KID by Michael Leonard

Loved by the best, known to too few, Irish blues original Rory Gallagher departed this earth well before his time. Brother Donal and friends piece together a life of dedication and inspiration...

That a boy born in the late ‘40s in Ballyshannon, in the west of Ireland, should make the blues his life's work and study is maybe strange, yet there were many things about Rory Gallagher that test logic. Here was a performer of fireball intensity, yet painfully shy and unassuming when out of the live spotlight. Here was a man who —in sharp contrast to the often gritty vignettes of his songs — had a consuming passion for astrology; so extreme was his superstition that he'd sometimes refuse to venture outdoors on Friday the 13th. Here was a supposedly straightahead denim-clad rocker who, while certainly admired by his power-blues peers, also had ardent fans as unlikely Bob Dylan, John Lennon, the Smiths’ Johnny Marr and Irish folk stalwarts The Chieftains.

When Rory Gallagher died on June 14 1995, the result of pneumonia setting in after a seemingly successful liver transplant, his stock was hardly high, but this September's selective reissues of albums — Deuce, Irish Tour, Calling Card, Photo-Finish and Fresh Evidence — show exactly why Gallagher became revered as Ireland's first ever rock star. ‘The best normal guitar player in the world,’ said America's Creem magazine and it's an appropriate accolade. Rory Gallagher’s blues were bare of artifice and, some might say, even ambition, but there remained something special about  his playing, be it jazzy chordal runs and octave soloing or hard-bitten blues wailing. As his champion at Melody Maker in the ‘70s, journalist Roy Holllngworth noted on Gallagher’s death, ‘The biggest shame was that he never really made it in the United States, yet he was one of the best blues guitar players. He had true grit — that Irish soul to his playing that the British blues guitarists never had.’

‘He was the big guy who seemed to know exactly what he was about,’ remembers Donal Gallagher, Rory’s younger brother, manager for most of his career and now overseer of his recently reissued back catalogue. ‘Rory’s interest in the guitar started with Roy Rogers — the comic-book guitar stuff — and then he asked our mother to buy him a classical guitar from a mail-order catalogue. He was listening to a lot of Lonnie Donegan— the closest to blues he heard then was Chris Barber's Jazz Band. But Derry, where we were living at the time, there was an American. radio station and they'd play Muddy Waters and Big Bill Broonzy, plus Woody Guthrie; it was the usual blues names of the era. Later, Rory tuned into the early days of Radio Luxembourg, he loved players Rambling Jack Elliot. Deep down, country folk blues was his love.”

Gallagher taught himself to play aged nine, and at 15 bought the Fender Stratocaster that would become his totem. ‘It’s a 1961 model,’ he recalled in 1990. ‘It was £100, which was an absolute fortune at the time. It was in good condition then, but it's got so battered now it's got a kind of tattoo quality about it. There's now a theory that the less paint or varnish on a guitar, acoustic or electric, the better. The wood breathes more. But it's all psychological. I just like the sound of it.

‘It’s also a good luck thing. It was stolen one time and it came back It's kind of a lucky charm; the guitar is a part of me. BB King might have several Lucilles, but I've only got the one Strat. I don't even call it a woman's name. It's what it is. I still play it every day, I just love playing it.

The battle-scars of Rory’s Strat were not down to roughshod treatment, says Donal, but ‘due to his blood group type, extremely rare, that had a very high acidic content. So when Rory sweated on stage -and he sweated buckets -it was like paintstripper.'

‘Rory made an album before Photo Finish. He'd spent six weeks recording in San Francisco... and then he just shocked everyone by, literally, dropping it in the bin,’

 'Rory always used to say there was no point in crowing about yourself when there were people like Doc Watson around.

And it was in this bucket-sweating live arena that Gallagher made his name; first with his late-'60s power trio Taste -tours with John Mayall and Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac took Taste to the verge of a mainstream breakthrough before they split after 1970's On The Boards - and more substantially as a solo artist. The reissued Irish Tour is testimony to Gallagher's live prowess, his rough voice cutting through swathes of swelling blues-rock riffery .

Although quiet offstage Gallagher remained, even in his twilight years, a remarkable live draw. 'Sometimes I don't recognise myself up there,' he once drily observed, 'and sometimes I don't recognise myself when I come off the stage. I don't know. I'm not aware of this Jekyll and Hyde change. I mean, if I were as crazy offstage as I am on stage, people would lock me up.'

