The story of Humble Pie, the anti-supergroup

It's July 3,1971. The morning dawns grey and there is a persistent drizzle. In London’s West End a crowd is starting to gather, descending upon Hyde Park for a festival. There are posters on lampposts that announce ‘Free Pie In The Park’. Britain is in the doldrums but things can’t be that bad, can they?

Walking down Oxford Street or Bayswater or Knightsbridge you can hear the muffled noise of a giant PA system. And then you arrive at the old hunting grounds to join the masses who will enjoy the biggest free rock event of the year, with a bill featuring Heads, Hands And Feet, headliners Grand Funk Railroad – one of the many self-styled biggest bands in the world at the time – and, sandwiched between them, Humble Pie, an antidote to supergroups but now in their absolute pomp.

Backstage, the Pie men are hopping about their trailers, keeping an eye on their fleet of Bentleys and Rollers. Lead singer and rhythm guitarist Steve Marriott is buzzing about. He’s 5’5”, full of nervous energy, dressed in a scoop-necked long-sleeved T-shirt, brushed velvet bell-bottoms and white stack-heel shoes.

Lead guitarist Peter Frampton emerges from his caravan wearing a green suit from Mr Freedom. Bassist Greg Ridley and drummer Jerry Shirley, less flamboyantly attired, are smoking a large spliff and cracking jokes with all and sundry.

Out front, the atmosphere is tense thanks to the presence of scores of Hells Angels from the South London chapters and an unsettling number of skinheads. The occasional bottle or Watney’s Party Seven keg sails through the air; a festival regular known as Jesus wanders among a crowd that includes Alexis Korner, Andy Fraser from Free, and future – then unknown – members of the Sex Pistols and The Damned. Later today Jim Morrison will be found dead in a bath in Paris. Rider on the storm.

With four studio albums under their belt and a live double album recorded at the Fillmore East in NewYork yet to come, Humble Pie are on top form and on home ground. Grand Funk’s manager Terry Knight introduces them to the biggest roar of the afternoon and they easily upstage their US rivals. After they’ve played a large proportion of the crowd drift away, just as they will a week later when the experience is duplicated in Shea Stadium.

Less than three years into their career Humble Pie have got their live show sussed. According to Shirley, “We were on our game. Steve managed to project without any effects. Big crowds didn’t bother us; they made us play better. Nothing fazed us. We’d been tear-gassed in Milan a few nights before. We had the ultimate frontman. He grabbed the audience with all the old corny methods, his dancing, his voice. Pure showbusiness. When we walked off we left a huge hole. We drained that crowd.”

Frampton concurs. “We made it more than difficult for Grand Funk to follow us. We’d already packed out Madison Square Garden where the noise was unbelievable. We enjoyed that commanding feeling, the intensity of the big occasion. I didn’t feel like I was a guitar hero, it was just something I did. The heroics came later, after I left and made Frampton Comes Alive!. But at Hyde Park we simply enjoyed being in the greatest band we’d ever been in.”

It isn’t going to last. A few months later Frampton will quit after mixing their live album with Eddie Kramer, and five years on Steve Marriott, the ultimate mod, will be found living in poverty in Santa Cruz, collecting empty 7-Up and Coca-Cola bottles and using the deposits to buy cigarettes, before not enjoying an aborted reunion with the Small Faces, and suffering a non-fatal heart attack.

These, though, were the good times, when every teenage music fan worth his salt walked around with a copy of the band’s fourth album, Rock On, released in spring 1971, tucked under the arm of their greatcoat. Very heavy, very Humble.

Flashback to the fag-end of New Year’s Eve 1968 and the early hours of the New Year. Drummer Shirley, still only 17, answers the phone at his parents’ house in Nazeing, Essex. Jerry’s played a gig that night with Tim Renwick and their group Little Women (aka Wages Of Sin), and is about to turn in. But he’s happy to answer a call from a man he is in awe of, who’s known him since he was 15 and played with Apostolic Intervention. This bloke co-wrote them a single called (Tell Me) Have You Ever Seen Me, got him a deal with Andrew Loog Oldham’s Immediate Records, fast-tracked him to play drums for the latter’s Orchestra. It’s Steve Marriott. “Yeah, yeah. ’Appy Noo Year. Listen, I’m in a phone box. I’ve just done a show with the Small Faces at Alexandra Palace and I’ve had enough. ’Ow d’you fancy starting a group up?”

