In August 1971, whilst on a tour of Cornwall, the newly formed rock group ‘Queen’ played at the Driftwood Spars pub in St Agnes. The newspaper advert proudly announces: ‘The Legendary Drummer of Cornwall: ROGER TAYLOR’. Below, in a tiny font, is added ‘and Queen’.
Whilst now seen as something of a joke amongst fans, the advert has some basis in truth. At the time Freddie Mercury was still a novice as a singer, and although Brian May was experienced as a musician he was rather distracted by his Astronomy PhD. Roger Taylor on the other hand was savvy and street wise. It was Roger who best understood how to promote the band, and how the music industry operated. It was Roger, who organised for Smile (the pre-Queen band) to play in Cornwall on well over twenty occasions, and who organised Queen’s debut concert at the Truro City Hall in summer 1970. It was Roger who the same year arranged for his friend from St Austell, Mike Grose (pictured below with collar up), to be Queen’s first bassist, and, a few years later, helped install two friends from Truro to run the Queen fan club.
When Roger Taylor met Brian May in 1968, having left Truro School and started university – a course in dentistry at the Royal London – he was already an accomplished drummer, having clocked up four intense teenaged years as a semi-pro musician. It was whilst playing in the pubs and clubs of Cornwall that he both learnt about the industry, and how to play rock drums, inspired by the likes of Keith Moon and Ginger Baker.
Roger was essentially self-taught. He didn’t have drum lessons as such, and never felt supported by his school to learn, or improve much as a musician. Truro School, like most public schools then and now encouraged competitive sports, particularly rugby. Roger, as school photos show, was smaller than his peers, and would have struggled to assert his masculinity by traditional means (ie by physical strength). Playing the drums must have, at some level, provided a solution for him, and given him kudos amongst his more macho schoolmates.
This identity as a drummer, which would quickly subsume him was, though, acquired far away from school. Roger was born on 26th July 1949. He was only eight when, in 1957, the skiffle craze spread like wildfire across the country. In Cornwall numerous skiffle bands formed: enough to set up annual skiffle competitions in 1958 and 1959 in the City Hall in Truro. In 1960 they were replaced by the keenly contested Rock and Rhythm Championship, which Roger would have watched from the audience before later taking part himself.
His first band formed in 1962 after Roger had had a spell at the Cathedral School as a chorister. ‘Cousin Jacks’, was a duo that performed instrumental numbers by The Shadows and The Ventures, and did so several times in public before taking a third member and changing their name to Beat Unlimited.
Late in 1964, whilst playing with Beat Unlimited at a Truro Liberals Association event, (organised by future MP David Penhaligon), in the annexe of the City Hall, Roger Taylor, was spotted by some older ‘fifth form’ boys from Truro School and Truro Tech, and invited to join their new band ‘Johnny Quale and the Reactions’. Their intention was to rehearse two songs intensely, and try and win the 1965 Rock and Rhythm Championship.
In fact they came a respectable fourth, but were impressive enough to be offered work by concert promoters most weekends in venues all over Cornwall, and over the summer they were invited to play to an audience of hundreds, if not thousands, of screaming teenagers in Exeter’s St Georges Hall and Torquay’s Landsdowne Club.
Then, after re-entering in 1966 with a different singer, The Reaction, as they became known, did win the competition. As a result gig bookings came thick and fast the length and breadth of Cornwall, and as they did Roger, though the youngest member of the group, gradually became its dominant force and lead singer.
Roger Taylor met Brian May in Autumn 1968, within a couple of weeks of moving to London, his flat mate from Truro School having spotted an advert in the Union Bar of Imperial College. As the two original members of Queen they have remained close friends and musical partners ever since.
Rupert White is the author of ‘Queen in Cornwall: A partial history of the world’s greatest rock band’ available online and from Waterstone’s in Truro