In the studio, things were less cut and dried. His 10 studio albums - from the self-titled debut in 1971 up to 1990's Fresh Evidence -were mostly patchy affairs, though there are inevitable standouts. Deuce (also 1971) showcased Gallagher's hoarse yet discernably folk-tinged vocals, a slashing-then-staccato chordal style and lead guitar of simple yet fetching lyricism: add the deft acoustic work of I'm Not Awake Yet and Don't Know Where I'm Going and you have an album that encapsulated Rory's music. Meanwhile, 1978's Photo-Finish served to document that Gallagher was no mean songwriter either. Amid the stomping rockers, Overnight Bag is a lilting pop blues of which Eric Clapton could be proud and rollicking Cruise on Out shows an attention for authentic  r'n'r detail and stunningly fleet double-stopped soloing. " If anyone asks how good a guitarist Rory was' says Donal Gallagher with pride, " I always direct them to Cruise on Out. I think his playing was superlative on that."

Deuce and Photo-Finish have nevertheless been remixed for this latest reissue, suggesting that Gallagher was unhappy with them first time round. 'I don't think he ever found the right person to work with in the studio,' opines Donal. 'At first he worked well with Eddie Offord, who had engineered Taste's On The Boards', and Rory probably would have stayed with him had Eddie not gone to America. Rory enjoyed working with people, there's no doubt about that, but I think it was more in his head -he didn't feel he got what was possible on to tape and I think it frustrated him greatly. Any time he worked with producers, it always became a clash where they would try and sweeten the music up too much. Rory always wanted a true live feel, even when that was to his detriment.'
The pursuit of authenticity meant Gallagher often tried to cut lead vocal and guitar tracks simultaneously -'I feel terribly awkward in the studio with nothing in my hands', he once admitted -and endless deliberation over whether his music was of sufficient worth: 'If you produce, write and play on an album, you lose all perspective. I get terrible doubts.'

Doubts so strong, it turns out, that whole albums were scrapped. 'Rory made an album before Photo-Finish,' recalls his brother. 'He'd spent six weeks recording in San Francisco, the record was even lacquered and cut. And then he just shocked everyone by, literally, dropping it in the bin. He was going to come back to Europe the same day, and then broke his thumb in the door of a cab. It wasn't one of his lucky days.'

Gallagher may well have been his own harshest critic, but as his solo career unfolded his peers lined up to shower praise. He famously beat Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page to Melody Maker's Musician Of The Year award in 1972, and the same year had a dream come true when invited to record with Muddy Waters.

'Rory was playing Leicester that night and had to cut the gig short -a very rare thing for him to do -to jump in the car and get back to London,' -Donal recalls:'He-arrived near midnight and the session was due to have - started at eight. But Muddy had waited for him and Rory was just so flattered. Rory came in the door mumbling, "Motorway this, traffic jam that," and there was Muddy with a bottle of champagne and an empty glass. He poured it for Rory and, immediately, everything was great, just great’

Backed by Georgie Fame on keyboards and Mitch Mitchell on drums, Gallagher’s work on Muddy’s The London Sessions (on Chess records) left a deep impression. Donal Gallagher reckons his brother secretly viewed it as ‘the high point of his life’, while Rory even kept the car used to ferry Muddy around, a Ford Zephyr Executive, as a shrine. ‘Never get rid of this of this car, boy,’ the stout bluesman instructed his starstruck student ‘It’s a good car. Like an American car.’

‘And we did keep it, untouched,’ smiles Donal. That's how devoted Rory was.’

A more bizarre brush with fame came two years later. In an interview with the NME in the early ‘70s, Keith Richards had remarked how the first artist he wanted to sign to the then-fledgling Rolling Stones Records was Rory Gallagher, though no further overtures were made: then, in the wake of Mick Taylor's departure in December 1974, the Rolling Stones came to suffer yet another bout of guitarist trouble.

So, in the first days of 1975, Stones keyboardist Ian Stewart rang the Gallagher’s family home. ‘Don't be kiddin’,’ was Rory’s response, typically, to Donal telling him the Stones were on the phone, but after being persuaded this was no prank, Rory agreed to take a plane to Munich and audition for the world's most notorious rock’n’roll band (Ry Cooder, Peter Frampton, Mick Ronson, even Jeff Beck were also on Keith Richards’ so-called ‘shopping list’).

The true picture of the liaison is murky: Donal remains ‘furious’ that a nervous Rory insisted on traveling alone save for his favourite tweed-covered Fender amp and the battered Strat It is known that, after being collected in a cab by Mick Jagger, Gallagher jammed a set of songs with the band and Jagger oozed positively about Rory becoming a Stone. The thing was,’ Donal outlines, ‘Jagger and Richards were barely talking at this point and although Mick told Rory to go and speak to Keith, when he tried Keith was just comatose upstairs. Everyone seemed to be waiting for Keith to get it together and make a decision. Rory tried to wake him but had to make a flight to Japan — this was January 27th and his Japanese tour started on the 29th. He left a note with the Stones as to where he'd be, but nothing happened.

