ACCORDING to music legend, Jimi Hendrix was once asked on TV what it was like to be the greatest rock guitarist in the world. He allegedly replied: ‘I don’t know, you’ll have to ask Rory Gallagher.’
I have read several times that the story is apocryphal while this site insists it actually happened, on the US programme The Mike Douglas Show. Whatever the truth of it, there is no doubt that the Irishman in the lumberjack shirt belongs up there with the guitar greats.
William Rory Gallagher was born on March 2 1948 in Ballyshannon, Co Donegal, and raised in Cork. His father Daniel worked for an electrical company and belonged to a ceilidh band, singing and playing accordion. Mother Monica was an amateur singer and actress.
By the age of twelve Rory had taught himself ukulele and guitar, and won a cash prize in a talent contest, which he used to buy a cheap Italian electric guitar. Initially influenced by the skiffle sound of Lonnie Donegan, he became obsessed with US blues and folk artists including Muddy Waters, Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly, and learned to play slide guitar as well as bass, mandolin, banjo, sitar and alto saxophone before leaving school at 15.
His brother Donal recalled: ‘His dream ambition was to have a guitar like Buddy Holly’ – in other words a Fender Stratocaster. In the window of a Cork music shop Rory spotted a second-hand Strat. It had been the first one in Ireland, ordered from America by a showband member who wanted a red one like Hank Marvin’s. They sent him a sunburst model by mistake and when the red one finally arrived 18 months later he sold the first Strat through the shop. The asking price was £100 – a daunting sum in those days. ‘In today’s money you couldn’t even compare; you might as well say it was a million pounds,’ said Donal. ‘My mother was saying, “We’ll be in debt for the rest of our lives” and Rory said, “Well, actually with a guitar like this I can play both parts, rhythm and lead, we won’t need a rhythm player so I can earn more money and pay it off.” So the Stratocaster became his partner for life if you like.’
Still 15, Rory joined the Fontana Showband, later renamed The Impact. ‘We’d be playing for five hours at a time and never get a clap,’ he said. ‘It was all dancing. I only joined a showband because there was no other place to go with an electric guitar. We’d have to play all the Top 20 stuff.’
Frustrated by the bland pop fare he was dishing up, Rory formed his own power trio, The Taste, in 1966 with two musicians from Cork. By 1968 the band was known simply as Taste, and Gallagher’s henchmen had been replaced by two blokes from Belfast – drummer John Wilson and bassist Richard McCracken.
Taste toured the UK incessantly, had a regular London gig at the Marquee Club and supported another trio, Cream, at their farewell 1968 Royal Albert Hall concert. They also crossed America and Canada with the supergroup Blind Faith yet found the time to record two solid studio albums, Taste and On The Boards. It was as a live act that they really excelled and they were booked to play at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival. Here I quote from an Amazon review by one D J Wilden of the CD and DVD What’s Going On – Taste Live at the Isle of Wight:
‘Rory Gallagher’s playing is inspired. There was a sound made I could not identify until I saw it on the film, Rory actually hitting the strings with the palm of his hand. They played on Friday afternoon; a lot of the crowd hadn’t arrived by then. After What’s Going On (the opening number) the appreciation starts to grow. By the time they leave the stage (for the first time) after I Feel So Good, the crowd are roaring. It’s like an avalanche or tidal wave – the crowd know they are witnessing something they will never see again. I reckon they could literally have played all night, the crowd would have demanded they stay on stage.
‘On the way to the festival Rory had decided to break up the band, so they played on stage like they were possessed. It is the most amazing, mind blowing, awesome, tremendous set ever. As Rory introduces Gamblin’ Blues he says: ‘We would like to do a bit of bottleneck, hope you like it.’ The crowd didn’t like it THEY LOVED IT. I know of one of my friends who was actually at this festival and he waited 45 years to hear it again and to see it on the DVD.
‘After I Feel So Good, Taste leave the stage but the crowd are not happy, they want them back and are very vocal about this. So they come back and play the Muddy Waters song Catfish Blues and this goes off like an atomic bomb, 14 minutes of absolute perfection, the ‘play’ between Rory and John then Rory and Richie is jaw dropping. Three encores they did, unheard of at the time when the headline bands that weekend were The Who, Free and Jimi Hendrix. Rory proved he could not only hold his own but actually surpass more well-known bands. Hendrix was there to hear them and was by all accounts nervous after hearing what Rory was capable of producing with his Strat!’
