Peter Frampton’s ‘Blues Thesis’

A medical diagnosis pushed Frampton to choose one final focus for the last creative burst of his career—and he decided to sing the blues

Peter Frampton Band All Blues, UMe 2019

On a February morning earlier this year, Peter Frampton made an announcement during an interview with CBS This Morning: He had been diagnosed with inclusion body myositis, a muscle disorder that would soon attack his body with progressive muscle weakness, inflammation and atrophy.

It was a devastating reveal for a career musician to make, because it meant his relationship with music would soon change permanently. Though the diagnosis had come more than three years earlier after Frampton took a spill onstage, he didn’t start to notice the effects of IBM until last fall, when he began having difficulty walking up and down stairs and lifting objects over his head. Medical journals report that IBM patients experience symptoms on different timelines, but commonly affected body parts like the arms, fingers and wrists are of particular consequence to someone like Frampton.

Spending his older years in the studio and on the stage was not going to be an option for Frampton the way it is for many of his contemporaries. So Frampton decided to give his career one last push—one final album and one final tour before IBM robbed him of his ability to play guitar. On June 7, Frampton released All Blues, his “blues thesis” that has so far spent two weeks at #1 on Billboard’s Top Blues Albums chart and marked the official launch of his last-ever tour.

It’s fun to hear Frampton describe All Blues as a studious take on the genre he’s admired for so much of his life. It’s quite fitting, too. The album’s 10 tracks, all blues covers, span works by Muddy Waters, Freddie King, Taj Mahal and more, with Willie Dixon an unsurprisingly recurring featured songwriter. With his touring bandmates Adam Lester (guitar and vocals), Rob Arthur (keys, guitar and vocals) and Dan Wojciechowski (drums), Frampton puts an instrumental spin on the Ray Charles classic “Georgia on My Mind,” dusts off Slim Harpo’s “I’m a King Bee” and rambles along on Dixon’s “I Just Want to Make Love to You” as the Fabulous Thunderbirds’ Kim Wilson wails away on harmonica. Though it seems like Frampton was focused on fleshing out his chosen songs with his band, he didn’t shy away from collaborations. In addition to Wilson’s appearance on the album opener, Frampton is joined by Deep Purple’s Steve Morse on “Going Down Slow,” Larry Carlton on the title track reimagining Miles Davis’ classic and the King of Slydeco Sonny Landreth on B.B. King’s “The Thrill is Gone.”

The music sounds like what one would expect of a career musician who grew up with the blues: The songs are perfectly executed for the genre, meaning the performances are good from a technical standpoint and have just enough swagger to prevent them from sounding too polished. It’s fitting music for a festival or road trip, when the mind is searching for a way to unwind and calmly reassemble. At nearly seven minutes long, the Davis tribute in particular is good for this, an instrumental piece that harkens back to jazz’s blues roots and masterfully employs the song’s hypnotic rhythms as Wojciechowski’s adds expressive commentary on the cymbals.

Poster for the final Frampton tour

In his video introduction to the album, Frampton explained that he and his band pared down a list of 23 songs to land on the final 10 that appear on All Blues. He knew the album was going to be a deep dive into the blues when he set out to make what might very well be his last studio album—a tribute to the artists who inspired him and the wide-ranging styles that have filtered down through generations. It was important to Frampton that the songs have a live feel, so he and co-producer Chuck Ainlay avoided holding too many practice sessions before recording at Frampton’s Studio Phenix in Nashville. It’s not surprising that this raw approach to recording resulted in a Frampton album that charted—after all, 1976’s Frampton Comes Alive! remains one of the best-selling live albums of all time, and certainly the most successful of Frampton’s career.

Most people familiar with Frampton’s music think of him as frozen in time, singing into a talk box as the blonde curls that spilled over the shoulders of his flowing shirts made him look like the epitome of a 1970s pop star. “Show Me the Way” fans don’t often think of Frampton as a co-founder of the English group Humble Pie in the late 1960s or as a 2007 Grammy winner for his instrumental pop album Fingerprints. In all honesty, Frampton hasn’t experienced much resounding success for his work since 1976’s breakthrough live album, though he’s certainly tried. It’s another reason why many find it difficult to think of Frampton without picturing those iconic live videos from the late 1970s—but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Frampton wasn’t anywhere close to the first person who used a talk box, but he did revolutionize its use in pop music, giving his songs a unique sound and demonstrating what was possible to musicians on the precipice of a whole new wave of musical experimentation in the 1980s.

Long after Frampton’s burst into stardom, he’s continued tackling projects that scratch his creative itch, occasionally putting forth material that acknowledges the Frampton Come Alive! shadow he lives in (it wasn’t shocking when Frampton Comes Alive! II didn’t come close to hitting the sales numbers of its nearly 20-year predecessor). All Blues is the former, a genuine creative project that shows the kind of music Frampton was most eager to add to his discography before his chance faded. In addition to illuminating a handful of classics to which Frampton feels personally connected, All Blues reminds listeners of Frampton’s technical voracity as he ambles along the guitar neck on songs like “Me and My Guitar” and closes out the album with the soulful “Same Old Blues.” The talk box was a defining element of Frampton’s legacy, but it’s not likely to have a place in his future. At this point in his life, Frampton is looking for human connections as he embarks on his farewell tour—and he knows that playing the blues is one of his best bets at finding them.

 

VIDEO: Peter Frampton Band’s All Blues

Meghan Roos

Meghan Roos is a music journalist living in Southern California. Follow her on Twitter @mroos163.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *