Jerry Shirley of Humble Pie Talks Performance: Rockin’ the Fillmore,
The TVD Interview

Jerry Shirley was just seventeen years old when Steve Marriott plucked him out of (you can’t make these things up) a Small Faces cover band and asked him to play drums for Humble Pie. It was a brief, beautiful, rock and roll dream come true for Shirley and bandmates Peter Frampton (who was himself only eighteen at the time), Greg Ridley, and Marriott. Their hard-edged sound blended snarling R&B with precocious musicianship that overshadowed headliners, enthralled audiences, and set the tone for what hard rock would become.

Back when live albums could make a band, Performance: Rockin’ the Fillmore made Humble Pie. Rockin’ the Fillmore captured their intense energy so well that it quickly went gold. The original LP was essentially a sampler of songs from several raucous shows at the legendary Fillmore East. But our friends at Omnivore Recordings turned Performance: Rockin’ the Fillmore into a remastered box set that includes the seven original songs and fifteen previously unreleased performances (including the entire first show, none of which made it onto the original LP).

The remastering of Rockin’ the Fillmore was supervised by Shirley and Peter Frampton, and the result is a spectacular experience. In our conversation with Jerry Shirley, he talks about the legendary album, why he thinks the Fillmore East is so iconic, and what it was like to be part of one of the most underrated yet most influential hard rock bands of all time.  

You were discovered playing in a Small Faces cover band by Steve Marriott. What was it like to be “discovered” by your hero?

It was wonderful, obviously. What was really strange about it, and this is not anything but the truth, but I’d actually dreamed that what happened…happened! I had a dream that I was opening up for them, they watched me from the side of the stage, and they smiled and gave me the “thumbs up.” After the show, they came up to me and said, “If ever Kenney (Jones) gets sick, you could be the stand-in.” I swear to you the next night… I found out after a little while that we had got a job opening up for [The Small Faces] and what I dreamed exactly happened. I found out years later that my father had a little bit of a hand in it, in as much as he was actually helping the guy promote the show. He was a local promoter who needed help booking a hall or something.

Anyway, all he did was go up to the guys in the band, and they were very gracious to him, as he was the promoter. He said, “My son is a huge fan of you guys and I’d really appreciate it if you’d have a look and tell me what you think of him.” Now, I don’t know whether or not I had told my father that I had this dream… I don’t think so. All I think happened was that he did that and they were being gentlemen and had a look, and the rest of it fell into place. The difference is that when they came in and actually did find me after the show and said, “You’re great! If Kenney is ever sick, you could be the stand-in!” I was so young at the time—I took them seriously! Of course, they were just being nice.

When I talked to Kenney years later, [he told me] they had just jokingly said… just to sort of pick me spirits up and that. They did actually say it, but the actual dream was never fulfilled in as much as I never got to be the replacement drummer for The Small Faces in the literal term. But I did sit in on sessions for Steve that Kenney didn’t want to do and of course, eventually, formed a band with Steve!

You were talking about how young you were, but I don’t think a lot of people realize how young The Small Faces were as well. Weren’t they all barely twenty-one or so when the band broke up?

Exactly! Well, I had just turned seventeen when Humble Pie were formed. I was sixteen turning seventeen. Kenney, when The Small Faces were formed, was the same age. Steve was eighteen or something, and Peter Frampton was eighteen when Humble Pie was formed… and so on. There were similarities in that respect. By the time Humble Pie were formed, Steve by then was twenty-two. Greg [Ridley] was the “old man” amongst us, as he was ten years older than me at twenty-seven. But even that, really, is not an old man by any stretch of the imagination!

Aside from the obvious, what else were you listening to when you started playing drums seriously? Who were your influences?

Mostly Tamla Motown and Stax music. Most of the bigger blues names—Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy—stuff like that. Also, some jazz organ—things like Jimmy Smith and “Groove” Holmes and Billy Preston, on his early instrumental albums before he was with Apple [Records]. And the early rock and roll, because I started listening to that music when I was so young. Buddy Holly was probably my first big influence, I supposed. I also loved The Shadows and early British rock and roll.

But Ray Charles was the person who probably had the biggest influence on me every which way. The way his drummers played for him and, subsequently, one of my favorite drummers was a guy called Sonny Payne who played for Count Basie Orchestra, but did an album with Ray Charles called Genius + Soul = Jazz or something like that. It was a great, great album with a confusing title. [Laughs] There was another one of his called Ray Charles in Person, which was a live album recorded in 1959, I believe. It was pound for pound the best-sounding live album I’ve ever heard, considering it was recorded on one mic! [Laughs]

A lot of people consider the early ‘70s to be the heyday of the live album and the live performance to “break” an artist or a band. That’s definitely what Performance: Rockin’ the Fillmore did for Humble Pie. Why do you think this was the case during this brief period of time?

