4/22/2009

Steve Marriott: Marvelous Musician

Steve Marriott is remembered, warmly and with deserved awe, as one of the greatest singers and performers in British rock'n'roll during the 1960s and 1970s. Whenever Steve Marriott appeared on a stage, he rarely failed to come across as a lively and compelling figure: the strength of his soulful voice and the force of his cocky demeanor were wonderfully out of proportion to his short stature and his slight frame. Unfortunately, Steve Marriott also lived fast, and was one of the most self-defeating musicians of that period, repeatedly (and in his final days, fatally) choosing to expend his singular qualities in a willful and reckless manner.

He was born in 1947 and started out in show business as a child, working as an actor in London and being favorably acknowledged for his portrayal of the Artful Dodger in a production of Oliver! In 1961 he became a student at the Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts, which resulted in him making appearances on radio and television, and in films. In 1964, driven by his love of American rhythm and blues, he turned away from acting and applied his abilities to music, joining with Ronnie Lane, Ian McLagan, and Kenney Jones in The Small Faces. "What'cha Gonna Do About It," the first single by The Small Faces, was released on Decca Records in August, 1965.

Although The Small Faces never broke through in the Unites States (apart from one single, "Itchycoo Park," in 1967), they did achieve youthful fame in the United Kingdom, where their string of hits ("Sha-La-La-La-Lee," "Hey Girl," "All or Nothing," "My Mind's Eye," "Here Come the Nice," "Tin Soldier") served as a boisterous soundtrack for the trendy activities of the Mods. They also garnered strong praise for their imaginative album, Ogden's Nut Gone Flake, released in 1968, which included "Lazy Sunday," a standout track (also released as a single) with a vocal delivered by Steve Marriott in the humorous tones of a cockney busker.

At the beginning of 1969, Steve Marriott left The Small Faces, actively seeking a different mode of musical expression. He quickly formed another band, Humble Pie, with Peter Frampton, a singer and guitarist who had formerly been a member of The Herd. Their new band, with a heavier sound than The Small Faces, was rounded out by Greg Ridley on bass and Jerry Shirley on drums. The first album by Humble Pie, As Safe as Yesterday Is, was released on Immediate Records in August, 1969, and within a short time the musicians were doing particularly well in America, where they conquered audiences by playing raw music that was hard and loud. Two songs in particular, "Stone Cold Fever" and "I Don't Need No Doctor," became famous as frantic showpieces.

After three years and five albums, Peter Frampton, who had become intent on pursuing his own music on his own terms, decided to take his leave from Humble Pie. He wrote a collection of new songs for himself, taking them on the road with his own band, and achieved major stardom in America when his fifth album, Frampton Comes Alive!, was released in 1976. Steve Marriott and the other musicians of Humble Pie carried on without Peter Frampton, with Dave Clempson (formerly of Bakerloo and Colosseum) joining on lead guitar, and continued to tour constantly.

Having attended several performances by Humble Pie in the 1970s, I can verify that Steve Marriott knew how to rouse an audience. From the first moment that he set foot on the stage, flashing a cheeky grin and strutting back and forth with his guitar, he projected a feeling of total excitement. His connection to his fans was warm and direct, reflecting the unaffected openness of his character. He gave the utmost of his vigorous talent to every song that he sang. To understand his true measure as a singer, all that is required is to hear a live recording of him belting out "Hallelujah I Love Her So."

The first run of Humble Pie ended in 1975. Toward the end of the 1970s, Steve Marriott began to stumble, going into a long and unhealthy decline. He was pulled downward by an unwieldy dependence on alcohol and cocaine, and plagued by a lack of money after many years of being cheated out of his rightful earnings. In the early 1980s, Humble Pie was briefly revived and released two albums, On to Victory and Go for the Throat, but when the band folded again after two years, Steve Marriott fell out of the limelight. From the middle of the 1980s onward, he played only with small-time bands, appearing mostly in pubs, and never regained his former glory.

In the end, it seemed that Steve Marriott had become his own worst enemy. Although he actually was a sensitive and knowledgeable person, with varied interests that ranged from ballet to the works of Noel Coward, he frequently behaved in an unruly manner, preferring to show a rough-and-ready face to the world. Even before he was killed in a fire in his home, at the age of forty-four in 1991, it was clear that he had lost his way. He was a marvelous musician with an honest and affable spirit, but his inability to find a stable life caused him to waste the best part of himself.