John Entwistle, a founding member of the Who hailed by musicians as an innovative bassist but often overshadowed onstage by his fiery bandmates, died Thursday in Las Vegas on the eve of the band’s reunion tour. He was 57.
A statement from the Clark County coroner’s office described the preliminary cause of death as a heart attack.
The tour, which had been scheduled to begin tonight at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino and included a stop Saturday in Irvine and Monday at the Hollywood Bowl, has been canceled, promoter Andy Hewitt said Thursday.
There was no immediate comment about Entwistle’s death from the members of the band, who were said to be in shock.
“Everybody is devastated; you have to remember that [Roger] Daltrey and [Pete] Townshend have known this guy forever,” Hewitt said.
Entwistle’s passing, coupled with the 1978 overdose death of drummer Keith Moon, leaves the Who’s original membership reduced by half: Guitarist Townshend and frontman Daltrey are the lone surviving members of the British Invasion powerhouse that for a time rivaled the Beatles, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones as the most vital rock voice of youth.
The spotlight on the band often did not extend to Entwistle, who was easy for casual fans to miss when put beside the whirling guitar wizardry of Townshend, the war-cry vocals of bronzed singer Daltrey and the bombast of drummer Moon. Daltrey would twirl his microphone like a reckless lariat above his head, Townshend would slash at his guitar with a windmill arm movement, and they would sometimes destroy their instruments at the end of the show in anarchic delight--all while the bearded, sly Entwistle stood like a ramrod-straight commuter awaiting a morning train.
Songs such as “My Generation,” “I Can’t Explain,” “Pinball Wizard,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Long Live Rock,” along with ambitious concept pieces such as “Tommy,” made Townshend and Daltrey into icons, and Moon was popular as a cheerful decadent. But Entwistle was nicknamed “the Ox,” which spoke to his steady habit of lugging the band’s load. “John doesn’t demand attention,” Townshend was known to say, “For years, nobody even noticed John was there.”
Still, at the height of the band’s powers, Entwistle was hailed in music circles as the best bass player in rock, and in niche music communities he was seen as capitalizing on the unconventional styles of Townshend and Moon to broaden the role of bass player. Total Guitar magazine, for example, named him “bassist of the millennium.”
Ray Manzarek, the Doors’ keyboard player, said Thursday that Entwistle was “one of the great, great rock ‘n’ roll bassists of all time. A real genius.”
His contributions to the Who songbook were lesser known songs, including “Boris the Spider,” “My Wife,” “Doctor Doctor” and “Someone’s Coming,” but he was hailed as a bedrock contributor whose signature work on “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “Bargain” and dozens of other songs influenced generations of bass players to follow.
“He was an inspiration to all of us,” said Mike Watt, the bass player in seminal Los Angeles alt-rock bands Minutemen and Firehose. “You felt [as a bass player] like you were kind of picked last when they were picking teams. That guy was a monster. His sound was such a signature. He was someone who showed you did not have to kowtow, you could be an important part of the band.”
Despite a somewhat aristocratic mien, Entwistle and his bandmates grew up in London’s working-class Shepard’s Bush district. John Alec Entwistle, born Oct. 4, 1944, was the son of Herbert and Maude Entwistle of Chiswick, a trumpet player and piano player, respectively. When their marriage failed, the young John went to live with his grandparents. His grandfather had a penchant for letting the youngster sing in local clubhouses.
The boy trained on a variety of instruments (including the French horn, which he would later use distinctively on several Who songs, notably “Overture” from “Tommy”) and showed an interest in jazz until rock guitarist Duane Eddy caught his ear. He played in a number of local bands and crossed paths with Daltrey when they played together in a group called the Detours. Entwistle recommended another local for membership: Townshend, the gangly lad who would become the most powerful creative compass for the band that eventually added Moon and took the name the Who.
The Who were known as brawny, volatile performers in the Mod scene, and they moved from club sensation to a force on the charts with their first major single, “I Can’t Explain,” a Top 10 hit in England. A string of hits followed that built their credentials at home and in the United States, and performances at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and Woodstock in 1969, along with the release of “Tommy” in 1969, cemented their U.S. stardom.
A year after “Tommy,” Entwistle released his first solo album, “Smash Your Head Against the Wall.” Three more of his own albums would follow in the next four years. He would later tour with the John Entwistle Band. Like George Harrison, the late Beatle who chafed as his bandmates got the majority of attention and artistic freedom, Entwistle longed for his due both in the band and beyond.
“I’m not quiet, everyone else is too loud,” he sang in “The Quiet One” on the Who’s “Face Dances” album. In 1981, he told The Times that he was subtle, not shy: “I just tiptoe away instead of getting arrested. A lot of times when Keith was blowing up toilets I was standing behind him with the matches.”
The internal forces pulling the band in different directions led to the band’s breakup by the 1980s, but they set aside their squabbles to mount several “farewell” and reunion tours. The latest one was supposed to lead back to a long abandoned path: the studio. Daltrey had said in recent months that the band would reunite to record new material for the first time since 1982.
On Wednesday, Entwistle arrived in the desert city a day earlier than his bandmates for an exhibit at the Aladdin Hotel and Casino of his artwork, one of his passions. One of his drawings, a playful sketch of the band members’ feet and hands framing a jumble of “connect-the-dots,” was used for the band’s aptly titled “The Who by Numbers” album. Entwistle’s body was found in his room at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, the resort that also houses the Joint, the venue that had been tabbed as the opening night spot on the band’s three-month U.S. tour.
A Who film festival already scheduled for Sunday afternoon at Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre has been converted to a memorial for the bassist.
Times staff writer Mike Boehm contributed to this story.