Peter Frampton on His Final Tour and Battling the Rare Disease That Could End His Music Career
On Oct. 12, 2019, Peter Frampton rocked an ecstatic crowd of 11,000 in Concord, California, with electrifying versions of his indomitable ‘70s hits “Baby I Love Your Way,” “Do You Feel Like We Do,” and “Show Me the Way.” It was all in a day’s work for the 69-year-old music legend but this time was different. This time he was saying goodbye.
Four years earlier, Frampton had been diagnosed with inclusion body myositis, a degenerative muscle disorder that would gradually rob him of his ability to play guitar. Eager to make the most of his time and talent, he plotted his final tour — both as a farewell to his fans and a triumphant victory lap for his remarkable career, The four-month, 51-date trek took him across the country, including packed shows at iconic venues like New York City’s Madison Square Garden and the L.A. Forum. Fans had flown in from all over the world to see the finale in Concord, not far from where he’d recorded his monster-selling breakthrough live album, Frampton Comes Alive!, four decades before. His three former wives were there to cheer him on, along with daughters Jade, 36, and Mia, 23 and stepdaughter Tiffany Wiest, 37. Son Julian. 31, who followed in his father’s musical footsteps, even served as opening act. As the last notes of his encore, an emotional rendition of friend George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” echoed through the arena, he took his final bow.
Frampton’s struggles with IBM have made him more passionate about his instrument than ever. Recently he’s thrown himself into recording, completing nearly four new albums in his private studio near his Nashville home. The first of these, a covers album called All Blues, was released in June. The masterful covers of classics by Muddy Waters, B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf prove that, despite the illness, his unparalleled guitar skills remain undiminished.
Frampton spoke with PEOPLE about leaving the road, living with IBM, and how he plans to move forward.
You just wrapped your farewell tour. What was it like stepping off the stage after the last show?
The whole tour, being the nature of what it was, was like completing the circle. The Bay Area was where we recorded Frampton Comes Alive!, and so, as it happened, we were able to make the Bay Area the last date. The audiences on the whole tour were so encouraging and warm. Every show had this extra kind of feeling I got from the audience that I haven’t had before. Obviously, I think it was because of my announcement. It was unbelievable the amount of love that I felt from the audience each night. In the Bay Area, people flew in from all over the world. They did at other venues, too, but this was at capacity. We didn’t want to end. The audience didn’t want it to end, and we didn’t want it to end. The audience just loved it. I think they felt that it was a very special show.
And your son Julian was up there playing with you. That must have made it extra special.
Yes, it did. He did the California dates, eight shows, and the audience loved him. I introduced him every night, which was a surprise to the audience, I think. It was wonderful having him out there. Obviously, I’m biased, but even if I wasn’t, he’s a great performer, great writer, great singer, great player, great everything. I hope we do more [playing] because we enjoy it. It’s so much fun writing together and to be able to be on the same level musically is something that I really adore about our relationship.
Did the rest of your family make it out to the last show in Concord?
Yes, everyone was there. All my children and all my ex-wives! We had an incredible night. Afterwards there was a little backstage bash with all my friends and relatives and family that had come. It was bittersweet but it was [also] a celebration of everything that I’ve done. I mean, I’ve been on the boards now for over 50 years. Not that I’m stopping totally, but this was the culmination of the last big tour that I’m going to be able to do. I’ve always said that I’ll go out and do a show here or there when I can, and I do want to go to England and Europe and South America to do a short tour there, just to say goodbye. We’re still working on this, but hopefully next year. It’s something that I do want to do, if my health permits.
What were some of your favorite memories from the tour, aside from the last night? Playing the Garden again must have been such an amazing highlight.
Yeah, that was the first huge [date] that we played on the tour. We’d been out for a while, but when we got to the Garden they had a huge welcome sign: “Welcome back to the Garden!” Even at the soundcheck, I looked out and there’s a big “Welcome Back Peter Frampton” sign. It was amazing.
