by Mark J. Prendergast

When most beat groups were doing the elliptical circuit of Ireland, Rory Gallagher was concentrating on bringing his talent to the world. Gallagher’s achievement was to develop through all the normal Irish music circles and reach the dizzy heights of international acclaim. His one great asset was clarity. He knew exactly what he wanted and where that ambition came from. Unlike most Irish musicians, his inspiration came from the blues — the black American variety from the Mississippi delta where music had served to replenish a tortured spirit.

A complete dedication to the guitar and the blues was a significant ingredient of the greatness which surrounded Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. Rory Gallagher was a contemporary and rates as the third driving force in the electric guitar revolution of the late sixties. While Clapton and Hendrix were heavily into the ‘drug culture’ and the exotic imagery of the times, Gallagher was a purist. He preferred to play any venue at any time, regardless of the situation. He did not exploit the media or use dramatic gestures on-stage. He was strictly low-profile, and seldom gave interviews.

Whatever his attitude, Gallagher lived his music. He physically embodied the archetypal rock performer of the period. Long, brown hair flowing down as beads of sweat dropped onto his electric Fender. His natural ability coincided perfectly with his environment — long solos, serious, complex lyrics and large festivals. Just by walking on-stage and plugging in his instrument, Rory Gallagher epitomised the world youth consciousness of the late sixties and early seventies. His reputation was so strong that he brought his Irish blues trio to the Isle of Wight in August 1970 to play alongside the greatest rock musicians of an era.

Rory Gallagher was born in Ballyshannon in the north-west tip of Ireland on 2 March 1948. He grew up in the rural tranquillity of West Cork in the south, spending all his early years surrounded by the Irish countryside. The new rock ‘n’ roll sounds of the fifties made a deep impression on his consciousness as he listened to the radio, and he immediately took an interest in the guitar. At the very young age of nine he acquired his first wooden instrument and started to play for dear life. School fetes, openings, community events — the young Gallagher played all of them while still at school, his inspiration coming from Doc Watson, Leadbelly and Bob Dylan. He paid his dues early on, drawing on those musicians who had developed in a similar ‘bluesy’ manner. Always noted to favour skiffle and rock ‘n’ roll, his teenage determination paralleled that of Elvis Presley on the one hand and John Mayall on the other.

After leaving school Rory couldn't find anyone one shared his strength or feeling about playing ones own music. Since he wanted to play professionally he took a vacant slot in The Fontana Show band and played the ballroom venues. Only sixteen at the time, his minimal equipment was upgraded and he did some English clubs with the showband, gaining invaluable experience. Gallagher was all against the rigidities of the showband scene and set himself the task of altering the balance of power. He never liked the idea of having to play Jim Reeves covers, and even when The Fontana changed its name to the more beat-oriented Impact, he still felt limited.

In 1965 Rory Gallagher took the unprecedented step of forming the first three-piece rock band, with the idea of forcing the barriers. He was joined by the bass player and the drummer from The Impact. They chanced their luck in Hamburg, Germany, after being noticed on a Dublin television programme doing an original Gallagher composition ‘You Fool Me All the Time’. Since the requirement for most clubs then was the ‘four-piece neatly dressed beat group’, Rory’s vision was to come under the hammer. Gallagher himself has said of this adventure that they ‘had to get a friend to pose with a Vox Continental organs they could fill the stereotyped image. He tried to keep the group together, but hassly gigs, bad money and a rickety van put paid to the idea, and the group fizzled out in 1966.

Undaunted, the young teenager played around for a while in Cork until The Axles showband broke up, leaving musicians at a loose end. Gallagher approached Eric Kitteringham and Norman D’Amery to attempt the blues trio experiment once again. The minute they started to gig, the working name of Taste was settled upon. Taking off to Europe, Taste worked themselves into the ground on a seven-hour-a-night schedule in Hamburg clubs. Back in Ireland they played around but still encountered the same reactions to their music. Usually Gallagher would be asked: ‘Where are the rest of the group?’ or ‘You can’t play with only three guys, that’s breaking union rules.’ Usually Gallagher would bring in a tambourine player or an organist, but the main thrust was always Eric Kitteringham (bass), Norman D’Amery (drums) and of course Rory spitting the blues.