The band did indeed break up after the festival and Gallagher auditioned Hendrix’s bass player Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell before opting for Belfast boys Gerry McAvoy and Wilgar Campbell. From then on he toured and recorded under his own name.
Rory Gallagher was released in 1971. It kicks off with Laundromat, a tribute to the washeteria in the basement of his Earls Court flat. This, Hands Up and Sinner Boy are all rifftastic and would go down a storm at concerts over the years.
I prefer the slower numbers For The Last Time, I’m Not Surprised and Just the Smile, which was apparently inspired by British folk musicians Bert Jansch, Richard Thompson and Davey Graham. The last track on the vinyl LP was the seven-minute Can’t Believe It’s True, which features his alto sax as well as guitar, although when it came out on CD there was the bonus of Muddy Waters’s Gypsy Woman and Otis Rush’s It Takes Time. Quite a debut.
His second solo effort, Deuce, came out that same year and kept up the standard. The opening track, Used to Be, produces another killer riff and is followed by the folk and jazz-tinged I’m Not Awake Yet. Whole Lot of People showcases his slide prowess while In Your Town, a dig at the recently introduced internment without trial in Northern Ireland, would later inspire the Thin Lizzy song Jailbreak. The album closes on a high with Crest of a Wave.
Live in Europe, released in 1972, contains only two previously released songs, Laundromat and In Your Town. It starts with a bang – a version of Junior Wells’s Messin’ With the Kid, which would become one of Gallagher’s signature songs. Leaving aside his beloved battered Strat, he plays mandolin on Going to My Home Town while he signs off with the stomping Bullfrog Blues.
This was Rory’s first top ten album and it went gold. At the end of the year he was named Melody Maker’s guitarist/musician of the year, ahead of Eric Clapton.
In 1973 came another studio effort, Blueprint, for which drummer Campbell was replaced by Rod de’Ath and keyboard player Lou Martin was added to the mix. It begins with the feisty Walk on Hot Coals, while the centrepiece of the album is the eight-minute Seventh Son of a Seventh Son.
Over the years Gallagher sold upwards of 30million albums without ever being regarded as cool, perhaps because of his country-boy clothes and refusal to act the big star. Brian May, lead guitarist with Queen, recalls approaching Rory as a teenager and asking for advice. ‘So these couple of kids come up, me and my mate, and say, “How do you get your sound, Mr Gallagher?” and he sits and tells us. So I owe Rory Gallagher my sound.’
In his homeland, Rory was idolised. Despite the unrest in 1970s Northern Ireland, where artists were warned not to appear for fear of violence, he insisted on touring there at least once a year, putting the less obliging Van Morrison to shame.
Irish Tour ’74 was recorded over a series of nine concerts. Highlights of the album include I Wonder Who, As the Crow Flies, A Million Miles Away (possibly my favourite Rory song)and Walk on Hot Coals.
Reporting on the New Year’s Day show in Belfast, Melody Maker’s Roy Hollingworth wrote: ‘It was the first public rock concert there since early last summer. The show was sold out weeks before. Sources close to the underground promised the IRA would “leave it alone”. Two thousand people were overjoyed as Gallagher took the stage, just 24 hours after the city had witnessed its biggest bomb blast during a night of at least ten explosions. It was an emotional affair, considering the total neglect Belfast has suffered as far as live music is concerned.
‘I’ve never seen anything quite so wonderful, so stirring, so uplifting, so joyous as when Gallagher and the band walked on stage. The whole place erupted, they all stood and they cheered and they yelled and they embraced. Then as one they put their arms into the air and gave peace signs. Without being silly, or overemotional, it was one of the most memorable moments of my life. It meant more than just rock ’n’ roll, it was something bigger, something more valid than just that.’
Gallagher released many more albums over the years without ever quite recapturing the excitement of the early seventies, although he did have his moments, as evinced by this clip of him here, duelling with Jack Bruce (thanks, Rhod).
Always a heavy drinker, Rory developed cirrhosis and died shortly after a liver transplant in 1995. He was just 47.
This year a triple CD, titled simply Blues, was released comprising mainly unreleased tracks from the Gallagher family archive. It is a brilliant reminder of one of rock’s humblest and most dedicated musicians, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
In a 1985 interview with the BBC, Rory said: ‘The ultimate dream, besides wanting to be a good player or have a good band, is that in fifty years’ time one of your songs in any way matched a blues classic. That would be a real something for your tombstone.’
He is buried at at St Oliver’s Cemetery in Ballincollig, County Cork, and this is his grave. RIP, Rory, and let’s hope that one day they’ll update your tombstone with at least one of your wonderful songs.