Sunday, August 14, 2011

Bassist Stanley Sheldon Shines On 'Frampton Comes Alive 35' Tour

For a few years there, bassist Stanley Sheldon was an integral part of one of the biggest phenomenons the music industry has ever witnessed. The Kansas native joined Peter Frampton’s band just two months before the fateful Winterland Ballroom show that provided the bulk of the tracks for “Frampton Comes Alive” – an album that arguably has had the greatest impact of any live record in history.

Bassist Stanley Sheldon is back with Peter Frampton.
Sheldon was there for Frampton’s meteoric rise from journeyman to superstar when the double album was released in 1976, spending 10 weeks at No. 1 and an astounding 97 total weeks on the charts.

He was also there when Frampton’s star descended, with the beginning of the end, as he described it, occurring with the release of the movie “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” in 1978. The movie, which starred Frampton and the Bee Gees, flopped, exposing portions of tin on what had been Frampton’s apparent Midas touch at the time.

Sheldon left the band in the early 1980s and was out of touch with his former frontman for more than 20 years. Ironically, it took the deaths of the other half of their “Frampton Comes Alive” compatriots – drummer John Siomos and keyboardist/guitarist Bob Mayo died a month and a half apart in early 2004 – to forge a reconnection between Frampton and Sheldon.

The pair collaborated on a song for Frampton’s 2006 Grammy-winning album, “Fingerprints, and Frampton eventually asked him to return for the current “Frampton Comes Alive 35” tour, which is playing the entire groundbreaking concert in its entirety night after night as part of a two-set, three-hours-plus performance.

With all this background at my fingertips, it was early in our phone conversation that I asked Sheldon what differences he had noticed in his relationship with Frampton between the glory days and now.

Sheldon said the relationship is so much deeper now, especially now that both men are sober and “actually coherent.”

That led to this exchange:

Sheldon: You weren’t around in the ’70s, but if you had been ...

Me (laughing): Actually, I was ...

Sheldon: Were you really?

Me: Yeah.

Sheldon: OK, do you remember, did you see the tour?

Me: I did, actually I was going to mention that I saw you guys play, well, I grew up in Southern California and I was in high school at the time, and I saw you ...

Sheldon: Anaheim!

Me: Yeah! I saw you at Anaheim Stadium and before that, you had four dates at the Forum ...

One of the most interesting aspects of interviews to me is how they can turn on a dime to unsuspecting topics and revelations. The string of Frampton dates in 1976 at the L.A. Forum – dubbed the Fabulous Forum or the House that Jack (Kent Cooke) Built in those days – was a treasured memory for me. It was only the fourth concert I had ever been to, and Frampton was at the height of his popularity. My brother and I got tickets through a secondary ticket broker – the only time in my life I can remember obtaining tickets that way.

The Forum show itself was fantastic, and I remember being amazed at how Frampton seemed to hold the crowd in the palm of his hand – eliciting cheers with every gesture and by merely putting a cupped hand to his ear with a quizzical look on his face, if to say, “Where’s the noise, people?”

Those were some of my memories from that night. Sheldon’s turned out to be much different.

Sheldon: I remember it well. Now that really strikes a chord with me because as we were doing those four dates, well, correct me if I am wrong, but was that ’76?

Me: Yes, that is correct.

Sheldon: Well, my best friend, the great fusion master guitarist Tommy Bolin, my dearest friend through life as youngsters, in fact, he and I moved to L.A. together before I met Peter and before [Tommy] went on the road with Deep Purple. I don’t know if you know about Tommy Bolin ...

Me: I do know somewhat about him, but I don’t know a ton.

Sheldon: Well, he’s a guitar player’s guitar player. Jeff Beck’s life was changed by Tommy. You know, anybody who was into fusion guitar, Tommy was considered the master. And he was only 26 when he died. Bittersweet. He had died during that four-day hiatus. I was not able to go to the funeral because of the four days in a row and Dee Anthony [Frampton’s gregarious and overbearing manager at the time] kind of pressured me ... into not leaving. That kind of haunted me through life, you know, not being able to attend my best friend’s funeral. ... But I’m sure Tommy would forgive me.

Me: Well, I do remember those shows, in fact they were in early December, the 5, 6, 7 and 9th, in a string like that.

Sheldon: Now you’re really getting close to me remembering his exact date of death, yeah. ... I don’t remember much about those shows. I put myself into a ... I had to numb myself to be able to get through them -- even more so than usual.

After the interview, I went and did some research on Bolin, and saw that he died on Dec. 4, 1976 – the day before the run of Forum dates began.

Sheldon’s memories of the Anaheim Stadium show – July 6, 1977 – were a bit more whimsical.

Sheldon: I remember there were some dignitaries there, like Danny Bonaduce [laughs] and who was the famous triathlete ...

Me: Bruce Jenner?

Sheldon: Bruce Jenner was there with Danny Bonaduce. And people parachuted into the middle of the stadium. Do you remember that?

Me: I do.

Sheldon: I have much better memories about that one. But yeah, that was a great time. Shoot, what could be better? Unfortunately, neither Peter nor myself really were weighing the gravity of it all and savoring it as we should have. I think we’re savoring it much more now.

My Instamatic captured this shot at Anaheim Stadium.

I had my own fond memories of the Anaheim Stadium show. It was the first time my friends and I ever camped out for a concert. I drove five or six of us out to Anaheim Stadium in our family’s Volkswagen bus the night before the show and we slept – or mostly didn’t sleep that is – outside the stadium on a rug a few of us had made.

