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Book Review: Best Seat in the House: Drumming in the ’70s with Marriott, Frampton, and Humble Pie by Jerry Shirley

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As demonstrated in Peter Frampton’s introduction and in the testimonials at the top of Jerry Shirley’s memoir, Humble Pie was and is a highly regarded band from the era of 1970s “Stadium Rock.” What comes through drummer Shirley’s remembrances of times past is his gratitude for the lucky breaks that came his way and his pride in what Humble Pie accomplished. As a result, this biography of a band tells the Pie’s story from the inside with candor and affection for the players and back-stage personalities who often pushed matters to the limits.

The lucky breaks kicked in when former Small Faces frontman Steve Marriott asked Shirley to join his then unnamed band when the drummer was only 17. Before then, as described in one of his song titles, Shirley joked “Part of Me Is Irish and Part of Me a Scot, the Rest of Me Is English, I Fight With Me a Lot!” Like many a British teenager of the mid-60s, Shirley had been a devoted follower of the Small Faces. So when he got the call from Marriott, Shirley was “gobsmacked,” his oft-used term for being completely blown away. After all, the new group also included Peter Frampton and bassist Greg Ridley of Spooky Tooth fame. Billed as a “Super Group,” Humble Pie thus elevated Shirley into the highest strata of rock stars although he had minimal experience of his own.

The bulk of the chapters to follow trace Humble Pie’s rise and fall in considerable detail. We hear about how songs like “I Don’t Need No Doctor” and “30 Days in the Hole” were created. (Surprisingly, he never mentions “Black Coffee,” a fan favorite and concert staple.) As the band spent much of its time and built much of its reputation on the road, we hear many anecdotes about their tours. Shirley gives considerable credit to the crew and management, especially manager Dee Anthony, who helped the band’s ability to maintain a professional presence despite off-stage difficulties.

Throughout the Pie’s heyday, Shirley had the opportunity to meet or work with luminaries like Syd Barrett, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, and George Harrison. He describes the transition when Frampton departed and Clem Clempson became the new guitarist and The Blackberries became the group’s back-up singers.

Throughout, the central figure of Steve Marriott loomed large in the story. Always credited as one of the finest performers and white blues singers in the business, Marriott was first a mentor, then a friend to his younger colleague before coke became an addiction for everyone in the group. But for Marriott, coke transformed his personality to the point where he was given the name “Melvin” to describe his volatile and unpredictable drug induced behavior. While other factors were involved, this is what led to the band’s demise.

This isn’t to say Shirley’s memoir is a bash against Marriott, or anyone else for that matter. To the contrary —- even when describing the final days, Shirley gives Marriott his due for what he could do to a crowd and Shirley’s hopes they’d work again some day. They did, but the aftermath of the 1975 break-up is quickly sketched in the “Epilogue” where Shirley reveals there’s much more that can be said, and perhaps there will be a volume two.

If you’re a Humble Pie fan, or just a devotee of ‘70s rock, this book is a must have. It’s lively, fast-paced, laced with nuggets of rock trivia, and sheds a light on a band that deserves the affection Shirley has shared in the story. If he does indeed produce a second volume, I’ll be in line to see what happened next.

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