For the generation of music lovers who came of age in the 1970s, it’s easy to picture Peter Frampton on the cover of his multi-platinum double-album Frampton Comes Alive! — wavy shoulder-length hair, pale yellow shirt unbuttoned, guitar in hand.
But years before he became a ’70s poster boy, Frampton was a well-regarded guitarist, a member of the influential British rock group Humble Pie and a session musician for George Harrison and Harry Nilsson. Much to Frampton’s chagrin, that iconic photo and the robotic-sounding talk box he employed on Alive! hits “Show Me the Way” and “Do You Feel Like We Do” became the two most well-known things about him for more than a decade.
His return to rock ’n’ roll respectability began in the late 1980s, when his friend and former schoolmate David Bowie — himself an expert at reinvention — invited Frampton to play guitar on his Never Let Me Down album and the ensuing Glass Spider Tour.
Another watershed moment came in 2007, when Frampton’s Fingerprints won the Grammy Award for Best Pop Instrumental Album. (The record’s blistering take on Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun,” featuring members of Pearl Jam, was nominated that year as well.)
“That was my peers saying, ‘OK, you’re a musician again now,’” Frampton says with a laugh. “I called mom and told her that I got the Grammy and she was just over the moon.”
April 22 marks Frampton’s 70th birthday, and it comes at a bittersweet time in his life: A degenerative muscle condition is slowly rendering him unable to play the guitar, and his U.K. and European farewell tour was just canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But Frampton, whose most recent album is 2019’s robust All Blues, is also working on his first memoir, due out this fall, and he remains upbeat about the possibility of getting out of his Nashville home and back on the road.
How are you planning on celebrating your birthday in the age of COVID-19?
Well, I thought I would have a shower, which is unusual in this time. [laughs] I’ll take my sweats off, dress up in something that I might perform in, and then I’m going to call myself. I have a cell phone and I’ve got my landline, so I’m going to call myself, agree to have my dinner in a different room and I’m going to have a date with myself. That’s it. [laughs]
In fact my girlfriend, Robin, we have two bubbles: She has her place; I’ve got my place. We see no one. We just put our masks on and one weekend I go to her, and the other she comes to me. So it’s her turn to come to me.
Do milestone birthdays like this one make you look back and take stock, or are you an always-looking-ahead kind of guy?
I don’t dwell on the past, but becoming 70 is kind of scary. Sixty was OK but 70 is, well, it’s 10 years later. I’m getting on, but I’m still not as old as the Stones. [laughs]
You have a new granddaughter, right — from your daughter Jade?
Yes! Elle is her name. She was born at the peak of the COVID-19 outbreak, on the 6th of April in Manhattan. It was very scary. ... [Jade’s] back in her bubble now with the baby and everything is fantastic.
That’s a nice birthday present.
Definitely. I would just love to be able to go to her. Obviously Jade’s mom and I were going to meet up at the hospital and be there in normal times, but of course that all had to be canceled. We got over that and now it’s either Zoom or FaceTime, and that’s good. It’s almost as if you’re there. My daughter said, “You’re missing this,” and I said, “Oh, you’ve got to bottle that smell — there’s nothing like that new-baby smell.”
With this muscle condition that’s been limiting how you play, can you still turn to the guitar as a source of mental therapy?
Yes I can. It’s getting harder and harder to play, but even if I have to play the damn thing with my nose one day, I’m going to keep playing. It’s a challenge because very, very slowly the power is leaving my fingers, because the muscles are dissipating. So I just try and play every day and work out a little bit with it. The more exercise I do, the better it is.
You’ve said you’re a perfectionist when it comes to your guitar playing. Has this condition forced you to loosen that up a little bit and say, “A day playing the guitar is a good day”?
No. [laughs] I beat myself up. I always have. I’ve got to be able to play this. If I can’t play something today that I could play yesterday, than today I’m going to make sure by the end of the day that I can play it today as good as I could play it yesterday.
Every day is a gift as far as guitar playing, because it’s in my blood and it’s part of my being. When I come up with something new, even if it’s something very small at this point, it just gives me the best feeling and makes me want to play more. It’s frustrating; I have to admit that. Right now, certain things that were easy to play are becoming more difficult. So I change it up and try and play it a different way. It’s just working with what you have, and that’s what I have to do.
Do you remember the first time you used the talk box live?
We’d been doing “Do You Feel” for a while, so instead of just an extended guitar solo at the end I started using the talk box. We felt the entire audience — a split second after they first heard it — all move forward about 9 inches. [laughs] It was the whole room moving forward. It was just like, “Oh my God!”
We’re so numb to it now because of Auto-Tune, but back then there were no vocoders or anything. This was a brand-new sound for everybody. When I would actually talk to them and they would talk back to me, that completed the circle of communication through the talk box. It was phenomenal. I still love doing it. If I didn’t have to do it, that would be good too. [laughs] But I know that the audience can’t wait to hear it, and still to this day they go nuts.
I’m sorry to hear about your farewell tour of the U.K. and Europe being canceled.