I think 1979 was the last time I played the Garden before that. I guess it had much more meaning to me now than it did back then. Back then in the ’70s, when I was playing the Garden as a headliner, it was happening everywhere at the same time. Everywhere I went it was the biggest place here or the biggest place there. It all happened at once as soon as the Frampton Comes Alive! album came out. So this time I treasured every moment in the building and we were all smiling. The band and I just couldn’t believe it. It’s wonderful when something like that happens. Not only was it the Garden, but it was also the [L.A.] Forum. Those two places are so iconic.
How are you feeling these days, health-wise?
I feel great. Since I announced [my illness] last February, we’ve had some progression, mainly in my legs. I work out five days a week, and the more I work out, the better it is to keep the strength in the muscles that I still have. It’s starting to affect my arms and my hands a little bit, but it’s not affecting my playing to a great deal, so I’m still enjoying playing. For how long, I don’t know. It’s very slow, the progression, but it’s more the fact that I’m having trouble standing and walking and things like that, as opposed to actually playing guitar. I have to say that it’s affecting everything, but not to the point where I don’t feel my playing is 100 percent.
I know you’re fighting this; you’re working with doctors at Johns Hopkins. What’s the treatment plan and what kind of prognosis did they give you?
Next month I go to Baltimore, to Johns Hopkins, to start the first drug trial, because I couldn’t do that while I was on the road. As soon as I got off, I made an appointment to go and do that. That’ll be a 10-12-month drug trial, so we’ll see how that does. My cup is always half full, so I am very positive about it and I think, “Who knows? This could be it.” We don’t know. And if not, I’ll try the next drug, whatever it is.
For more about Peter Frampton’s life after his IBM diagnosis, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE — on newsstands everywhere Friday.
What made you first realize you might have a serious problem?
You notice it in your legs first. I remember this was about seven, eight years ago now. I was with my son. We went to Big Sur for a long weekend, just hanging out, for some father-son time. We were hiking and I just couldn’t get up the hill as fast as I used to. That’s when I first said, “Hmm, something’s going on here.” And then I thought, “I’m just getting old, this is what it’s like!” Everybody who has [IBM] has told me that’s what they first thought. It took a good three or four years from that point, and I was getting weaker and weaker. Then I fell onstage for the first time. Then, two weeks later I fell again. That’s when I realized there’s a problem here. So I went and got diagnosed.
There’s a lot of people out there who have no clue what they have. They’re worried about what’s going on and they’re thinking, “Oh, well I’m just getting old.” I would do these meet and greets after each show on this tour, and met a lot of people with different myositis and some with the same one I have, IBM. This one couple came up to me and the wife said, “You diagnosed him.” And I said, “What?” And the man said, “I’ve been to so many doctors for years, but no one knew what I had and no one could help me. Then you came on CBS to announce you had IBM and everything you said is what I felt. And then I turned to wife and I said, ‘That’s what I’ve got. Peter Frampton just diagnosed me.’ He went to the doctor and he had a muscle biopsy and that’s what he had.
So I literally did help that man. There’s no drug yet, but at least he found out. I said, “So are you exercising now?” He said, “Every day.” So it did help him. We have a ways to go finding a cure, obviously, but that’s why a dollar a ticket went to my IBM fund at John Hopkins — and also the Shriners were selling our CD. Half of the profit went to the Shriners Hospitals, which is a wonderful cause. We have raised so much money, and we’ve raised awareness. We’re trying to get to the point where, when someone feels some weakness and they actually get diagnosed correctly, we have a drug for them to take. That’s the dream.
In the meantime you’ve been almost living in the studio, getting all your music down on record. How many albums have you made in the past couple of months?
We’re about halfway through the fourth project. That was between October last year and the end of February this year. We completed three albums, and one came out, All Blues. But we’re going back in now, very soon, to finish off the fourth one.
