Arguably one of the most commanding singers in rock-n-roll history, Roger Daltrey delivered maximum power as frontman for Britain's legendary the Who, from their inception in the early 1960s through their rise to international fame with the albums Tommy (1962), Who's Next (1971) and Who Are You (1978) and subsequent reunions over a period of nearly five decades. His seemingly innocent appearance - compact, blonde-haired and blue-eyed amidst the darker figures of guitarist Pete Townshend, bassist John Entwhistle and gnomish drummer Keith Moon - belied his incredible vocal range, which reached from a blues-driven growl to an ear-shattering scream, as evidenced by his cathartic exclamation at the end of 1971's "Won't Get Fooled Again." His singing talents and undeniably masculine stage presence led to a string of acting roles, most notably as the titular hero in Ken Russell's adaptation of "Tommy" (1975) and as a determined bank robber in "McVicar" (1980). Daltrey began releasing solo records in 1973, but his work in that milieu never reached the heights of success he experienced as part of the Who. He rejoined Townshend and Entwhistle in 1989 to celebrate the band's 25th anniversary, which led to a string of subsequent reunion tours and a well-received album, Endless Wire (2006). Still astonishingly fit and firm of voice into his sixth decade, Roger Daltrey's enduring strength and charisma made him one of rock's most memorable frontmen.
Born March 1, 1944 in the Hammersmith neighborhood of London, England, Roger Harry Daltrey was one of three children by Harry and Irene Daltrey, who raised him and his two sisters in the district of Acton, where future bandmates Pete Townshend and John Entwhistle also lived. All three attended Actor County Grammar School for Boys, where Daltrey showed an aptitude for studies. But like so many of his fellow musicians, the discovery of Elvis Presley and rock-n-roll in general turned his attention away from academics. In the late 1950s, he joined a skiffle group, the Detours, which soon became regulars on the pub and working men's club circuits. Daltrey soon recruited Entwhistle and Townshend for the group, which initially included drummer Doug Sandom and singer Colin Dawson. Keith Moon, a manic young drummer for another local act called the Beachcombers, eventually replaced Sandom, while Dawson's departure promoted Daltrey to lead vocals. The Detours briefly changed their moniker to the High Numbers, a decision prompted by their then-manager, Peter Meaden, to appeal to the Mod movement.
The High Numbers released one single, "Zoot Suit/I'm the Face," which failed to generate any chart placement, before abandoning both Meaden and their new name in favor of filmmakers-turned-record producers Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, who prompted their final name change to the Who. The group quickly gained a reputation for their explosive live performances, which were frequently capped by Townshend and Moon destroying their instruments, as well as gritty, R&B-driven songs like their first single, "I Can't Explain," "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere" and "Substitute." During this period, the band's leadership shifted away from Daltrey to Townshend, primarily due to the latter's songwriting ability, but also because Daltrey's preferred method of decision-making was to physically abuse his bandmates into siding with his opinion. In 1965, Daltrey was briefly ejected from the Who after assaulting Moon for providing drugs to Townshend and Entwhistle. Upon realizing that his only other means of supporting himself had come as a sheet metal worker during his early days with the Detours, he recanted, and settled comfortably into his role as the voice for Townshend's odes to teenaged anger and anxiety.
Initially, Daltrey was uncomfortable in his role as frontman for the Who. He had mastered the R&B and soul covers that made up the Detours and early Who set lists, but Townshend's original compositions, which bristled with kinetic energy on both a lyrical and instrumental level, left little room for smooth harmonies or modest deliveries. The Who's tour of North America in 1967, which included their star-making appearance at the Monterey International Pop Festival, introduced Daltrey to the rigors of playing large venues, where his voice would be drowned out by not only his bandmates' intense volume, but also the cavernous acoustics of music halls and outdoor festival stages. The following year, he debuted a more powerful, aggressive singing voice on "A Quick One While He's Away," the Who's nine-minute mini-opera, which he matched with a stage presence that frequently found him bare-chested, giving grand gestures while wielding his microphone on an extended cord like a bullwhip. In doing so, he helped to mint the "rock god" persona that found purchase in later singing idols like Jim Morrison and Robert Plant, as well as the many frontmen who drew inspiration from them.
By the early 1970s, the Who's widespread popularity spurred its individual members to begin exploring their own music as solo acts. Daltrey's first record outside of the Who camp came with 1973's Daltrey, which featured lyrics written largely by the then-unknown Leo Sayer. It generated a Top 5 U.K. single in "Giving it All Away," while the album itself broke into the Top 50 in the United States. Two years later, Daltrey was seemingly ubiquitous, reuniting with the Who for The Who By Numbers (1975) while also releasing his second solo effort, Ride a Rock Horse (1975) and making his debut as Townshend's deaf, dumb and blind hero in Ken Russell's surreal film version of the Who's Tommy (1975). He earned a Golden Globe nomination for his turn as the beatific would-be messiah, and reunited with Russell for the outrageous "Lisztomania" (1975), for which he also penned three songs with Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman. But the foundation of his career with the Who had begun to erode.
