Prodigal Blues Son
by Hal Horowitz
What's the late Rory Gallagher, Ireland's foremost blues-rocker, doing in an issue devoted to British blues? His family and fans are quick to point out that Gallagher was not born or raised in England. With roots in Ballyshannon and Cork, Gallagher was as proudly Irish as his greatest admirers, Van Morrison and U2’s Bono.
But the British connection is still strong. Gallagher’s early success came in London in 1968 with the reorganization of his first group, Taste, a boisterous power trio whose sound was initially akin to early Cream. It was also in England that Taste found favor with the burgeoning British blues scene of the late '60's, which led to two studio releases. Unfortunately, the trio's first album, which overflowed with sludgy blues-rock, and its considerably more polished follow-up, 1970's jazz influenced On the Boards, didn't find an audience in the United States. This disappointed Gallagher, especially since taste has opened for Blind Faith on the short-lived, but high profile supergroups's only US tour in 1969. Two live albums followed, but Gallagher's quadruple-threat talent- he was an emotionally charged singer; a blazing, unbridled guitarist: and a fine harpist, as well as a competent sax player- was too powerful to be contained within a band. In 1971, Gallagher embarked on a solo career.
Constant touring and spine-tingling shows made him a hero to tens of thousands of fans. Most were in Europe, but he also gained a following in the States. Though his studio releases were packed with blues-based guitar rockers, Gallagher's electrifying talent was only truly revealed onstage. Three albums, not to mention handfuls of unofficial bootlegs, were cut live, including the career-defining Irish Tour '74. Irish Tour was his most successful album in the US; the double Lp included searing versions of Muddy Water's " I Wonder Who"( Who 's Gonna Be Your Sweet Man), J.B.Hutto's " Too Much Alcohol" and Tony Joe White's " As The Crow Flies." The latter two pieces display Gallagher's burning slide technique, his jaw dropping, finger-bending technical dexterity. His chill-inducing acoustic slide on a National steel, a segment he always included in his shows, proved that the Irish guitar master had absorbed the subtle nuances of delta blues- a feat few European musicians have accomplished.
Maybe that's why the Irishman was tapped to assist on the 1971 London Muddy Water's Sessions album. According to Gallagher's younger brother and manager, Donal, the well-respected forefathers of blues, Alexis Korner and Chris Barber, saw Rory as the person to carry the blues torch for the next generation. They tipped off Waters to Gallagher's remarkable talent, and the two struck up a friendship. Waters even delayed the nightly recording sessions until Gallagher, who sometimes had to drive hours following his gigs, could get to the studio. Gallagher was thrilled to be involved with the project and struck by what a gentleman Waters was. He learned from Waters' unique slide techniques and ability to relax while playing.
Though he recorded with American blues icons Albert King, John Hammond and Albert Collins, Gallagher's own albums featured covers of older bluesmen such as Blind Boy Fuller ("Pistol Slapper Blues") and Lightnin' Slim ( "Nothing but the Devil"), as well as raunchy but fervent rockers. He recorded a series of enjoyable, but increasingly similar sounding boogie-rocking albums for the now-defunct Chrysalis label before returning to a roots-based approach for his final album, Fresh Evidence ( 1990). Its version on Son House's "Empire State Express" is all one needs to grasp the essence of Gallagher's talent.
In 1995, at the age of 46, the guitarist died in London of complications stemming from a liver transplant.
Though his legacy in the States has faded gradually since his mid-'70's glory days, Gallagher's reputation for blistering intense live shows won him dedicated European fans who treated him with the same fondness, admiration and respect as he treated them. He was known as an unpretentious star with a powerful attachment to his audiences.
Gallagher's entire domestic catalog is currently out of print, and some releases have never been available on CD in the States. But all his albums are being prepared for reissue later this year by his brother, who oversees Gallagher's estate. Each disc will boast remastered- sometimes remixed -sound, and each will offer previously unreleased tracks.
Rory Gallagher never
gave into pressure to release hit singles or to water down his pile-driving,
blues-based approach, no matter how commercially disappointing the results
were. That may have cost him sales and visibility, but Gallagher's music
is infused with the timeless quality shared by the best artists. Like the
worn, paint-peeled Stratocaster he bought a the age 16 for about $100-
the same guitar he used onstage until his last performance- Gallagher was
tough, durable and uncompromising. He always played it the way he felt
it, and his considerable influence on contemporary blues guitarist cannot
"Just a note to tell you how happy I was to see your article on Rory Gallagher. The first time I met Rory was one of the most memorable nights of my life. At the time, I was the road manager for Canned Heat, and we were on the bill with Rory on a cold, snowy night in Waterloo, Iowa. Halfway through the show, we received word that Howlin' Wolf had died. Our lead singer, Bob "The Bear" Hite, immediately dedicated the rest of the evening to Wolf. When Rory came on he did the same. It was the first time I had ever seen Rory, and I was stunned.
That show in itself
was enough to write about, but what happened after the show was even
better: The theater was dark, the crowd had left and
we were all sitting around the backstage area when Rory opened a bottle
of Irish whiskey and passed it around. He then pulled out a beautifully
ancient National and began playing. Well, no matter what lick he
played, Bob knew the vocal, and what followed was 40 minutes or so of some
of the most magically soulful--from the heart--blues singing and
playing I've ever heard. The custodian and the rest of the building
personnel, who normally would have been anxious to close up and go home,
just stopped what they were doing and watched in reverence. Rory and Bob
had never met before, but it sounded like they'd been working together
all their lives. I've seen a lot of great performances, but I can
count on one hand the number of times I've been moved like that.
Needless to say, it didn't take long for the 12 or 15 people who were there
to finish off that bottle of whiskey. By the time it was gone, we
figured we had given Wolf a proper sendoff. A bond was formed that
night between Rory and Canned Heat, and whenever we found ourselves
in the same part of the world, we always looked each other up. Rory,
with his inevitable bottle of Irish whiskey, was blues personified and
quite simply one of the purest, finest people I have ever met. It
was an honor to know him, and I treasure every moment I spent in his presence.
Sherman Oaks, Calif.
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