Shortly before cutting the hard-rock classic To smoke, humble pie played the biggest American gig of all: Shea Stadium, opening for Grand Funk Railway. It was a defining moment for the British band, and just as the set was heating up, it started to rain. Playing through a storm is a risky situation at the best of times, but in 1971 it meant taking your life into your own hands. Singer Steve Marriott took the microphone and dramatically announced that the band didn’t care: “It’s raining, and we don’t care!” We’ll rock your ass all night!”
“The audience went crazy,” recalls drummer Jerry Shirley. Even Grand Funk’s fastidious manager Terry Knight was impressed enough to allow a few callbacks. The group managed to avoid being killed. And America was now Humble Pie territory.
Luckily for the band, the next studio album they released had just as much rock ‘n roll bravado – seasoned with deep blues roots and plenty of soul. To smokeHumble Pie’s fifth studio set, made Steve Marriott a star for the second time, gave the group their most enduring song – “30 Days in the Hole” – and made them US headliners.
It was also the sound of a band in transition, both sonically and personally. When Humble Pie formed in 1969, everyone had a profile: Marriott had been on the Small Faces; guitarist/vocalist Peter Frampton, fresh off the Herd, was known for both his chops and his good looks (the British press called him the “face of 1968”). Bass player Greg Riley and drummer Jerry Shirley, meanwhile, hailed from cult hard-rock bands Spooky Tooth and Apostolic Intervention. Humble Pie therefore initially functioned as a democratic supergroup: everyone wrote songs, everyone sang solos, and the sound changed from heavy rock to the acoustic direction of their second album, City & Country.
Eventually, they acquired an American manager and booking agent—Dee Anthony and Frank Barsalona—who gave them the recipe for American success: more hard rock, more Marriott right from the start. It paid off handsomely on the live album Rockin’ the Fillmore, with their classic version of “I Don’t Need No Doctor” by Ray Charles. But shortly after his release, and right after Shea’s show, Frampton jumped ship, realizing that the band’s direction was moving away from his interests. Frampton, of course, caused a stir with his own live double album, but that took time. “He could see the acoustic side of things was going to be pushed aside,” Shirley now recalls. “But he would be the first to tell you that when he left and he finally opened for us, he was like, ‘Oh my God, what did I do?'”
The arrival of Clem Clempson
Humble Pie persevered. After the first round of auditions for a new guitarist didn’t pan out, they wrote a bunch of heavier songs and considered going out as a trio. Enter guitarist Dave “Clem” Clempson, who was immediately hired after Marriott spotted some hot solos on a Colosseum live album. Clempson wasn’t as much of a vocalist or an acoustic player, but he been a powerhouse of a blues-based guitarist.
Clempson immediately put his mark on the songs the band had developed as a trio. “I Wonder” is one of the few slow blues songs Humble Pie has ever put on an album – and it’s a monster, their longest studio track at nine minutes. “It was done intentionally to give Clem’s lead role in the blues a really good spread. Everyone was doing that back then – the lead guitarist was playing a blues solo somewhere in the set, and he was so good in this area. Two riff-laden rockers were also developed early on, “The Fixer” and “Sweet Peace & Time. Bassist Ridley sings verses on the latter while Marriott goes full throttle on the bridge.” middle eight is a real nut crusher, to say the least,” Shirley says. “I used to get a sympathetic pain in my groin every time I heard Steve hit those notes.”
To smoke also includes two covers – “(I’m A) Roadrunner” by Junior Walker & The All Stars and Eddie Cochran“Come on everyone.” Covers were now a fairly large part of Pie’s repertoire. Shirley says, “We didn’t care if we wrote a song or if the local milkman wrote it. If it was a good track, we did it. Much to our financial disappointment later in life. A lot of covers came out of band jams: if a riff started to work and it matched a vintage song that Marriott or the band loved, they kept it. Their version of “Roadrunner” was born this way: “It was driven by a rhythm section jam we were working on and Steve’s vast knowledge of past rock and roll. He had a jukebox in his head all day. “C’mon Everybody” has had more than one update, partly inspired by similar work The Who did on Cochran’s “Summertime Blues.”
Smokin’ iconic hits
Yet the album’s two anthems and its two side-openers were both developed in the studio. “30 Days in the Hole” is in some ways the definitive Humble Pie song: it has the soulful feel and moans of Marriott, as well as the brand of boozy camaraderie. It’s not often you’ll hear such a nice song about spending a month in jail. According to Shirley, it was a song that Marriott had written in pieces and then forgotten about. “This one talks about debauchery, alcohol and drugs, etc. It was written on the road, by Steve with help from all of us. He was like, ‘What do you think: ‘Newcastle Brown can definitely hit you’? So when we got to To smoke I said to him: ‘And this song that you composed last year?’ There was a small amp in the studio with a certain tremolo sound. The musical side fell apart on the spot.
The opening barnstormer, “Hot & Nasty” was even more spontaneous, written and recorded on location. One of the guests was Stephen Stills, who dropped in from the nearby studio and (although uncredited at the time) is the first voice heard on the track. “I think it took one take to record the backing track, and then we sent [Marriott] going to the bathroom to write lyrics, because he’s done a lot of his best writing on the potty. Meanwhile, Stills was taking a break from mixing Manassas’ debut album. “What [Stills] added was the hook, a brilliant piece of magic – ‘Did you get the message?’ I hung on for the first 12-18 hours. [Stills and Marriott] ended up 48 hours later with this line, unused stuff and lots of Peruvian love dust. It’s a moment Shirley can still laugh about, even though he’s now been 25 years sober.
Another guest session produced To smokeThe only acoustic track of “Old Time Feeling”. This time it was the godfather of British blues Alexis Korner who passed. He and the band drew on their collections of vintage country and blues tunes for inspiration. “I was so young at the time, and I was amazed at the amount of musical knowledge I was privileged to have around me. All of these guys – Steve and Greg, Peter and Clem – had knowledge huge amount of music. Indeed, “Old Time Feeling” borrows a line, “I’m changing all these changes,” which should strike a chord with Buddy Holly fans.
A track on To smoke stands as a bridge to the moving future of Humble Pie. It’s bassist Greg Ridley’s featured song, “You’re So Good for Me” – a gospel-infused ballad with powerful compromises between Ridley’s deep leads and Marriott’s laments. It’s the only song on the album to include female backing vocalists, Doris Troy and Madeleine Bell, which arrived with copious session credits – and in Troy’s case, a UK hit with “Just One Look”.
The backing vocalists were key to the group’s next direction. Marriott had long hoped to add female singers to the group full-time. At the top of her list was Venetta Fields – who had been both a Raelette and an Ikette, and who had just finished Exile on Main St. with the Rolling Stones. Marriott approached her soon after To smoke — and Fields was not only willing to join, but offered to bring the rest of her trio, the Blackberries. So Marriott now had the soul-revue format he craved, and the new band was unveiled on the following year’s double album. Eat it – which still rocked hard, but with a more pronounced R&B feel.
But this is another story. Meanwhile, Humble Pie’s fifth album remains incredibly influential – just ask the Carrion crows, Gov’t Mule, or the countless other bands that referenced it. In short, it’s still To smoke after all these years.