On November 4, 1980, a cargo plane carrying equipment of Peter Frampton and his band, who were touring South America, crashed during takeoff from Caracas International Airport. The accident killed all six crew members and destroyed most of the equipment. It was believed the latter included Frampton’s Gibson Les Paul he had played for the past decade. In a new documentary on YouTube, the British guitarist recalls the intriguing tale of how he got the guitar in the first place, thought it was lost in the above plane crash, and was reunited with his beloved instrument 31 years later in 2011.
The documentary starts with some footage showing how Frampton received his long-lost guitar and after brief inspection proclaimed, “yeah, it’s my guitar.” He then explains how his story with the modified 1954 Les Paul Custom began – a guitar he didn’t only use on one of the most widely recognized live records of the ’70s, Frampton Comes Alive!, but also on his final album with Humble Pie, Rock On, his first seven solo records, as well as different session work for artists like John Entwistle, Harry Nilsson and Doris Troy.
In 1970, Humble Pie were playing a series of shows at Fillmore West in San Francisco. Frampton had just replaced a Gibson SG for a hollow-body Gibson ES-335. Since the latter was prone to feedback when played at high volumes it wasn’t a happy experience for Frampton. Every time he turned up for a solo, he got feedback. Enter fellow guitarist and Frampton fan Marc Mariana who offered Frampton his guitar, the above-mentioned modified 1954 Les Paul Custom. When Frampton tried it out the next day, he fell in love with it immediately.
“I started playing it. It was just beautiful,” Frampton recalled. “I could see you were really enjoying it, more or less bonding to it,” added Mariana. “And I just made the decision that if it means me leaving with a handful of cash or empty-handed, I’ll leave empty-handed because I couldn’t take it back. It wasn’t gonna leave with me cause I knew it had found a new home.”
Frampton used the guitar the same night at Fillmore West and was a happy camper. When he got off stage he handed the instrument back to Mariana. He also told him it’s an amazing guitar, asking whether he would ever consider selling it. Mariana replied no, he would give the guitar to Frampton. “It was one of those things that you do,” he elaborated. “You know it’s the right thing to do when you do it, and 50 or 40 years later, you still know it’s the right thing to do.”
Quickly, it becomes crystal-clear this Gibson Les Paul Custom wasn’t just any guitar to Frampton. “It became the only guitar I could play,” he said. “It became so personal to me that when I lost it I had to learn how to play other instruments, which was very strange for me.” It may sound a bit weird that a sophisticated guitarist like Peter Frampton would be so challenged to play other guitars, especially to non-musicians. While I certainly don’t want to imply I’m an expert, as a hobby guitarist, I still think I can relate.
What exactly happened in the aftermath of the plane crash and how the guitar was removed from the wreckage remains a mystery. Not surprisingly, Frampton and his band assumed all guitars and other equipment were completely burned up in the fire that resulted from the accident. But when Frampton’s guitar technician went to Caracas a week after the crash to check what was left for insurance purposes, he found the tail of the plane had broken off and that there was some salvageable equipment in the tail. They also saw pictures of other equipment that was totally burned up. What was missing was any trace of the Gibson Les Paul Custom.
Fast-forward to 2009 when Frampton and his crew heard and saw pictures of the guitar. The documentary doesn’t go into the details of how the guitar was found. According to this 2016 story in Guitar Interactive Magazine, Donald Valentina, a customs agent in Curacao who also is a luthier on the side, spotted Frampton’s guitar. After trying for a few years to buy the instrument from an unnamed guitarist who had brought it to Valentina, the two finally came to an agreement in November 2011. Reportedly, the guitar changed hands for $5,000.
In the documentary, Frampton refers to the son of a Mr. “Palm” (phonetic spelling) as the local guitarist – I imagine as part of the above transaction, there’s some confidentiality agreement in place. Valentina, together with Ghatim Kabbara of the local tourist board (presumably his friend – CMM), subsequently flew to Memphis, Tenn. to return the long-lost guitar to Frampton.
The documentary then goes into the restoration process of the guitar. While I find it interesting, I’ll spare you the details since it gets pretty technical. What I would like to share is the philosophy that was behind the work. “We’re hardly doing anything to the guitar at all,” Frampton explained. “We’re just gonna make it playable. So, the electronics is all sort of gummed up, the pickups don’t work and stuff like that. So only what is absolutely necessary will be changed. It will always look a little bit burned up.”
How did Frampton feel when he held the restored guitar in his hands for the first time? “Happy is not the word,” he said. “Happy as a clam, whatever superlative you wanna say. Not ever thinking it would come back to me and to actually have it is amazing.” A picture is more than a thousand words!
Frampton named the guitar The Phenix. He used it during the Frampton Comes Alive! 35th-anniversary tour in 2012. “On the DVD, I play it [The Phenix] for just about the entire ‘Comes Alive’ material, the whole album, because nothing else sounds like it…Some of the newer stuff [essentially, any Frampton albums recorded between 1981 and 2012 – CMM], because I didn’t have it, it doesn’t sound right on. Because, hey, if it hadn’t gone anywhere, it would have been on those, too.”
For the remainder of the mini-documentary, Frampton reminisces about his career-defining Frampton Comes Alive! album. He also talks about the 35th-anniversary tour and how it felt playing these songs. It’s great to listen and I leave it up to you to watch for yourself. Following is a clip of the entire documentary. I truly loved it!
I’d like to leave you with two additional clips. First up is the iconic Do You Feel Like We Do, captured during a 1977 show in Oakland, Calif. The actual tune gets underway at about 3:05 minutes into the clip.
And here’s Baby I Love Your Way, from the 35th Frampton Comes Alive! anniversary tour. It has been captured on a DVD titled FCA!35 Tour: An Evening With Peter Frampton and released in November 2012.
In February 2019, Peter Frampton disclosed he had been diagnosed with inclusion body myositis (IBM), a progressive muscle disorder characterized by muscle inflammation, weakness, and atrophy (wasting) – obviously a grim perspective for a guitarist. At that time, he also announced his retirement from touring and a planned farewell tour. In April 2020, the UK/EU leg was canceled because of you know what!
It’s currently unclear whether Frampton will be able to reschedule the canceled farewell gigs. “I have a third clock, which is my IBM clock,” Frampton told Guitar.com in March 2021. “Slowly but surely, unfortunately, I’m losing strength in my hands, my arms and my legs. It’s specific muscles it hits. It picks and chooses the muscles and there’s no rhyme or reason for it. They don’t know; there’s no cure. If it takes another year before we can reschedule any dates, I will have to be realistic to see if my hands work or my legs will keep me up.”
He added, “I think there’s a certain level of playing where I won’t perform anymore. If I can’t play certain things the way I want to – I don’t want to be that person to go out there and people feel bad for me because I don’t play as good but I am Peter Frampton. That’s not going to happen.” As sad as it is for Frampton fans, his stance makes total sense to me, and that’s a decision everybody should respect.
Sources: YouTube; Wikipedia; Guitar Interactive Magazine; Guitar.com