A few minutes later Marriott is stuffing shillings into the slot and belling Peter Frampton, who he tracks down to producer Glyn Johns’ London flat. The two men are enjoying an acetate of the debut album by a band called Led Zeppelin, whose singer Robert Plant is a huge Small Faces fan. Plant will later be generous in his praise of the diminutive singer. “I could never be compared with Steve Marriott,” he tells a reporter, even as the recipient of his acclaim is scuffling for small change in the woods outside San Francisco. “He’s too good. He’s got the best white voice, for sheer bravado and balls. He’s the master of white contemporary blues.”

It isn’t just Plant who feels this way. According to Shirley: “We played a lot of dates with Black Sabbath and Ozzy was always watching Steve, his jaw dropping in admiration. We played with Bruce Springsteen when he was called Dr. Zoom; same thing. I’m convinced he copied a lot of Marriott’s moves – the dancing and the ad-libs.” 

Frampton has also fallen under Marriott’s spell since his days as a teen idol in The Herd. Marriott loves his new friend’s jazzy funky feel and oversees The Herd’s late-68 psychedelic single Sunshine Cottage. He’s even tried to enlist a very willing Frampton into the Small Faces but has met with resistance from his songwriting partner Ronnie ‘Plonk’ Lane. 

“I’d started jamming with them on their houseboat at Marlow in Oxfordshire,” Frampton recalls. “Steve was always pestering to get me on board, but I was a little bit too tall!

“So we’d just finished a bottle of champagne and side one of the Zeppelin album when Steve rings, asking if he could join up with me and Jerry! It was a mutual decision to draft in Greg Ridley from Spooky Tooth. He was one of the best players around – plus he could sing beautiful harmonies and write great R&B-styled songs. It looked like this new group would be mine. A few days later I get a call from Ronnie Lane – awful feeling. Am I interested in joining the Small Faces because Steve’s left!” Frampton chuckles, remembering. 

“I said: ‘You’ve left it a little bit late, Ronnie’. He wasn’t too pleased when he found out why.”

Marriott’s reasons for quitting were complex, with a clash of egos and musical differences foremost. He’d alienated Lane after they’d moved into a rustic Essex spread called Beehive Cottage and then insisted that Lane leave over an argument about royalties. A disastrous tour Down Under supporting The Who didn’t help. Marriott: “They were much slicker and louder… they blew us away every fucking night.”

In an effort to restore credibility to what he perceived to be a one-note cockney music hall joke (which they weren’t) Marriott arrived with darker, bluesy material like The Universal and the heavy strains of Afterglow, neither of which impressed the public. In fact he honoured a few 1969 dates with the Small Faces who played their last show in Jersey before cancelling a tacky ballroom gig in Essex when Steve refused to turn up, sensing they’d shot their boisterous bolt.

Meanwhile Humble Pie began six months of rehearsal in Shirley’s parental front room, knocking around the hard blues boogie that became their trademark, adding a slew of soul and R&B covers, and even tackling Marriott’s Tin Soldier before he wiped the old slate clean.

To Frampton this new alliance felt “like the first band you were ever in: a group. We jammed on stuff from The Band’s first album, a huge influence on us. And Steve was raving about an album Mick Jagger had given him called Gris-Gris by Dr John The Night Tripper. It seemed revolutionary.” A Pie favourite was the eerie New Orleans anthem I Walk On Gilded Splinters which they transformed into a marathon jam-cum-medley and later immortalised on side two of the Performance: Rockin’ The Fillmore album. Thanks to the proceeds of the cover Dr John (alias Mac Rebennack) hired himself a lawyer and got off a heroin charge, so he was another big Pie fan.

By the summer of 69, Humble Pie were ready to record their first album, As Safe As Yesterday Is, at Olympic Studios in Barnes, with Glyn Johns’ brother Andy at the helm. The studio, a serious rival to Abbey Road, held fond memories for Shirley ever since Marriott persuaded Andrew Loog Oldham to use him as one of the ‘farm’ players in his Orchestra.