‘Y'know, Rory didn't talk about it too much, but I know he was unsure as to whether the Stones had taken umbrage at him leaving like that with hindsight, of course, Rory should have canceled the Japanese tour. But the Stones, at the time, were banned from Japan for life and all those factors were playing in Rory’s head; if he didn't get to Japan now and then joined the Stones, he'd might never go back. The press had already run the headline that Rory had joined the Stones, and I know that when he got to Germany he was aware of all this going on, he was very shy about the whole thing. I knew Rory’s nature. He was just too placid, too easy-going. The Stones had all their management there, even Marshall Chess (of Chess records) was there, but it never happened. It's an unanswered tale. In the end, though, I think Ronnie (Wood) was more the required image of the Stones; he certainly didn't take them in a new direction.’

Richards has since conceded that, with respect to any new guitarist, he knew that
the Stones had to stay ‘an English rock’n’roll band, and not just English, but from London’, so perhaps it was a done-for deal anyway. And in truth, it's hard to imagine the gentlemanly and reputedly women-shy Gallagher indulging the S&M-advertising campaign that launched the Stones’ next album, Black And Blue.

As Rory curtly judged in retrospect: ‘Keith is a fantastic rhythm guitarist. But he's crazy.’

In the year Rory didn't join the Stones, he realised a keener ambition by guesting on Albert King's Live LP, and in ‘76 cut another rockier LP, Calling Card. Critical garlands again followed, though it seemed Gallagher was happy to remain on the margins of the mainstream. ‘It must be the old Irish in me,’ he reflected. ‘We tend to work outside the establishment, historically and otherwise.’

Donal Gallagher ‘Rory was such a fan of other people, he didn't really think about his own reputation. Even when he won the Melody Maker poll — which really meant something at the time — he didn't go and pick up the award because we were on tour in the States. He said, “Oh, it's only this year.” I think he was embarrassed by it — even upset for those who didn't win.

‘Rory was so strange about his own success. I think if he'd taken more stock he might have been thicker-skinned about life, but if someone flattered Rory he was always inclined to reflect the glory onto somebody else. He couldn't quite believe that a lot of the blues players that he was listening to had hardly any success, people like Doc Watson. Rory always used to say there was no point in crowing about yourself when there were people like Watson around. I might have even encouraged Rory to be more competitive, if you like, about what he was doing, but it didn't seem to interest him at all.’

By the 1980s, Rory Gallagher had put the brakes on his album every year’ dictate of the previous decade and was no longer in the public eye. Ironically the so-called ‘blues revival’ was happening all around him, not only resurrecting the careers of the innovators he held so dear, but elevating some younger and hungrier pups too.

‘When Robert Cray came through, Rory said it was good that the blues was getting fashionable again,’ says Donal. ‘But it wasn't a real interest to him. He was certainly disappointed in people like ZZ Top when they started to incorporate drum machines and sequencers. Rory had toured with ZZ Top before they ready made it and when they were still wearing Texas suits, and he did some Thanksgiving shows, Taking Texas To The World, which is apparently a big honour. They were really into him — in fact, if you listen to a few ZZ Top riffs you might guess they were listening very heavily to the Deuce album. But later on, Rory felt they could have achieved the same thing without the disco aspects. That disappointed him more than people like Robert Cray. Eric Clapton, for example, Rory always had a lot of time for. If Rory thought people were selling out, he'd say, “But he grew up in the ‘60s,” and he was well aware that some blues players were so purist, so pious, they were a pain in the ass. He found, I think, that happy medium.’

‘People are expecting me to change,’ Rory remarked in his later years, ‘but it could be a fake change. I could do a fusion album, do a reggae album, wear a country and western hat, and then everyone would say “he's progressing”. That's not progression, that's just playing different games with the media. What I want to do is play good music, music that there's a distinct lack of now. There are very few people doing good meat-and-potatoes music with interesting sounds. It sounds like I'm boasting about it...’

It wasn't to be long before a signature Strat-toting Eric Clapton would successfully sell the new blues by dressing it up in Armani, drooping a supermodel on its arm and staging all-star jams at the Royal Albert Hall; for Rory Gallagher, perhaps naively, it was about his ‘61 stalwart squeezing out meat-and-potatoes hard blues that was, no more no less, ‘interesting’. And even then, he was careful not to be ‘boasting’.

His first album of the ‘80s, Jinx, was aptly titled: the decade was to prove a barren one for Gallagher. He scrapped another finished album prior to completing ‘87’s Defender, but it was another three years and three re-mixes before Fresh Evidence (1990) brought any substantial interest back his way. And with his health faltering due to insomnia, endless fatigue and a phobia about flying, it was getting late.