The first embryonic version of Taste lasted until early 1968 and, as a guitar-based blues three-piece, was ahead of its time. Normally if the guitar was accentuated by Irish groups it was done in the context of the ‘song’. Gallagher wanted to define his music around the instrument itself — lyrics, bass and drum instrumentals all revolved around the echoing solos of his electric Fender. Taste slogged up and down the country in 1967 when the beat scene was reaching a frenzy, and yet their power blues still only netted them £5 a night. It was in some of the rhythm and blues clubs in Belfast that Taste were first noticed by Eddie Kennedy, a club owner who recognised their revolutionary potential, and by Van Morrison who became a regular at their gigs.

No authorised recordings exist from this period, but a rock entrepreneur Mervyn Solomon released a selection of half-finished tracks on Emerald Gem discs called Rory Gallagher: In The Beginning (1974). This is a batch of songs taped in July 1967 during a regular Taste residency at the Maritime Hotel, Belfast. The sound is of a dirty blues, with harmonica and electric guitar played heavy. ‘Take It Easy Baby’ is a typical long, twelve-bar blues number, but the gritty guitar has character. Gallagher, still only in his late teens, was reaching the same level of technical virtuosity as his counterpart Eric Clapton in England. If this seems doubtful, listen to the fluidity of his playing on ‘Norman Invasion’ — if you can manage to acquire a copy of this first album.

Finding the Irish grind a dead end, Rory Gallagher set out to find a wider audience. With Eddie Kennedy as manager, Taste made the big jump to England in May 1968. Still a three-piece, the line-up was surprisingly different, with Richard ‘Charlie’ McCracken (bass) and John Wilson (drums) backing the guitarist. McCracken and Wilson had met each other in the Derek and the Sounds Showband. John Wilson had briefly played with Them before teaming up with McCracken again to form Cheese, Ireland's answer to English supergroup Cream, in 1967. Rory Gallagher decided that Wilson and McCracken were the most proficient musicians for the second version of Taste. Hitting every blues and smoky club in the country, the group built up a legendary reputation as the hardest gigging band on the blues scene, and, since Chicken Shack, Fleetwood Mac and Bluesbreakers were their contemporaries, this was a fertile environment. Spending most of their time sleeping in a banged-up transit van, Taste projected a characteristic determination, and when money was in short supply they hit the German scene again.

The inevitable recording contract came from Polydor and their debut album Taste was done almost live, recorded on a rudimentary eight-track machine. Very bluesy, the album was indeed rough in comparison to the smooth sounds of say Ten Years After, an English blues band of the period, but ‘Hail’, ‘Leaving Blues’and ‘Sugar Mama’ all had that Rory Gallagher feel.

I’d rather see a coffin
comin’ right through my front door
Than to hear you say, you don’t want me no more . .
‘Leaving Blues’

The above song is an original of Huddie Ledbetter, or ‘Leadbelly’ as he became known, a late nineteenth-century Louisiana half-caste, whose specialty was the ‘hollerin’ blues’ or ‘work song’. This in itself reflects Gallagher’s own perceptions and preoccupation. On another level the album defined Taste's forceful, power-blues style in such blasters as ‘Blister on the Moon’ and ‘Born on the Wrong Side of Time’. Release of the album in 1969 made Taste the new force in the rock arena. Since Cream and The Jimi Hendrix Experience were no longer in action, the Irish group were acclaimed as their successors by press and public alike. Within one year of its release 175,000 copies of the record had been sold worldwide.

Accelerating demand for public performance pushed Taste farther and farther afield. In autumn 1969, the group toured America with English supergroup Blind Faith. This group was an assemblage of superstars from Cream, Traffic and Family, led by the guitar hero himself, Eric Clapton. It was not surprising that Clapton had chosen Gallagher’s group as support act, a great sign of respect from one bluesman to another. Taste were still very young, but doing America and Canada with the biggest group of the period was a sure-fire golden opportunity.