“One day in 1967 I was playing in the booth when I looked up and there’s Steve and Jimi Hendrix looking at me through the glass, laughing their heads off. I was petrified but when I walked out Jimi stopped me and said: ‘Hey man, that’s really cool’. Steve treated me like his kid brother. He was very kind. He brought Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts to check me out. 

"A few months later my ego was put back in check after I’d done a gig at the Speakeasy and I noticed Ginger Baker from Cream eyeing me like a hawk. He walked past me at the bar and without stopping says: ‘Fucking… shit!’.”

Hendrix’s opinion was more valid. Jimi told Marriott that the five-second burst of feedback on Whatcha Gonna Do About It was his favourite guitar solo. Ever.

While the first album was still warm Humble Pie recorded their follow-up, the Town And Country album, released in late 1969, and described in Rolling Stone by Mike Saunders on a one-man vendetta as: ‘heavy metal shit-laden rock’ and ‘more of the same 27th rate heavy metal crap’. Too kind.

The brace of LPs were received with far more warmth in Britain, especially since they were interrupted by the group’s one and only hit single, Natural Born Bugie, a laid-back Transatlantic ditty penned by Marriott whose lyric, ‘There she is again, steppin’ out of her limousine, well/Looking like the cover of a $20 magazine,’ reverberated around the newly progressive rock radio stations that summer.

For Shirley and company these were wondrous times: “We’d become a great outfit very quickly. Steve and Peter had plenty of songs and I loved playing with Greg who was a wonderful man [he died in Alicante in 2003], a very funny, extremely hardcore Northerner. He sang wonderfully… but I think he was older than the books said!”

The 69 albums were released by Immediate, Oldham and Tony Calder’s label, which still held the rights to the Small Faces’ catalogue, and a management contract with Humble Pie written on a napkin. With typical cheek Immediate flooded the market by releasing a Small Faces compilation called Autumn Stone, which hastened their departure as far as Marriott was concerned.

Still, they didn’t interfere with the Pie’s music, itself a quirky mixture of elegiac acoustic blues-folk and balls-out rock’n’roll, like Steppenwolf’s Desperation, all bolstered by three-part harmonies that wouldn’t have disgraced Buffalo Springfield.

As Safe As Yesterday Is was a Marriott title, of course. “He kept a book of odd lines and funny bits and pieces to use,” says Shirley. “That was one of his sayings, like Ringo came up with A Hard Day’s Night. Town And Country was just where our heads were at, man. Steve and me photographed at Beehive while Greg and Peter were living in London. There was also a Morris Minor known as the Town And Country, on account of its wooden panelling. That album disappeared off the face of the Earth very quickly. It wasn’t good timing. We went to America before it was released so we couldn’t promote it in England. Immediate wanted to maximise their advance but as a company they were just about finished, with no hard feelings on our part.”

At least it proved that they weren’t a supergroup. “We hated that tag. The name Humble Pie was a reaction to that, it was Steve’s choice. We’d chucked names into a hat. It was better than mine, Evil Cardboard – the end of the joint.”

Peter Frampton was soon realising Humble Pie wasn’t his band after all. “But I didn’t mind. Steve was an incredible teacher. We had a combination of talents. The first album was thrilling sonically, though it could have been even better. We made it very quickly with a live feel. I think around Town And Country there was a bit more tension, we were buddying up into two camps and Steve wasn’t playing so much guitar for a while. Then we hit America and things became a little blurred.”

Having made their live debut at Ronnie Scott’s Club in August, Pie hit the small theatres with David Bowie in support. During this tour Marriott went to a Brighton joke shop and armed the Pie with water pistols. 

“Bowie was sitting on a stool with his curly hair and his kaftan, singing Space Oddity, and we were hiding in the wings like little schoolboys, giving him a good soaking. He wasn’t best pleased,” chortles Jerry. “Once, we got Frampton [Bowie’s old schoolmate] so stoned on Durban Poison that he was literally green when he got in the dressing room. Bowie took one look at Pete and said: ‘You bastards! What have you done to him?’.”