(The rug is a story unto itself. One of our family friends at the time installed carpeting for a living. He was a cool guy – and used to wow us impressionable teens with his tales of installing new carpeting in the homes of rock stars like Mick Fleetwood and Alex Van Halen, among other celebrities. He always had lots of scraps, and he showed some of us youth how to cobble the scraps together to make our own novelty rugs. Naturally, we put a musical spin on it, and inset names to some of our favorite bands at the time. This particular rug said “Frampton” in the middle, so we thought it would be a great idea to take it to the concert instead of a blanket, since we envisioned staking out a great location on the outfield grass in front of the stage. It turned out to be a not-so-great idea – as it was hard for us to hold position on the rug during the show, what with the shifting nature of the crowd on the field. In addition, it was quite large, and was pretty cumbersome to lug around before and after the show. Ironically, we probably would have got even better “seats” on the field, had we not been burdened by carrying the rug across the field while others were racing past us to the best locations in front of the stage.)

The support bands that day were Derringer (decent), J. Geils (boring) and Foghat (outstanding). Things got so uninteresting during J. Geils that a huge trash war started on the field. I remember turning around at one point and looking behind me on the field. All you could see from center field back to home plate were compacted balls of refuse soaring back and forth through the air. I’ve always wondered what that view looked like to the members of J. Geils, from their on-stage perspective.

Frampton, as was his trademark at the time, started his show by running on stage by himself while jumping up and down and pumping his fists in the air. I’ve always been intrigued by the way bands open their concerts, and to this day, this type of opening has remained unique to Frampton, at least in my experience. He started with an acoustic set – also somewhat unique for someone who also plays electric guitar to his level – opening with solo versions of “All I Want to Be (Is by Your Side) and “Penny for Your Thoughts” before being joined by Sheldon, Siomos and Mayo for “Baby I Love Your Way.” That led into the “FCA” opener “Something’s Happening” and the show was off and running. Great memories.

It’s always interesting to talk to someone who was on the other side of those memories, the performing side, and probe their perspective.

Here are some other highlights from my interview with Sheldon that did not make it into my Daily Herald story:

On Frampton’s continued mastery of the guitar: “He’s surprising me on a nightly basis with his virtuosity. I mean, it’s simply staggering what that man has continued to improve. And the fans see it.”

Left to right: Bob Mayo, Peter Frampton, John Siomos, Stanley Sheldon.
On how his ability to play fretless bass led to his audition with Frampton and affected the “Frampton Comes Alive” sound: “I played a couple songs on my fretless bass, which, he was looking for someone that could do that. And I was among a handful of people playing a fretless, which, for musicians that know the sound, it’s subtle, but it’s so obvious on ‘Comes Alive,’ to bass players especially, that that’s a fretless bass. It’s a very unique sound, and I think that’s part of what made it kind of special. I like to think that.”

On how he would explain the difference in sound of a fretless bass: “Well, it’s more voice-like, as a violin is, or a cello, because there’s no frets on it, right, so the musician has to actually create the note with his own ear and his own vibrato with his fingers. And it covers the same sonic spectrum as the human voice does, too, basically about two octaves worth of notes. It’s certainly my voice, but it does have that type of vibrato and a quality that gives it a distinction. You’ll hear it if you come to the show ’cause I’m using it again on the whole ‘Frampton Comes Alive.’ ... And I use other basses, obviously, throughout my career for different sounds, but that’s really what I’m best known for, my work on the fretless. It sounds really great now. Peter and I, he’s loving hearing it again now, I think. It’s making us feel as close to that record as we can possibly feel, I think.”

On what his expectations were when he joined Frampton’s band in 1975: “Oh, I was on Cloud Nine. I’d always wanted to make it as it were -- I don’t know what ‘make it’ means now in the 21st century. But back then, it meant something specific, like successful records, touring, and girls and everything. For Peter and I both, it’s like be careful what you ask for because we got it more than we might have expected. I, for one, was not quite prepared for all that success. It was a shock, but it was great.”

Peter Frampton performing on the set of "Sgt. Pepper's."
On how the “Sgt. Pepper” movie hurt Frampton’s career: “No, it wasn’t Peter’s greatest decision, but he was pushed and prodded and badgered into doing it by Dee Anthony. I don’t know anyone that wouldn’t have succumbed to the same pressures.”

On how he actually was opposed to the idea of releasing “Frampton Comes Alive” – you know, one of the most successful albums in history -- at that stage of the band’s career: “That’s a funny story. It’s true. And I remember the road manager and I, we both thought it was a terrible idea. And Peter, we really hurt his feelings. We were all drunk, and [said] 'Peter don’t do ... ' and he got really upset. So, yeah, that’s funny.”

On the depth of Frampton’s guitar playing, and his jazz and blues background: “We’re just continuing that jazz and blues tradition here with Peter now. Peter’s playing some amazing bluesy, jazzy stuff. I don’t think his fans even know what a virtuoso he is. A lot remember him as the pop star. A lot of musicians and guitar players do know how deep he is, but everybody who doesn’t is in for a surprise at these shows. And I think that’s why the shows are going so well. Because people do stick around after we finish “Comes Alive.” They do sit there through the whole night and they walk away, from the reviews that we’ve been getting, flabbergasted. So it’s making us feel great out here, like we’re really doing it right.”

On his opportunity to be playing with Peter’s current band: “It’s really an honor to be back playing with Peter again. After all these years it’s an honor to be in this band because it’s a group of musicians that we, again, have that special chemistry, I feel. And that’s really rare. We were sitting on the bus, the four of us, and Peter maybe was not there. It’s really unique. There’s great bands that go out, but it’s not always one for all and all for one. In this band, it feels that way again, it truly does. It’s a really great bunch of guys and we all kind of are on the same page.

To read my Daily Herald story that contains much more from my interview with Sheldon, click HERE.

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