Reporting Lisa Sigell
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“The Who” frontman Roger Daltrey doesn’t consider himself a legend but many people do. Known for the impassioned vocals he’s brought to the world stage and revered by generations of rock fans, Daltrey describes his voice as a bit of “very loud screaming, but rock in roll is like that.”
Daltrey wasn’t surprised rock and roll would be his life, he figured that out when he was only five years old.
“I heard singers like Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard….you know those guys and that was it for me,” Daltrey said.
He’s come a long way from the small clubs where he got his start, now playing sold-out arenas.
All this from a boy who was told he wouldn’t make it far.
“My headmaster at school,” said Daltrey, “told me, ‘You’ll never make anything of your life in music,” and I said, ’Do you want to bet?’”
He has had plenty of confidence in his career path but, surprisingly, he never felt that way about his singing.
“My mates used to tell me I was good but, with my voice, I always lacked a bit of confidence about being good.”
Then, his world came to a stand-still when his voice was almost taken away. It was December of last year, the end of six weeks on tour, after having performed 30 shows.
“Suddenly my voice wasn’t behaving in a normal way. It was becoming hard work to sing,” Daltrey said.
Six weeks before the Superbowl, where he was to perform one of the biggest shows of his career, he was told it could have been the end of it.
Daltrey went under the care of Dr. Steven Zeitels, Director of the Mass General Voice Center and a professor at Harvard Medical School. Daltrey is among one of Zeitel’s celebrity patients, including Julie Andrews and Steven Tyler.
“When he came in there were changes that were the typical ones we would see, but then there were other changes on his vocal chords – evidence of pre-cancerous dysplasia,” Zeitels said. “It could have been cancer.”
It was the week before Christmas when Daltrey went in for surgery to treat the area in question. At first he didn’t want to think about what could happen if things went wrong.
“I got depressed after surgery, during what I call the big silence, that’s when I realized what it would be like to not have a voice,” Daltrey said.
But he was lucky. The symptoms that were causing him so much trouble were from extreme voice use. It was a Christmas he will never forget.
“I had two weeks of silence,” Daltrey said. “Silence and no drinking. How’s that for a good Christmas. So, you know, it was the strangest Christmas I’ve ever had.”
Fortunately, weeks later, he improved and he was able to sing at the Superbowl.
“What was great about it was that it was like the early days of rock and roll. For me it’s very much about, ‘It might be the last time you do it so give it all you got,’” Daltrey said.
Roger Daltrey is not alone.
In fact, Dr. Zeitels estimates there are hundreds of thousands of people across the country who have problems with their voice, some even losing their ability to speak. He says that doesn’t need to happen.
“People with voices take it for granted,” Zeitels said. “I had no idea thousands have lost their voice. It must be hell to live that kind of life.”
It’s why Daltrey, Andrews, and Tyler are joining to support the The Institute of Laryngology and Voice Restoration, a non-profit group started by Dr. Zeitels’ patients.
Zeitels says, “The [technology] has advanced so quickly in the last decade that the majority of things that are wrong can actually be fixed. People don’t even realize that they can get their voice back.”
New advancements in laser technology have led to amazing results in voice restoration. It’s how Daltrey regained his voice. And, in the next few years, Dr. Zeitels and his team, along with Robert Langer at MIT, believe they will change this field forever with a biomaterial that the doctor says will actually restore almost all of human hoarseness.
He says he can restore up to 90 percent of the voice lost.
With just one simple injection into a vocal chord the gel will make the chord vibrate again, restoring that person’s ability to speak normally. For many, it would be the first time in decades.
Daltrey says, “It will give people who have no voice, not even a voice box, a voice again. And that’s going to be an extraordinary achievement.”
Roger Daltrey considers each day he’s able to sing a gift and, as long as he takes care of that gift, Dr. Zeitels sees no reason for him to slow down.
Daltrey says, “He swears that he’ll keep me singing ‘til I’m 80. I mean, that might upset some people – but it makes me happy.”