Pie then fulfilled Marriott’s dream and went to the US in November where they played two shows at the Fillmore East with the Butterfield Blues Band and Santana. Then they headed to the San Francisco Fillmore West to play with the Grateful Dead. These dates coincided with the Altamont Festival. “The Dead went off there, as did everyone else in San Francisco, leaving us as headliners. We played to a dozen people that night then did a short residency at the Whisky A Go-Go in LA with Grand Funk. We got the taste for the States.”

Thereafter the Pie never seemed to be off the US road – and their studio schedule was equally demanding. After Immediate they turned down Elektra and Island in favour of A&M, seriously big bucks, and properly heavy management provided by one Dee Anthony. 

According to Shirley, America gave the band the keys to the rock kingdom. “It was groupies and drugs, and we jumped in feet first, some more than others. Dee Anthony was brilliant, an old school Vaudevillian who’d worked with Tony Bennett and been Frank Sinatra’s road manager. There were a lot of Mafia-related rumours but some of that was bollocks, romanticised exaggeration. Back then you couldn’t be in the music business without working with or for the guys because they often ran the clubs. But it was waning. Dee was connected but a lot of that stuff is folklore.”

A&M’s advance was more tangible. After earning a comfortable salary with Immediate, Humble Pie signed one of the first big rock deals, with label boss Jerry Moss – and a life-size cardboard cut-out of Herb Alpert (the ‘A’ in A&M). “Half a million dollars,” says Shirley. “Broken down over three years it was £14,000 a year each. I told my mate Dave Gilmour and he was very envious. ‘Do you realise you’re making more money than the Prime Minister?’

“We felt like rock stars. Filthy rich. I bought a Rolls-Royce, Greg got a Bentley, Pete and Steve did Aston Martins and Steve also got a gold Alvis; he’d already sorted his folks out with a house.”

Their first offering for A&M was a self-titled LP, known as The Beardsley Album. Marriott’s wife Jenny brought them an art nouveau print she’d found on the Kings Road and designed the cover. 

“One of our better ones,” according to Frampton. “It starts with my favourite Marriott moment, Live With Me. I watched him singing it and afterwards I got down on my knees in the control room in Morgan Studios and told him: ‘That is the most emotional vocal I have ever heard’. He just replied: ‘Oh, thanks, man. That’s great’. But although he always seemed to take everything with a pinch of salt, secretly he was pleased. He respected my opinion which is why I knew it hurt him when I eventually left. We were serious about our art, we took stuff to heart.”

Glyn Johns produced the Humble Pie album.

“I don’t think he was convinced by our other records,” says Frampton. “He sat us down and said: ‘You’re a great band, great live, but your method is too democratic. From now on Steve is the singer, Pete is the guitarist…’ and so on. I was happy with that decision at the time but something changed. Our personalities didn’t mix so well. Steve was a powerful, charismatic frontman but I put up with more of his oddness than I was comfortable with.”

Shirley concurs. “People said that Pete left because the band was too heavy, but that’s not really the reason. Steve had become a bit gun-shy about writing and he lost his consistency. He wanted success in the US, and he could be an awkward little fucker. He was so abrasive he could cause people to dislike him within five seconds. 1970 was all right because he was still happy in love, but the touring and the increasing discovery of blow wasn’t helpful. 

"We started using on the road, and the not-too-subtle differences between Steve and Pete emerged because Pete was not a user, only an occasional joint man. When he left, there was a lack of control. Decorum went out the window and we went hog-wild. Marriott’s character changes were fucking hard to deal with. We could all handle him and sometimes had to, but he had a lot of mouth. Then he’d snap back and be the loveliest little guy again.”

Ever honest and reliable, Shirley doesn’t fudge drug issues within the band. “In many ways we weren’t heavy drinkers until after 1972 when cocaine became rife. Steve drank less than Greg and me, but he gradually became a very heavy boozer. Until then, we subscribed to the religion of hash. The best period of his life was from the beginning of the band and the first few months with Clem [Clempson] after Pete left. 