Well, there was one big reason, and that was a place called The Fillmore East. Most of the big live albums that people talk about being so influential were recorded at The Fillmore East. If they weren’t recorded at The Fillmore East, they were recorded at The Fillmore West. And if they weren’t recorded there, they were specifically recorded at the closest places that you could find that were like those places. In other words, by the time Peter Frampton did Frampton Comes Alive, both the Fillmores had closed, so he went and sought out places to play that were close, sound-wise, to The Fillmore as he could find. One of those was Winterland in San Francisco. That’s the main reason… our [live] album came out The Fillmore East; the Allman Brothers’ album came out The Fillmore East; Frank Zappa’s album came out of there, John Mayall’s album came out of there… [Jimi Hendrix’] Band of Gypsies live album came out of there… there are a couple more, but that’s pretty much the cream on top of the live albums considered to be the most influential, other than Live at Leeds by The Who.

The Fillmore had a unique sound, it was brilliant for audience interaction, and the actual ambient sound in the room, if you knew how to capture it—if you stepped back and used the ambient mics as well as opposed to just the sound coming off the amps—that’s what made The Fillmore sound so good.

You and Peter Frampton oversaw the remastering of Performance: Rockin’ the Fillmore, which has the concerts unedited and in full. Why did you choose to include all of the shows? Could you talk a little bit about the process?

We’d already learned one time, when we recorded the first version in 1971, we mixed it once and made a complete hash of it by doing exactly the wrong thing. We treated it as a studio album and we left the audience out. We didn’t even bring the ambient microphones—ones that are placed out in the hall—we didn’t even use them, we didn’t even bring them up! So, at the end of the songs we were missing the applause! It sounded so dry and cold and clinical that it would have never succeeded, so we added it back in.

When we got to do it this time round, we went a step further and we found even more ambient mics than we knew existed on the first one. So, we went out of our way to… not overkill, but using just that much more of it to emphasize the bouncing back and forward between the band and the audience and what the live microphones out away from the stage did for the sound of the instruments, which was amazing. It worked out beautifully.

There’s one thing I would like to say about that. I wrote a book about my experiences in Humble Pie, and it’s called The Best Seat in the House. Anyway, in the book I mention the fact that we had to edit one of the songs in particular, called “I Walk on Gilded Splinters” because it was too long to get onto even one side of an album, the reason being that it was often ran at thirty-three minutes. We had to cut it down to the length that it was on the vinyl album, which I think was twenty-three minutes or thereabouts.

On these remastered versions on this box set, the longest one is twenty-eight minutes. And somebody on a forum on the internet somewhere pointed it out and accused either the record company of cheating or lying, and they were saying it was edited; it was the longest was thirty-three minutes. Well, what I was referring to was, and I admit to my memory playing games with me, we regularly recorded the shows from a “best” mix from our monitors just to listen to what the shows are like on a reel-to-reel. So, we would know that that song often ran at thirty-three minutes. So, we knew we had to keep it as short as we possibly could because you can’t get thirty-three minutes on one side of a vinyl record.

Turns out, we didn’t keep it long enough and it came out averaging about twenty-eight minutes each time, and we had to cut it down to twenty-three. But this time, of course, we didn’t have those restrictions, so we included the full-length, twenty-eight minute song. But none of the performances we did for the nights we recorded were thirty-three minutes. Several other ones we did in the nights leading up to the Fillmore were thirty-three minutes or more probably. I just wanted to clear that up! [Laughs]

Had you listened to these recordings in the interim between performing them and re-mastering them?

You mean between when it was first released and now?

Yes.

No. It was not until we got down to the job of digging out the twenty-four track tapes and transferring them over to digital and then mixing them… that was the first time any of us—Peter, myself, or the engineer Ashley Shepherd, who’s brilliant. He did such a great job.

We had such fun remixing it; we hadn’t heard any of it. We were amazed at how consistent and how… we couldn’t figure out what made us decide which ones to put out or not to put out back then. Every night sounded so good. The consistency was so high; that was something that was a trademark of Humble Pie. We didn’t do bad nights. It wasn’t something we did.

Humble Pie were considered one of the first proto-heavy metal bands. Is that a legacy you’re proud of?

[Laughs] I don’t know, really! It’s interesting because we never thought of ourselves as anything like heavy metal bands. I don’t even think Zeppelin thought of themselves as a heavy metal band either. Or The Who. But those were the main three bands that happened to be playing at their peak when that term started to be used. But we were just a seriously rocking blues band, really, if we were anything. We were just a blues rockin’ old boogie band, I suppose. Not just that, but that was our main forte. We just liked to make people’s hips swing.

And Humble Pie tried on a few different hats before settling on that sound. Is that ultimately what you envisioned the band would turn out to be?

It was pitiful. It was a great shame that we didn’t allow ourselves to see the bigger picture. We just leapt and a deterioration happened, and the causes of the deterioration were simple: like most people at the time, we started to use a lot of cocaine. We were told it was harmless, that it was a “soft” drug, that you didn’t become dependent on it, and all this nonsense. And it destroyed the relationship that we had between us as individuals and our management… we were such a tight-knit little unit in the beginning. The heaviest thing we got involved in was a little bit of hash smoking. We weren’t even big drinkers!

