Peter Frampton model Gibsons. I probably buy more amplifiers than guitars.

You’ve said that you’re happier now than you’ve ever been. Why?

I think because the pressure is gone, I know myself much better. I’m more successful—not mercenarily, career-wise, but I feel like I’m doing the right things in my life. My sobriety has really helped that. The last seven years have been a big wake-up for me and I’m very thankful. I’m definitely a survivor. I’m still here and still doing what I love. Every day is a new day, and I’m taking it as it comes and enjoying every moment of it.

–Jeff Tamarkin

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