"The dark side of Steve became prominent quite soon afterwards. We’d stopped taking speed – deeps we called it, after the butcher’s back slang – then there was the occasional Mandrax. In 1971 there was an outbreak of pure crystal meth. We took the classy version, which didn’t make you as bombastic and nuts as coke would. That stopped once cocaine became a fixture. A few of us got too hooked.”

The first self-destruct button was hit while the Pie were doing Top Of The Pops to promote the Big Black Dog single. “Tony Blackburn interviewed us and we punked him out,” Shirley laughs. “He was a complete and utter twat, Mr. Plastic Fantastic. It was Steve’s idea to take the piss out of him. In the dressing room he told us to call Blackburn different names – Jimmy Savile, Alan Freeman, Pete Murray – and answer every question by saying: ‘Dunno, ask our manager, mate’. 

"Blackburn went berserk. ‘You’ll never work on this show again!’. So Steve hands him a cabbage. It was suicide for us because although we were on the albums side of the street, singles were still important. We were arrogant Herberts but we didn’t care at the time. Blackburn represented everything we railed against.”

In early 1971 Humble Pie recorded Rock On, their final studio album with Frampton. “My favourite too,” he says. “But I wasn’t happy. We wrote the album in the studio, which was a bad factor. We were getting on well again, but in patches.”

Frampton’s opinion of Marriott wasn’t improved when the singer relieved himself in the guitarist’s hotel wardrobe in New York while the band were recording what became the live Performance… double. “The stench was unbelievable,” he recalled later. “I had to throw away a lot of clothes.”

One day manager Dee Anthony brought Frampton the cover art for the …Fillmore live album. “I looked at it and said: ‘It’s lovely, but I’m leaving the group’. It wasn’t right for me anymore… it was all high energy, which I didn’t want. I phoned Steve and he totally freaked out, called me every name under the sun. I knew he was disappointed, let’s say! It wasn’t my finest moment, or his.”

Frampton had also noticed that Marriott was finding the prospect of big-time success a problem. “He didn’t handle it well. I remembered an occasion when I was still in The Herd, hanging out with Ronnie and Steve, and there was a call from the Small Faces’ agent. ‘They want us to go to America and open for Hendrix!’. And Steve just said: ‘Fuck that, we’re not going’. I thought he was joking, but he really didn’t want it even though Itchycoo Park was a hit in America at that time. I remember thinking: ‘This could be a problem’. Hendrix was breaking huge. I couldn’t believe Steve passed on that tour.” 

Rock On opened with Frampton’s Shine On, an obvious single according to Glyn Johns and everyone apart from Marriott. “He wouldn’t have it, said it was too pop. He lost the argument but I felt like: ‘What am I doing here?’. Yet again there was a chance to move to the next level and here’s the bandleader putting the brakes on. It was crazy.”

By now Humble Pie had almost stepped backwards in the US. They’d become a reliable ticket-seller but not big enough to headline. “Bill Graham started using us to fill in when other bands cancelled,” says Frampton. “We were opening for anybody but we couldn’t command an audience.”

Frampton was replaced by the excellent Clem Clempson, late of Colosseum, and had to give a wry smile when Humble Pie suddenly became big news for a while thanks to the live release and their fifth album, Smokin’. “I thought I’d made the worst decision in my entire career,” he laughs. “Then Humble Pie came back and did a tour of England, and I opened for them. They’d stand side of stage making farting noises during my set, but all’s fair in love and war. I had my Wind Of Change band and I made a point of playing Shine On. It was a very interesting tour.”

Though it was far from the end of the Humble Pie story, Jerry Shirley says the band began to blow themselves out. “We didn’t develop our material. Peter had been Yin to Steve’s Yang, and once he left that control was missed. Steve didn’t lose his talent – there was no one like him on stage – but we didn’t take time out to regroup. The biggest casualty of all was Steve’s personal life, the drink and the drugs. He worked his ass off on the road but he couldn’t handle the abuse, didn’t have the stamina. I didn’t see it at the time because Steve had so much ability. Unfortunately that was the beginning of a long end.”

Max Bell

Max Bell worked for the NME during the golden 70s era before running up and down London’s Fleet Street for The Times and all the other hot-metal dailies. A long stint at the Standard and mags like The Face and GQ kept him honest. Later, Record Collector and Classic Rock called.