Who’s Roger Daltry

It’s hard to believe, but Roger Daltry once feared he’d be a sheet-metal worker all his life.   Daltry – the lead singer of The Who and an actor in movies ranging from Tommy to Lisztomania to Like It Is – saw rock and roll as his salvation and his way out of a grinding blue collar life.

He was born on March 1, 1944, the oldest child of Harry and Irene Daltry, in Shepherd’s Bush, England. Shepherd’s Bush is a suburb of London. Daltry had two younger sisters. Although he did well in his examinations and was sent to Acton County Grammar, Daltry remembers himself as a school rebel: “Whatever they said do, I didn't do. I was totally anti-everything. I was a right bastard, a right hard nut. I just totally closed the doors to ever wanting to know what they had to teach me. Rock and roll was the only thing I wanted to get into.”

Daltry’s obsession with rock and roll led him to form The Detours in 1959, when he was 15. His father bought him an Epiphone guitar after he made his first from a block of wood. Daltry put all his energy into his guitar and his band, ignoring school. Acton’s response was to expel him.

This led to a job in sheet-metal work in the daytime, and rehearsals and performances with The Detours at night.   The original Detours personnel shifted around but eventually came to include both John Entwhistle, playing bass, and Pete Townshend, playing rhythm guitar.   Colin Dawson was the band’s singer.

By 1961 The Detours were playing at weddings, bar mitzvahs, pubs, and working-men’s clubs. “We were just doing Top Ten hits and playing for about ten cents. At the time, the whole thing about groups was a joke,” Daltry recalls.

Late in 1962 and into early 1963 the Detours opened for Johnny Kidd and the Pirates. They were a power trio with a lead singer. When Dawson dropped out, The Detours decided to become a power trio plus singer. Daltry switched to lead vocal and Townshend moved to lead guitar. This was an improvement, although Daltry says, “When the band started, I was a shit singer. They didn't need a singer in those days, they needed somebody who could fight, and that was me.” Daltry stands about five feet, six inches tall and was affectionately (or derisively, depending on the speaker) referred to as the “little singer,” but Daltry was combative, and had a reputation for using his fists. 

The shift in the band’s line-up did not change the fact that The Detours was Daltry’s band. He selected the music they performed – Beatles songs, Motown rarities, James Brown numbers, and older rock & roll tunes. And he controlled the early decisions of the band. In 1964, when the Detours were in the process of changing their name, Townshend’s suggestion was “The Hair” while his roommate, Richard Barnes, suggested “The Who.” Daltry simply said, “It's The Who, innit.”

As The Who, the band was required by contract to write their own original material, and this task fell mostly to Townshend, which had the effect of shifting control of the band away from Daltry. (“Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere” co-written by Daltry with Pete Townshend, was their only collaboration in 30 years.) But it was Daltry’s work-ethic and drive to succeed which pulled the band out of a mid-‘60s slump, caused by the band’s use of amphetamines.

Although, working day and night jobs himself, he’d been using the drug too, Daltry decided the band were “a bunch of junkies” and flushed Keith Moon's pills down a toilet. Moon protested – but he flattened Moon with a single punch. Daltry has stated, “Once I got off the pill thing, I realized how much the band deteriorated through playing on speed. Musically, it really took a downturn.” 

Daltry felt that The Who was more important, collectively, than any one member’s opinion or desire. Daltry did not want the band’s serious potential squandered on pills and pot. He wanted a commitment to hard work from the others. But Daltry expressed his feelings violently, and in late September, 1965, Daltry was tossed out of the band. After a couple of days he swallowed his pride and promised and end to his violent outbursts and assaults. Daltry recalls, “I thought if I lost the band I was dead. If I didn't stick with The Who, I would be a sheet-metal worker for the rest of my life.”

The Who also cultivated an image of violence. Not only did Townshend smash his guitar while Keith Moon was kicking his drumset over, Daltry took to swinging the microphone on its cable, sending it in wide whistling arcs over the audience.   In 1967 The Who played nine Murray-the-K shows in New York City and Daltry broke 18 microphones.

But his salvation – and The Who’s as well – was Tommy. The rock opera’s success changed Daltry’s look. He began wearing an open, fringed vest over a bare, sun tanned, chest. He let his hair grow shoulder length and curly. Daltry, despite his obvious masculinity, almost became androgynous. Through Tommy, he became a recognized sex symbol and a pop star. More than that, he became the seeker Townshend had created in Tommy. Daltry has stated, “It was though I was just singing Who songs until the second time we played [Tommy] onstage, and then, I realized that I was becoming something else.” 

Since then Daltry has enjoyed a creative life, doing movies, television acting, making a series of solo albums, celebrating his 50th birthday at Carnegie Hall (and capturing it on a DVD), and performing in both Tommy revivals and reunions of The Who, most recently late last year. [This was written in February, 2000.] A new Who album is in the works, which is projected for release late this spring and will be supported by a summer tour.

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