On All Blues you do the Howlin’ Wolf track “Goin’ Down Slow,” about a man who’s getting on in years. What does that song mean to you now?
I didn’t realize how autobiographical that would be until I sang it. We were in the studio. Everything was cut live, so the whole band was there. I think when I sang “Goin’ Down Slow,” we all listened in the headphones to me singing the lyrics. That was probably the biggest realization. I think because of what I’m going through, I was able to put more emotion. It just came from a deeper place with me.
Was there a moment when you knew music was what you wanted to do with your life?
As soon as I joined my first band, when I was about 10 or 11. I guess I didn’t think any further ahead at that particular moment because I was just taking in as much guitar playing as I could — playing and writing. Even then, I was writing stuff. So there wasn’t a specific moment. It was just as soon as I was born that I decided to be a musician.
Like you said, you’ve been performing in bands like the Trubeats and the Herd since you were a teenager. Did that in any way prepare you for the kind of success that came with Frampton Comes Alive!?
I think in some way it prepared me. I’ve seen a lot of success by other people. I had some success with The Herd and with Humble Pie, but nothing really prepares you for what was to be. I became the biggest act in the world, and it’s a scary thing. Be careful what you wish for. It was just all-consuming. It was in a time before the internet, thank goodness. Because I can’t imagine my life being any stranger than it was back then, at least for the first few years, of Come Alive’s success, and then the future success that came afterwards.
I think when I got the call that the album Comes Alive was number one, that was a great feeling of excitement and everything. Then when I got the call that it was now the biggest album in history, I got scared. And I think that was, as I said, [a case of] be careful what you wish for. Number two is much better than number one, that’s what I’ve learned. Your life will never be the same again, and it hasn’t been. It’s been up and down, obviously, since then. But generally, it was a very scary period as well as being incredibly exciting. But to be the biggest of anything, I think, is a very scary thing because there’s only one way to go when you’re number one, and that’s down.
I think that having to write an album after Comes Alive was the most difficult thing I ever had to do in my life, and I knew that I couldn’t win. I knew before I started that even if this record sold one copy less than Frampton Comes Alive!, I was going to get berated by the press, which I was. And it was a very scary place to be.
What keeps you moving forward on your instrument? How are you trying to evolve?
I want to go to bed tonight having learned something that I couldn’t play yesterday — something different, something new. A different chord, a different riff. A new song that I’ve written a part of. Something. I’m always creating, every day. As soon as I pick up a guitar, I turn on my voice recorder on my iPhone and I record everything that I play, just in case I come up with a lick or a chord sequence or a melody that makes me go, “Oh, wait a second, that could be this! Oh, wow!” Then I’m writing a song.
I read that when Einstein passed away, he still had all his notepads and everything on his bed. He was trying to make a connection between science and God. He couldn’t quite get there, but he tried, and that was the last thing he was working on before he passed away.
So I hope I’m still writing lyrics and playing a new riff, if I can, when I’m on my last legs. Because that’s what my life’s all about. It’s very short compared to what you think when you’re a child, and you’ve got to make the most of it. I hope I never lose the lust for learning. I think that’s what keeps me going is the lust for learning.
I’m sure you’ve received many, many, many compliments over your career. Is there something that a fan or a fellow artist has said to you that’s been particularly meaningful?
Oh gosh, I get humbled so many times. The other day I was in a Mexican restaurant in Nashville, just sitting outside eating, and this couple were sitting behind us. As I got up to leave, the man came over to me — a younger man. And he just said, “I hope you don’t mind. I just wanted to shake your hand because you’re the reason why I started to play [guitar]. I’ve got everything you’ve ever made.”
I have all the time for those people that come up to me and want to tell me their story. I never think I’ve had that great of an effect on my audience, or musicians in general, but then it’s those moments when you realize, “Wow, I must have really had an effect on this person.” I’m very thankful and grateful that I could be able to give that to him.