And then once Peter left and we let ourselves loose a lot more. He never indulged himself in any of that stuff. I think had he stuck around, he would have probably kicked up a bit more fuss about how much of a using band we had become. We were like any other band at that time, we let it all hang out and spent a fortune doing so. When all the money was gone, we ran around looking for who to blame when naturally the only persons to blame was ourselves and our usage of coke, mostly. We weren’t a heroin band… it was about the only thing we didn’t do! [Laughs]

Was it bittersweet to have Peter involved in the re-mastering of what turned out to be his “swan song” album with the band?

It was nothing but wonderful. It had to be him and me, or it wouldn’t happen. It had to be him more than me, really, because of his excellence in the studio and his name being so reestablished now, it would be taken seriously with his full involvement. He threw himself into it just as if it was his next own personal album. It was lovely for him and me, personally, because we always remained good friends, and we always were good friends during the time when he came close to and did, then, leave. I didn’t see it coming, and was completely shocked. Of course, looking back I can see why he did what he did, but at the time… I could see what was upsetting him, but I didn’t think it was strong enough to make him leave. But it did.

But it wasn’t a contentious thing to have him involved in the project now.

Not at all. It was lovely. He’s one of my dearest friends—we’re like brothers. Always have been. We just re-established that now more than ever. We’re getting older and everything; I don’t know how recently you might have seen him play, but he puts on a hell of a show now. His current band is just so good.

Are you still playing and touring at all?

I got up and jammed with him a couple of weeks ago in London, just for the fun of it and to help promote the CD. I came out during the encore and did “Four Day Creep” and “I Don’t Need No Doctor.” It was great fun! The crowd went nuts! It was a real pleasure.

What are you most proud of in your long career?

Well, I suppose… I know it sounds very… but this record is one of the things I’ve always been proud of, particularly as its grown in stature and its gotten older. Every time we re-stock it on Amazon, it’s sold out in days! It’s gotten almost all five-star reviews, except for this one two-star review where the guy stated he wouldn’t buy it because it was four records of the same songs. In other words, he wouldn’t buy it based on the fact that he hasn’t listened to it—how would he know? [Laughs] In truth, got a top-drawer, five-star review in Rolling Stone of all places. They hated us from day one, and to get respect from them is quite shocking! [Laughs]

Professionally, this record and the other peak… the two peaks in the band were the time in 1971 when leading up to making this record and then playing just after it… we played at Shea Stadium, opening up for Grand Funk Railroad. No one knew they were the headliner by the time we were finished with ‘em! It sounds a bit braggadocios, but it’s not meant to be—it’s just what happened. And then the following year after Peter left, we made an album that I love dearly called Smokin’. We toured with Clem Clempson, the new guitar player, for that record. That was a great period. After that, sadly, cocaine had taken over and it was downhill from then on. But leading up to and including really through into ’73, it was still rockin’ and rollin’ beautifully.

Normally I would ask you about plans for a vinyl release, but given the length of some of these songs, this CD box set is the only way to go.

Well, I’d love to, but you’re right—we couldn’t do this on vinyl. It would be impossible because each CD is at least an hour long. That would take at least three sides of vinyl… so you’d really need eight vinyl discs to get it all on! [Laughs] There’s no practical way—no way to do it, sadly. Sound-wise, I still think that vinyl and a great system and a clean, unscratched vinyl record is the best sound there is. I still believe it. I’m just a huge fan of analog recording, and this came straight from the analog tape that we used. We used a digital process for what it’s best for, which to transform what’s already on well-preserved analog tape.

Any listening suggestions for the box set?

You have to listen to it loud. It’s one of those old-fashioned things. You’ve got to sit back and crank it up because the impact of it… it literally sounds like you’re sitting in the fifth row in The Fillmore all over again. [Laughs]

Humble Pie’s Performance: Rockin’ The Fillmore: The Complete Recordings available via Omnivore Recordings.

PHOTO: ©Tim Holt/Phatfotos 2013


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  • Pieman03

    I was there for one of the shows at the Fillmore East used for the recording. I distinctly remember a glass bottle hitting the floor during the quiet part of the opening to “Walk On Guilded Splinters”, right before Marriott and Frampton do the two harmony guitar parts together. Of course at the time, I had no idea of the “live” recording, and was surprised when I bought “Rockin The Fillmore” and heard that little noise that was very recognizable to me, having been there. I also remember on the same night that I was there, Marriott walking up to the microphone to sing the opening line to “I’m Ready”, and because he wasn’t exactly there yet, you can hear the differential of volume on the first two words.

  • Rossi_

    Classic album from one of the greatest live acts ever to play, god they don’t play music like this anymore

    • Gary

      Amen to that.

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