By 1970, the boys were major headliners in Europe and Scandinavia, and gaining a fanatical following in West Germany. Gallagher summed up his attitude during this period: ‘If you know what you want to do and know what you want to play, all the other things are just coincidentals ... the showband experience was very good in that I knew damn well what I wanted to play —electric stuff. So I knew then what direction I was going in.’

On the Boards (Polydor 1970) is Taste at their peak and stands the test of time admirably. In the eleven tracks Gallagher disciplines indulgency and accomplishes a controlled expression. Taking a wide sweep of his talents the album is grounded in rhythm and blues, ranging from ‘Railway and Gun’ (stylish blues) to ‘See Here’ (acoustic). The title track is an instrumental of soft jazz music, involving an alto-sax solo by Rory himself. ‘What's Goin’ On’ is a classic heavy song and was to become his most famous opening number in concert. He even did a pop song, ‘If I Don’t Sing I’ll Cry’, his voice a raspy blues howl.

The period of rock music that Taste emerged through was hectic. Groups formed, achieved stardom and disbanded within months of formation. Taste were also part of the festival scene of the times — a period when large open-air events attracted world-class acts in an atmosphere of relaxation and collective enjoyment. When Rory stepped on-stage anywhere, he was greeted with howls of adulation. He was fast becoming the new doyen of the electric guitar. By 1970, he had cut a brilliant album, gone to the States, toured Europe and made it to the Isle of Wight Festival. Here he had played with The Doors and Jimi Hendrix two of the sixties’ most inspiring components.

Taste were a definitive sixties blues band, second only to Cream in terms of three-piece instrumental showmanship. Their set was filmed at the Isle of Wight in August 1970 — all the more significant in that it represented the passing of an era. With Eric Clapton past his prime and Jimi Hendrix’s tragic death in September of that year, Rory Gallagher was the only blues guitarist of strength to fill the position of international guitar hero. Indicative of the pace and stress of that period, Taste broke up in October 1970. This unexpected move occurred under very mysterious circumstances which in the end had little to do with the music. Unfortunately, business and personal problems had encroached on Rory Gallagher’s career.

Taste — live albums released 1971
1 Live Taste: Recorded at the Montreux Casino, a very good live album made up almost entirely of blues material. The most prominent cut being ‘Feel So Good’, a Big Billy Broonzy composition.
Live at the Isle of Wight: The album cover shows the primitive orange amps and minimal equipment which Taste were using for a huge rock festival. The sound quality is atrocious and the numbers poorly performed. Taste were obviously at the end of their lease. Redeeming feature is a lengthy version of ‘What's Goin’ On’.
The Rory Gallagher Band emerged into the twilight of the next decade with a
more subdued attitude. Rory had replaced his drummer and bass player with
Wilgar Campbell and Gerry MacAvoy, both from Irish group Deep Joy.
Immediately they recorded an album which broke away from the fuzzy style of Taste. Rory Gallagher (Polydor 1971) is varied, more dexterous and even delicate in parts. ‘It’s You’, “I'm Not Surprised’, ‘Just the Smile’ and ‘Can’t Believe It's True’ are worked acoustic compositions. His lyrics are better, having graduated from gruff howls to such lines as:

I feel so blue,
I think I’ll wave myself goodbye.
‘Wave Myself Goodbye’

Bringing in Vincent Crane on piano displayed Gallagher’s interest in widening the format of his blues style — the down home sound on “Wave Myself Goodbye’. There's even a country blues sound from his acoustic here and there. Nevertheless, Rory couldn't help letting go on ‘Laundromat’ and “Sinner Boy’, the hard electric blues tracks. This line-up of the band lasted until June 1972, producing two more records which made the international charts, and carrying the Irishman’s electric blues to the four corners of the earth.

