The little giant
By Sergio Ariza
Steve Marriott had a giant voice locked in the body of a boy, everybody was amazed when they heard him, and he was the main point of reference for all British singers that came after him, from Rod Stewart to Paul Rodgers, then on to Robert Plant and Joe Cocker. But what sets him apart from the rest is that he was also a remarkable guitarist and an excellent composer. A triple threat that made him one of the most incredible ‘frontmen’ in rock history.
Stephen Peter Marriott was born in London on January 30, 1947, and as a teenager played the part of the Artful Dodger in the musical Oliver! and part of that would remain with him forever. Around that time, 1960, he was already in a band that did covers of his beloved Buddy Holly, but it wouldn’t be until he came across Ronnie Lane, when his career took off.
Marriott was working in a music shop when Lane came in with his father to buy a bass guitar. They both recognised each other from playing in different bands, and soon they were chatting and found out they had a lot in common, beyond their small stature (both were just 165 cms tall). They ended up at Marriott’s house listening to James Brown and Otis Redding records. Soon after they decided to form a band, with Kenny Jones on drums and Jimmy Winston on keyboards, and began to unleash their passion for R&B. Everyone was into the Mod scene at the time and when Winston introduced his band members to his girlfriend she said “Don’t you have very small faces?”, given that the mod leaders used to be called ‘The Face’, they decided to keep the name.
Not before long they were the new sensation at the pub scene in London with their sweaty R&B covers. Among them was You Need Loving, a cover of Willie Dixon’s where Marriott gave it his all. Armed with his Gretsch 6120, that made him seem even smaller, Steve challengingly threw in that ‘Woman Youuu Neeed Loving’ that would give any rock lover goosebumps. Among the crowd was Robert Plant taking notes. Years later when Jimmy Page was looking for a similar singer to Marriott, Plant would sing that lines in Whole Lotta Love exactly the same.
But, as I was saying, Small Faces had become the talk of the music world, and it wasn’t long before they were signed by Don Arden and Decca Records. Their first single would be Whatcha Gonna Do About It, a song built on Everybody Needs Somebody by Solomon Burke, where Marriott would shine once again with his voice and guitar being the austere solo one of the first uses of ‘feedback’. The song charted in the top 20 in the U.K.. After their second single Winston was replaced by Ian McLagan. When they saw how short he was they figured he was born to be in The Small Faces.
His first recording with them was Sha La La Lee, a commercial number that they made irresistible (and a clear frontrunner to power pop) and reached #3 on the charts. It was February 1966, and by year’s end they put 3 more up in the Top Ten, including #1 All or Nothing, a song written by Marriott that would define his career. They only had to conquer America but when they were about to go there McLagan was arrested for drug possession. America would have to wait.
Despite their success, the money wasn’t coming in, so the growing discontent in Arden exploded when his parents came to visit to ask about his economic situation and he told them that their children were drug addicts. They soon left the Decca label and signed with Immediate Records, where they would live an era of splendor, becoming much more than a band who made singles. They quit touring and concentrated on studio work, and the results were spectacular.
In 1967 they released their first masterpiece, a record simply called Small Faces, in which they went from being an R&B group to flirting with the flourishing psychedelica. But they also kept putting out excellent singles like Here Comes the Nice, or the remarkable Itchycoo Park, which hit #3 in the U.K., and 16 in the U.S.. By this time Marriott had left his beloved Gretschs for a Telecaster fitted with a P90 on the neck. 1967 ended with another of their best songs Tin Soldier, which brought back the R&B essence. On side B, I Feel Much Better, Marriott showed he could spit fire with his Telecaster.
In the early months of 1968 the band shut themselves in the studio to record their opus, Odgens’ Nut Gone Flake, a record split in 2 parts, the first with 6 of their best songs and the 2nd where they sing of Happiness Stan and his search for the other side of the moon. While the 2nd part has not aged that well, with its halting narratives between songs, the 1st part is one the Holy Grails of Brit pop. From its beginning, with an instrumental that put the careers of the Charlatans 20 years ahead of their time, until the iconic Lazy Sunday, the record is an advanced course on British pop music. From June 23 to August 4, 1968 the record topped the Brit charts for 6 weeks. However, the fact that Immediate released without permission Lazy Sunday as a single bothered Marriott who didn’t think it was representative of the record. The fact that they got back to live shows and they didn’t turn out well just added to the pain.
Marriott had noticed a young talent named Peter Frampton, who shone in a group called The Herd, and he wanted him in the band. The other members rejected it. At the end of 1968 Small Faces gave a concert in Paris and after 4 disastrous songs Marriott said enough. He threw his Telecaster to the floor and walked off. Small Faces ceased to exist in the finest moment.
He grew tired of being, at the same time, the Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend of the band. The enormous void he left needed 2 big names to replace him like Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood. Marriott decided to join the group he had created for Frampton, with Greg Ridley, and Jerry Shirley, and Humble Pie was born.
The first song on their debut record was pure Small Faces, Desperation, a cover by Steppenwolf built on a steaming Hammond typical of McLagan played by Frampton who also took over the lead guitar work with Marriott providing a powerful rhythm guitar and that golden voice I never tire talking about. As Safe As Yesterday was the more Small Faces sounding album of Humble Pie’s career, reminiscent of many songs on Autumn Stone, their posthumous record, especially the acoustics with that country flavour. On the electric numbers Marriott started with an Epiphone Dwight, while Frampton relied on his Les Paul Standard.
