Tom in 1962, when he was at Ealing Art School with Pete

News has come through that legendary Who photographer and tour manager Tom Wright has died in the US. 

        The Who have many reasons to be grateful to Tom. A contemporary of Pete Townshend at Ealing Art College in 1962, he introduced Pete to marijuana and a host of great American R&B and blues artists. When he skipped the country to avoid a drug charge he left behind a wondrous record collection that Pete snaffled and which became the impetus for The Who’s switch from pop and C&W to Maximum R&B. 

        Equally importantly, Tom would go on to become the group’s first American tour manager and unofficial photographer, and many of his photographs from The Who’s earliest US tours have been reproduced in countless books and magazines.  

        Among the most famous was of Keith Moon alongside the Holiday Inn sign at Flint, Michigan, the scene of his infamous 21st birthday party. 

“Pete telegrammed me [in 1967] to say The Who were coming to the US to tour with the British pop band Herman’s Hermits,” said Tom. “They’d be in Florida in a week… and when I got there Pete suggested I come on tour with them and shoot photographs of the band. So here I was, 23-years-old, camera around my neck, passport in my back pocket, boarding a chartered plane because Herman’s Hermits were so big, they rated it.”

In 2022, with The Who esteemed as mighty legends of rock, pioneers in the art of performance and superstars both alive and dead, it seems absurd to recall that in the summer of 1967, on their first American tour, they were the support act for the far more popular Herman’s Hermits. With 11 top ten hits behind them when the tour started – The Who had only one – Herman and his boys were riding out the crest of the British Invasion wave, drawing predominantly female audiences for whom The Who were distinctly odd, especially when they closed their brief sets by inflicting serious damage to their guitars, drums and amplifiers. 

         Tom was on board for almost all of that first tour. It began on July 13 in Calgary, Canada, and closed on September 9 in Honolulu, a nine-week coast-to-coast jaunt on which they often played two shows in one day. It was a gruelling experience and probably not worth the effort. “It got us around America,” said Roger Daltrey, “but it did us no good at all.”       

Tom was working as an underwater photographer when he joined The Who at St Petersburg in Florida. “The Who came to Florida and that was the end of my underwater photography career,” he says. “These young kids would be yelling, ‘Where’s Herman, we want Herman’ and then The Who would start playing before the curtain came up,” he told Who biographer Richard Barnes. “When the curtain came up, they would be really rocking and everybody was just moving about, like Roger would be running around and Pete would be swinging his arm and hammering the guitar and Moonie would be kicking ass. And people were in shock. The band didn’t stop between numbers... or they’d quit playing for just a couple a couple of seconds, but it would be just long enough and BOOM into the next number.”

Toms shot of The Who at the Fillmore East, New York, April 5, 1968

        This was the period in The Who’s career when wrecking their equipment at the end of a set was a regular occurrence. “It was spellbinding,” adds Tom.  “A lot of times there was no clapping whatsoever, just dead silence. People in the front row were just sitting there with their mouths open, stunned.”

Tom would go on to tour manage The Who in America for two tours during 1968, photographing them along the way, on stage, in recording studios, in their coach and at hotels. He quit in late 1968 after accepting a position as manager of the Grande Ballroom in Detroit, one of the era’s most important rock venues. 

The tours that Tom photographed laid the foundation for The Who’s eventual capture of an American tour circuit they helped create. This hardly existed during the first British Invasion of America, the one led by The Beatles and Rolling Stones, and it developed as pop became rock, with audiences beginning to listen seriously to groups whose music was no longer aimed predominantly at teenage girls. During Tom’s tenure as The Who’s tour manager the group pioneered a new concept of rock performance, with the music they played becoming more and more sophisticated as their shows became longer and more expressive. They also became more photogenic.

The following year The Who opened their first headlining US tour on February 21 in San Jose, California, and while in the Golden State made a madcap, stop-start promotional film for ‘Call Me Lightning’, a song released as a single in the US and completed at Gold Star Studios in Los Angeles around this time. Tom was on hand to photograph the group in tin helmets and fooling around with an explosive detonator.  

        Just as they done in the UK, The Who blazed a trail across America through the potency of their live shows and Tom was on hand to watch it all happen. Unlike the British pop bands that preceded them, there was no run of chart-topping US singles or historic appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, and nor did they reduce teenage girls to screaming banshees as they flew from city to city. They didn’t so much crash down Uncle Sam’s gates as slide in through a gap after the doors had been left ajar by the others, but the hard work they put in ensured that in the fullness of time The Who would become a stadium-filling juggernaut in the seventies and beyond. 

Tom Wright’s pictures of The Who in America captured a fascinating but often-overlooked period in the journey of one of the UK’s greatest ever rock bands.  

Tom’s book Roadwork: Rock’n’Roll Turned Inside Out, published in the UK by Omnibus Press as Raising Hell On The Rock ‘N Roll Highway, features an intro by Pete which I posted on Just Backdated here: https://justbackdated.blogspot.com/2015/03/raising-hell-petes-introduction-to-tom.html

An Ealing Art School reunion


madravingstark said...

A really great writeup and tribute to Tom! Thanks Chris!
RIP Tom Wright, undoubtably a big piece of The Who's history.

~Marc Starcke

Anonymous said...

God bless Tom
I’m sure it was a great ride

Anonymous said...

RIP my friend.