At this stage, Gallagher was becoming more extravagant in his playing, more interesting. Deuce (Polydor 1971) is another landmark, produced by Rory himself. Opening and closing tracks of both sides are hard rock, simple and to the point. The rest is more experimental — flourishing acoustic displays (“I'm Not Awake Yet’), to picked harmonics (‘Maybe I Will’). ‘Out of My Mind’ is interesting since Rory sings in an American country style with banjo-sounding guitar. Again he used good bluesy lyrics well thought out and heartfelt:

Wake up in the morning it's a brand new day.
Though it seems the same
it's different from yesterday.
Then I envy the leaves and put my cup away. (Repeated) Runnin’ down a country lane lookin’ on a field of grain, Just to see your smile, makes me feel in love again.
(“Maybe I Will’)

By 1972, Rory Gallagher was recognised as undisputed blues guitar hero. May of that year brought him enormous commercial and artistic success with the release of Live in Europe (Polydor). “This is a song by Blind Boy Fuller ... he cut it way back in 1920 or something or other ... Pistol Slapper Blues,’ announces Gallagher. For another, with his pronunciation very black, very negro, he picks up a mandolin and strumming like mad, the crowd clapping and stomping, he growls: “Mama’s in the kitchen baking up a pie, Papa’s in the backyard ... get a job son you know you ought to try.’ ‘Goin’ to My Home’ is the title of this mandolin blues, his theme being leaving home, gettin’ a job and feelin’ the lonesome blues’.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you very much ... Did you everrrrr, did you everrrrr, did you everrrrr, well did you ever wake up with those bullfrogs on your mind. Well did you ever wake up with those bullfrogs on your mind .. .‘ —the intro to ‘Bullfrog Blues’, the song which has become synonymous with his name. Rory on vocals, guitars, mandolin and harmonica is peaking all over the place.

Just when the seas of superstardom began to roll again, Rory Gallagher switched direction. In June 1972, a new Rory Gallagher Band was formed, with Rod de’Ath (drums), Lou Martin (keyboards) and old friend Gerry MacAvoy fretting the bass. Obviously the man was more interested in blues than in the hassle of being public property. Through the three albums of blues music he put down between 1972 and 1974, a sincere desire to embrace its very nature is apparent. Blueprint (Polydor 1973) explores the delta blues of Big Bill Broonzy (‘Banker’s Blues’), the romantic spirit of American folk (‘Daughter of the Everglades’) and waltz-time music (‘If I Had a Reason’). He mixes pedal-steel guitar with strong production overdubs, embroidering ‘If I Had a Reason’ with an historical mesh of nineteenth-century Americana.

Gallagher had chosen Lou Martin for his interest in blues piano after the fashion of Otis Spann, the great ‘spanking’ Chicago pianist. Their next record, Tattoo (Polydor 1973), re-echoed American roots. Besides its florid cover design, the songs are coated with an ‘olden time’ film — something of the music hail and vaudeville atmosphere. ‘Tattoo’d Lady’, ‘Cradle Rock’and’Livin’Like a Truck’are straight heavy rock while ‘Who’s That Commn’ slides in with acoustic bottleneck guitar, transferring quickly to electric. Produced by Rory himself, the album contained another definitive Gallagher tune — ‘A Million Miles Away’.

His most important accomplishment of this period was the legendary Irish tour of early 1974. Filmed by Tony Palmer and recorded for posterity, the concerts were indeed Rory Gallagher reaching a new height in his expression of blues. His rendering of Muddy Waters’s ‘I Wonder Who’s Gonna Be Your Sweet Man’ and Tony Joe White’s ‘As the Crow Flies’ are erudite versions of American blues originals. As an example of how incredible Gallagher’s guitar work could be, ‘Walk on Hot Coals’ is a fifteen-minute revelation — precision picking, harmonic wah-wah, fuzztone — you name it, it's involved here. The more he plays the more the instrument plays him. It rolls out faster and faster, reaching crests of scintillating hooks and lead breaks. If you want to know why Gallagher is so good, listen to Rory Gallagher Irish Tour 1974 (Polydor), and remember it's his tenth album and third band.