Before it saw the light of day they recorded a second record. Seeing that they couldn’t play live shows due to legal issues they moved to the studio which impeded their popularity just at a time when rock was getting harder with groups like Blind Faith, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. They couldn’t release their first single until August, Natural Born Bugie, which climbed to the top 5 on the charts in no time. That same month they made their anticipated live debut and responded to the great expectations put on them, giving 2 and 3 hour shows, the first part acoustic and the 2nd electric. It was clear to Marriott that they had to be in top form onstage. They got it, the first acoustic part was a kind of Crosby Stills & Nash, with three of them singing, but when the rock part kicked in they were as strong as Led Zeppelin.
Yes, it was a shame that they couldn’t find songs that matched their tremendous talent. There were fine moments but nothing like the calibre of Tin Soldier or Afterglow of Your Love. And yes, onstage they were unstoppable, as seen in the remarkable Rockin’ the Fillmore from ‘71, the last thing they recorded before Frampton left, chasing his own space outside the shadow of Marriott.
It was their most successful record to date and marked a shift to a harder, heavier sound, keeping with the trends of the day. After Frampton came Smokin’ and it was this album that opened the doors to success in the U.S., the Americanisation of Marriott paid off and finally he became a star in the country that produced the music that he loved. Yet he did it by relinquishing his most English side, like music hall, something he was a part of. These records became an inspiration for groups such as AC/DC, 30 Days in the Hole sounds like the Australians before they existed, and the Black Crowes, with Marriott using a Les Paul just like the substitute for Frampton, Clem Clempson.
But the group’s popularity was waning as fast as Marriott’s inspiration, Thunderbox from 1974 just had 5 original songs and 7 covers. Their last album Street Rats was a total flop, Marriott was more concerned with his solo record and really wasn’t there, and was too deep into drugs and booze to care about the end of his 2nd great band.
It was around the same time when Mick Taylor quit the Stones and apparently Steve even came in for a test to become their new guitarist. Many people give thanks to Steve Marriott but none more than Ronnie Wood who made a career filling his place, first as his substitute in Small Faces (later known as the Faces) and after with the Rolling Stones. And few people know that Keith Richards wanted Marriott in the band (later he would name him as one of his favourite artists of all time) but during the audition he couldn’t resist Keith’s guitar licks and started singing as only he can. Mick Jagger vetoed his inclusion, afraid of sharing the spotlight with that little fellow with the big voice, and Ronnie Wood became a Rolling Stone...
Meanwhile, Marriott released his debut album and got back with the Small Faces but the reunion didn’t pan out and the old wounds opened again when Ronnie Lane jumped ship after the 3rd rehearsal. The old wounds didn’t heal and what is worse, Lane started showing signs of multiple sclerosis, and the rest, led by Marriott took it as if he was drunk. The 2 following records were horrible, and the magic seemed to be completely lost.
Yet punk put the Small Faces in a nice spot, and even the first Sex Pistols covered their material, that revival grew when new Mod bands, led by the Jam with Paul Weller, declared them to be their favourite band. So it’s no surprise that when Johnny Thunders started to make a record in London with some members of the Pistols, as well as Phil Lynnott from Thin Lizzy, Marriott went by the recording studio and ended up overshadowing everyone (as he always did when he had a mike in front of him, and to prove it just listen to Good Times by Easybeats) on the cover they made of Daddy Rollin Stone.
In 1981 he decided the time had come to get together with the man with whom he had write the best songs in his career. Ronnie Lane was already in a wheelchair by then due to the damn esclerosis, but both friends got together and Marriott decided the time had come for them to play together again, he hired some musicians and rented Bridge House, a pub in Canning Town, just to see what would happen. Marriott himself walked around the area the night before handing out the flyers he had made for the concert. So 12 years after that disastrous concert which had finished one of the best British bands of all time, the band’s two leaders were together on stage once again, when the first beats of All Or Nothing were played the house came down. the next day, they decided to record an album together. And they did, but it never got released at that time, Lane’s condition worsened and he couldn't play live. Still, Majik Mijits, which was the name it would have been given, got closer to a true reunion of the Small Faces than the two albums they did in the 70’s without Lane.
In the 80’s, disappointed with the ‘show business’, Marriott went back to play in his beloved pubs while he kept drinking according to his own legend. In these concerts he proved he knew how to play to perfection with shows alongside Packet Of Three and a Gibson ES-335, which would become the guitar he’s be faithful to until the end of his days. An end that came way too soon and which prevented him from seeing the enormous mark he’d left.
A couple of years after his tragic death in a fire on April 20, 1991 (probably caused by a cigarette badly put out), a new generation of British bands made him their main reference. Britpop, with Oasis and Blur at the front, did not think twice and openly considered Small Faces one of their favourite bands. Not that the man who always put music before success would have really cared about that. Likely, the most important frontman in the history of rock was more than content with just a little piece of humble pie: “I have everything I want, enough money to live well, though without luxuries, I have the respect from other musicians and I play in pubs and clubs, where music is still real”. All Or Nothing was played in his funeral, and all those present know that, for Marriott, it was all.