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The Who's Roger Daltrey rocks and roars with "Tommy," new solo album

By Gary Graff
ggraff@digitalfirstmedia.com, @GraffonMusic on Twi

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Listening to Roger Daltrey these days means hearing a lot of music.

The Who singer is on the road singing the group’s landmark 1969 rock opera “Tommy” with symphony orchestras. Last month, meanwhile, he released “As Long As I Have You,” his first solo album in 26 years.

Clearly the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, who famously intoned “it’s the singer not the song that makes the music move along” 46 years ago, is fully in gear these days.

“I have to keep working,” the 74-year-old Daltrey, who ranks No. 61 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 100 greatest rock singers of all time, explains by phone from New York. “I’m very aware that at my age if I stop singing for any length of time, then my voice won’t be there as I need it — in quite a short space of time, I think. So the most I might let it go is three months or so.” Daltrey, in fact, was diagnosed with vocal cord dysplasia during 2010, and after two surgeries feels that “my voice is better now than it’s been in 25 years.”

“It’s only a small little muscle,” Daltrey notes, “but it’s like any other muscle in the body. Age is not usually kind to voice. I’ve been very fortunate with mine; I can still roar like I used to — but only by taking good care of it.”

Who concerts, with their massive volume, present a particular kind of challenge for Daltrey. Singing “Tommy” — especially with symphonies, as he’ll do this week with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra — is a different matter, though Daltrey is no stranger to that environment after his mid-’90s A Celebration: The Music of Pete Townshend and the Who tour.

“‘Tommy’ as a piece of work, it’s just magnificent. It’s a real opera,” says Daltrey, who tapped award-winning composer David Campbell to create orchestral arrangements for the tour and features much of the Who’s touring band at the shows. “Adding the orchestra to the rock band is tricky, but it’s a great band, and the arrangements are incredible. It’s very different. It’s not a finger in the ears, earplugs kind of gig.

“But it is pure rock. It won’t be sloppy, I assure you of that.”

Daltrey has been singing “Tommy” for nearly 50 years, of course, and has watched it become a feature film and a Broadway musical in addition to full-scale performances by the Who since its release. It’s taken on a life of its own, but Daltrey has yet to tire of singing the iconic likes of “Pinball Wizard,” “Amazing Journey” or “Listening To You.”

“I always go out and sing it for the first time,” he says. “It’s the album that really blew (the Who) up big in America. We’ve done a lot of great work, but (‘Tommy’) has held up as one of the greatest.”

It was Pete Towshend — Daltrey’s sole surviving Who mate — who played a crucial role in making the “As Long As I Have You” solo album happen. Daltrey had started working on the project about four years ago but kept putting it aside to accommodate the Who’s touring schedule, and then to recover from a bout of meningitis. When he returned to it, he was “very disillusioned with it — I thought it was rubbish and didn’t go anywhere.”

He was ready to scrap the album, but Townshend intervened.

“It was him who convinced me to carry on,” Daltrey says. “Pete called me up and said, ‘This is great, Roger, you’ve got to finish it.’ And then he offered to play guitar on it, and that was the clincher for me, because he’s my favorite guitarist, and whenever he plays on a record it’s always original. So I decided to finish it, and I’m very pleased with the outcome.”

The album blends some Daltrey originals with carefully selected covers of songs by Stephen Stills, Boz Scaggs, Buffalo Springfield, Parliament, Nick Cave, the Five Keys and Joe Tex, along with a molten rendition of Steve Wonder’s “You Haven’t Done Nothing.” It has a soulful, even gospel feel in spots that harks back to Daltrey’s early days in music.

“This is an idea I had about 10 years ago for the Who, where I said to Pete, ‘Rather than you having to sweat blood to write new songs, why don’t we just record an album of what we used to play before we made it big and before you started writing the material?’” Daltrey says. “Pete didn’t go for it, so that’s where the idea came from for me doing a solo album.”

Daltrey hopes to play some shows to support the album, but 45 years after his first album he still considers his solo career “a hobby.” And he anticipates we’ll see action from the Who in the not-too-distant future.

“We haven’t gone away,” says Daltrey, who founded and helps to operate the Teen Cancer charities in the U.S. and the U.K. “We will be doing something in the very near future, that’s for sure.

“Y’know, I’ve always been of the opinion that if Pete really puts his mind to it he could potentially write his greatest work at this age. He’s got that kind of brain that would use his life experience and his musical ability to perhaps come up with his greatest compositions, and the group has been playing so well recently I think (Townshend) thinks we have a valid voice in the music business.

“So who knows? He has all the ability to do it. Let’s just hope he can be inspired to do it.”

• If You Go: Roger Daltrey sings “Tommy” with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra at 8 p.m. Thursday, July 5, in the Meadow Brook Amphitheatre on the campus of Oakland University, Rochester Hills. Tickets start at $42.50. Call 313-471-7000 or visit 313Presents.com.

Web Site: www.313Presents.com

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