After a change to Chrysalis Records, The Rory Gallagher Band struck gold with Against the Grain (1975) — much louder and crisper than earlier recordings, with one side Gallagher compositions and the other a collection of tributes to ageing bluesmen. ‘Out on the Western Plain’ (Leadbelly) is about the most authentic rural American song Rory Gallagher ever accomplished with a deep, bassy acoustic sound evoking rolling plains, hot sun, and barren townships:

Me and a bunch of cowboys Coin a cah cah yiccie yiccie
rode into Jesse James, Coin a cah cah yiccie yiccie yeah
Me and a bunch of cowboys
rode into Jesse James.

If one closes the mind to the immediate surroundings, sounds of cowboys, horses, campfires, firearms flare up in tune with Rory’s picking and booming on the bass strings — gliding from one chord to the other — changing key and bringing you with it, his voice the husky colour of a woodsman.

During the seventies Gallagher’s interest in blues went far. Numerous trips to the States brought him into contact with those black artists who had pioneered the genre — Freddie King, Albert King and Muddy Waters, amongst others. Rather than just sit in the audience, Gallagher would get up and jam with the great old men, preferring small, smoky, acoustic clubs to large stadia. His humility and debt-paying to those who inspired him was definitely off the beaten track. An important event was his involvement with Mississippi bluesman Muddy Waters on Muddy Waters — London Sessions (Chess 1972), where he jammed to his heart’s delight. Stevie Winwood, Georgie Fame, Mitch Mitchell and other sixties musicians all paid Waters a tribute by guesting on the record.

After producing Calling Card (Chrysalis 1976), there was another line-up change to make Rory Gallagher Band number three. This time Ted McKenna took the drum seat with Gerry MacAvoy still on bass and Rory concentrating on a better-produced, tougher sound with less exploration.

Picture Macroom Mountain Dew Festival in West Cork, mid-June 1978 —blue skies and sun shining high — everyone feeling right for a day of open-air live music — the small town thronging with people, mostly teenagers, drinking, cavorting, making hay in anticipation of Rory Gallagher’s appearance. Spanning two decades, his eternal presence on the rock scene drew many admirers, fans and well wishers. A free and open spirit made Rory Gallagher’s return to his home town an emotive happening with everyone rising to the version of ‘Out on the Western Plain’ — the breeze blowing in his hair — jeans, check shirt and battered Fender. A survivor of the heavy sixties, Rory Gallagher had made blues his life-force, a constant in a world of flux, a lifelong source of being:

I don’t know where I'm goin’
and I don’t know where I’ve been
and I haven’t seen my baby since I don’t know when.
I'm walking down that long road with a smile upon my face, broken hearted but people can’t see a trace.
(‘Don’t Know Where I'm Goin’, Deuce 1971)

From May 1978 to March 1981, The Rory Gallagher Band toured the world and recorded three albums: Photofinish (Chrysalis 1978), Top Priority (Chrysalis 1979) and Stagestruck (Chrysalis 1980). Heavy rock tracks such as ‘Shadow Play’ and ‘Won’t You Follow Me’ were very popular and kept the public wanting more. In May 1981, there was a fourth line-up change when Brendan O’Neill replaced Ted McKenna on drums. After the 1982 Jinx album on Chrysalis, Gallagher opted to spend much of his time in Europe, appearing only twice in his homeland over the next four years. Despite his absence, Gallagher still has an enormous following and many rate him as the finest blues guitarist of his generation. A new album, Defender (Capo/Demon) was released in summer 1987, and showed that none of the old fire had gone. The inclusion of a Sonny Boy Williamson track and the acoustic blues ‘Seven Days’ assured everyone that his original vision was still intact.

This article comes from a book called Isle of Noises,Rock and Roll's Roots in Ireland published in 1987.
Reformatted by roryfan
The background is a capture from Montreux by Stephanos, mutated by roryfan
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