English lad and budding drummer Jerry Shirley was all of 16 years old in late 1968 when he received the phone call that would change his life forever.
On the other line was Steve Marriott, the singer/guitarist for mod group the Small Faces ("Itchycoo Park"). Shirley's musical hero and new acquaintance told him that another singer/guitarist, Peter Frampton, was leaving his band the Herd and putting together a new group. He'd recommended Shirley's skin thumping skills, and told the teen that maybe he'd want to check it out. And maybe Marriott would be involved as well.
In rather quick order -- after picking up ex-Spooky Tooth bassist Greg Ridley -- the four formed Humble Pie. Until 1975 they would release a string of seminal records (including some with later Frampton replacement Dave "Clem" Clempson) like As Safe As Yesterday Is, Humble Pie, Rock On, Smokin' and one of the genre's greatest live records, Performance - Live at the Fillmore. The band's best known U.S. singles were a live version of "I Don't Need No Doctor" and "30 Days in the Hole."
After the Pie crumbled in 1975, Shirley went on to play in bands like Natural Gas, Magnet, and Fastway, and would also be part of various resurrected Humble Pie lineups. He also contributed to records by Syd Barrett, John Entwistle, George Harrison, and Sammy Hagar. But his time with the Marriott-led group's golden years proved his most fertile. Shirley recollects those hazy, crazy years in the memoir Best Seat in the House (Rebeats Books, 322 pp., $24.99).
Rocks Off spoke with Shirley right after an LA-to-Houston flight in advance of his book signing here about his time with the group, his admiration of jazz drummers, and his special link with the city that continues to this day.
Rocks Off: First, you have totally ruined the Moody Blues song "Nights in White Satin" for me since you reveal Steve created parody called "Tights I Have Shat In."
Jerry Shirley: Ha! Yes, he was always doing that, making up funny things about song titles and turning it into something utterly ridiculous!
RO: I had no idea how often Houston would show up in the book. It's where you met your first wife Cynthia on a tour stop, visited often, and was the site of the last ever Humble Pie concert on the original farewell tour [March 23, 1975 at the Music Hall]. What do you remember about that show?
JS: I remembered how wonderfully we played and how great the audience was, and they always were in Houston. I also had two of my best friends in the front row. It was just a fantastic gig, and obviously quite emotional. And Steve and I stayed here for a few days after just hanging out.
RO: What else have you liked here over the years?
JS: I ended up marrying a Houstonian and would come here regularly to hang out with friends and family and drive out to Austin. And a friend had a ranch, and we thought Roy Rogers would come out at any minute! And in Houston, we loved going to Ruggles and this Mexican restaurant...um...I don't recall the name...it was high class...[a woman in the background says "Ninfa's!"] Yes, it was Ninfa's! We had even thought about moving here. So my ex-wife and her best friend, who was her maid of honor, and live in Houston and L.A., arranged for me to come over. And here I am!
RO: I can't even fathom what it was like for you to get that call from Steve at age 16.
JS: It was an incredible moment. But it was mixed emotions because on one hand, he was telling me he quit the Small Faces, and on the other telling me he wanted to join the band that Peter and I would form. And bring Greg with him! But I had been playing since I was 9, and had been paid for it since I was 12. My parents were very understanding. And Steve had recorded with my previous band before.
RO: Steve is not as well known here in the U.S. as he is in Europe. If you could tell the casual U.S. classic rock fan one thing about him, what would it be?
JS: That he had the best white man singing the blues, white soul singer voice ever. He was a black man in a little white body. And that includes people like Steve Winwood, Paul Rodgers, and Rod Stewart! And without him, we wouldn't have had any Robert Plant!
Note: Marriott turned down the lead vocalist position in Jimmy Page's New Yardbirds. Page then approached Terry Reid, who also turned it down, but recommended his friend Robert Plant. The New Yardbirds eventually changed their name to...Led Zeppelin.
RO: You mention both Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa as drumming influences, as do a lot of classic rock drummers...but they were jazz players.
JS: I saw this one clip on some television show where they did a drum battle. Those guys were out of this world And I saw that, and knew it's what I wanted to do, play drums. It seemed like a helluva fun thing to do.
RO: Even though the three other members of Humble Pie had come from successful groups, you write how they never treated you as anything but an equal.
JS: I always thought that was remarkable. They encouraged me to write and be part of the arranging. They absolutely took me on board as one of them. But they didn't see themselves as big shots. But still...I had to know my onions real quick! (laughs). But there was a lot of free-form jamming early on.
RO: Looking back, you had two front men in the band. What was the biggest advantage -- and then biggest disadvantage -- of that?
JS: Well, every time one of them stepped forward, it drew the attention to the band that much more. The disadvantage came only really when Peter felt he couldn't stay within that framework and had to move on. Steve would eventually overpower him. But Peter quite gracefully left, even though it was when we were having such success. But he did alright afterwards!
I just saw him last week in England when Classic Rock magazine gave an award to Steve's mother. This 85-year-old woman with her lip quivering didn't have to say anything, and she got a standing ovation. It was really sweet. And Steve might finally and rightfully get his place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
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The Small Faces/Faces are nominated for the first time this year.
RO: Finally, what do you have planned for the future?
JS: I may write another book and start where this one left off. And by the way, I did write every single word of it! (laughs) The original version was 240,000 words, and we had to trim it down to 140,000. And that just covered the same time period!
Jerry Shirley signs copies of Best Seat in the House on Wednesday, November 16, 5:30 p.m. at Cactus Records, 2110 Portsmouth. 713-526-9272 or www.cactusmusictx.com for more information.