Tension between Daltrey and Townshend had arisen after the singer found that Lambert and Stamp had made serious errors in the band's bookkeeping. The discovery led to actual physical violence between the two men, who only grew more distant after the death of drummer Keith Moon in 1978. Daltrey was vocally opposed to his replacement, the more sedate but workmanlike Kenney Jones of Small Faces fame. Daltrey directed his energy into his solo career, releasing One of the Boys in 1977 and producing "McVicar" (1980), a biopic which also featured the singer as British bank robber John McVicar. The film was a success, as was its soundtrack, which featured Townshend, Entwhistle and Jones, though performing separately and not as the Who. By 1982, Townshend announced that he was no longer able to write for the Who, and the group conducted a lengthy farewell tour before disbanding that same year.
Daltrey then focused on his acting and solo music careers, enjoying turns as Macheath in "The Beggar's Opera" (1983) and as Shakespeare's twin heroes in "The Comedy of Errors" (1983), both for the BBC. In 1985, he released Under a Raging Moon, which featured a Top 50 single in its title track, a Townshend-penned tribute to Keith Moon. In 1989, Daltrey, Townshend and Entwhistle reunited as the Who for a tour to celebrate its 25th anniversary. The reunion, which also featured a 20th anniversary tribute to "Tommy," re-ignited hopes that the band would continue to record after the tour had run its course, but after the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, only Daltrey continued to support the Who brand through numerous solo concerts devoted to Townshend's music. In 1994, he celebrated his 50th birthday with a two-night stand at Carnegie Hall devoted to his bandmate and former group, which spawned a critically acclaimed but expensive tour that failed to recoup its costs due to hiring an orchestra at each venue. The following year, he took a decidedly different tack by playing the Tin Woodsman in an all-star charity production of "The Wizard of Oz."
During this period, Daltrey also maintained his own career as a solo artist, releasing Rocks in the Head (1992), which saw him step out on his own as a songwriter by penning seven of the album's tracks. Response to the album and subsequent releases were tepid, but Daltrey enjoyed frequent success as a guest performer on various projects, including the Chieftains' Grammy-winning An Irish Evening: Live at the Grand Opera House (1992). His acting career continued at a steady clip, though he was seen more frequently on American television shows like "Midnight Caller" (NBC, 1988-1991) and "Highlander: The Series" (syndicated, 1992-98) in a recurring role as a roguish immortal warrior. His affinity for period projects was underscored by his role as pirate William Dampier in "Pirate Tales" (1997), a docudrama series for The Discovery Channel.
In 1996, Daltrey reunited again with Townshend and Entwhistle in a 1996 production of Quadrophenia for the Prince's Trust concerts in London. The event featured an array of celebrity guest performers, including Pink Floyd's David Gilmour and Gary Glitter, who accidentally fractured Daltrey's eye socket while swinging a microphone stand. The singer recovered to complete the show, which generated enough attention to warrant a full-blown tour in support of the album from 1996 through 1997. For the next five years, the Who seemed in the midst of a comeback as a cohesive unit, touring in 1999 and 2000 before planning a farewell concert tour in 2002. However, Entwhistle's death in 2002 appeared to bring down the curtain on any future plans for the Who. Daltrey soon returned to acting, surprising many by providing the voice of a friendly dragon for the award-winning children's DVD "The Wheels on the Bus" (2003) and playing Alfred P. Doolittle in a production of "My Fair Lady" at the Hollywood Bowl that same year. The period was also marked by numerous accolades, including the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001 and Daltrey's appointment as Commander of the British Empire in 2004.
To the surprise of many, Daltrey and Townshend toured as the Who in 2004, which preceded Endless Wire (2006), the band's first new album in over two decades. It debuted at No. 7 on the Billboard albums chart and spawned a successful tour in 2006 and 2007. Following this success, Daltrey and Townshend were recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors in 2008, shortly before the singer again stepped into the solo spotlight for a 2009-2010 tour with his "No Plan B" band, which accompanied Eric Clapton for several large festival shows. The following year, he was back with Townshend to perform several Who songs at Super Bowl XLIV before the pair performed Quadrophenia at London's Royal Albert Hall for a show benefiting the Teenage Cancer Trust, a charity he was instrumental in launching in 2000. In 2011, he and Townshend inaugurated the Daltrey/Townshend Teen and Young Adult Cancer Programme at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, while Daltrey himself provided funding for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's research into vocal chord repair for cancer victims. The latter subject was an issue close to Daltrey's own heart, having undergone surgery to remove possible pre-cancerous growths on his vocal chords in 2010. During this period, Daltrey was also active in attempting to launch a film based of the life of Keith Moon, which was to star Mike Myers but the production stalled.
By Paul Gaita