In Gallagher’s Blues, an Irish TV tribute broadcast just after the guitarist's death in 1995 aged 46, band members Gerry McAvoy and Brendan O’Neill said they believed Rory had made a decision to ‘conclude’ his career some years before. He'd previously talked about ‘making it to 60 — that would be a fair time to retire’, yet he seemed to know that, professionally at least, he wouldn't be around that long. It's odd that a usually thrifty man should own a London flat but never live there, preferring instead to spend money on renting a room, under an assumed name, at the Conrad Hotel. Fellow Irishman Gary Moore visited Gallagher there. In the months just before to his death and was apparently shocked to find him sad and quite lonely.

‘Rory didn't seem to have many close friends at all,’ remembers ‘90s acquaintance and former Fender A&R man Tom Nolan. ‘That's why, when he did invite you to spend time with him, go out for a drink, it seemed special.’

Gallagher’s tastes had seemingly changed too, with even his Strat not quite the ever-present companion it once was. ‘In the last few years of his life in particular,’ recalls Donal, ‘he loved playing the acoustic at home. He was getting back into traditional music - people like Martin Carthy, he'd play over and over again. If you looked at his vinyl blues collection it was ready extensive, but it was the acoustic country blues stuff that he relaxed with.’ Indeed, one of the projects mooted for 1999 is a compilation album of acoustic tracks, likely to reflect Gallagher’s admiration for Bert Jansch, Davey Graham and Carthy, as well as Celtic-flavoured interpretations of more traditional blues numbers.

When Rory Gallagher died, it was assumed he was another victim of alcoholic excess. ‘We all took a drink, I don't deny it,’ says Donal Gallagher, yet he goes onto argue that his brother was more the victim of careless private medics wrongly prescribing drugs. ‘Rory had hypochondriacal tendencies: “I’ll take a tablet for this, a tablet for that”. When he was eventually taken into hospital, the doctors were quite staggered at the damage done to the liver and they were quite clear that it wasn't the result of alcohol, it was something else. They wanted to know what medication he'd been given.’ In preceding years, Donal had even taken to stealing pills from Rory’s dressing room to stop his brother taking what he thought was damaging, but the star soon got more: ‘He was always going to doctors, he was seeking help, he wanted to be healthy. And they were fobbing him off with these pills. When I managed to take the tablets away, Rory didn't drink, you see?’

‘I was shocked when he died,’ says Tom Nolan. ‘Even though Rory would sometimes drink a bit — he'd have a lager with a brandy chaser — everyone just assumed he'd be okay the next day. He never appeared really ill.’

‘I think the alcohol came more into play because he'd feel so groggy from the tablets, so he'd take a brandy to perk himself up,’ says Donal Gallagher. Too much, it was “take a tablet, have a brandy”. One drug pulled against the other. The effects were fairly savage.’

Rory Gallagher’s instruments remain in the possession of his brother Donal. The unmistakable ‘61 Strat, other than providing a template for a Fender Custom Shop model (see Gallagher’s Guitars), will probably remain in his charge — ‘like a faithful dog, it only ready had one master and I don't know if it should ever be played again’ — although Donal has a novel notion for a tribute album where illustrious fans get to interpret Rory’s songs via his guitar collection. Brian May is keen to cover a Taste number, Johnny Marr is reputedly eyeing a track from Calling Card, ZZ Top have volunteered their services and it's hoped Bob Dylan might offer a reading of his Gallagher favourite, I Could Have Had Religion, a song Dylan had once hoped to record with the man himself.

And, as is the way with the deceased, further tributes keep a-rolling. Paris’s oddest named street is Rue de Rory Gallagher and yearly conventions are planned there from 1999; Belfast pays regular homage via tribute gigs: and in Cork city, where the guitarist once lived, there's not only a Gallagher’s bar but a statue, too, in Rory Gallagher Place. wouldn't allow them to call it Rory Gallagher Square,’ concludes his brother. ‘Because he wasn't.’

It's speculated that Gallagher’s famed 1961 Fender Stratocaster, serial number 64351, was probably the first Strat in Ireland. Purchased by Rory secondhand in 1963 it cost £100, paid by installments. As well as the finish taking a hammering the guitar underwent many modifications throughout a hard-gigged career. The neck was replaced several times, a Star Brass bridge was added, fatter Gibson frets were fitted and the tremolo, after breaking, was fixed with a wooden block. Gallagher’s strings were .010” to .040”, strung with a high action, to aid his (standard tuning) slide playing.

The Fender Custom Shop are hoping to complete their long-mooted Rory Gallagher
Signature model next year: ‘It had been on the cards before Rory died,’ clarifies Donal Gallagher, ‘but Fender wanted a replica while Rory would rather have designed a Strat how he thought it should be. But of course, he never got round to it, so we're doing a replica. John English, master builder of the Custom Shop, was a real big Taste fan so he's really excited about it. They're working on some new distressing techniques to make it look as authentic as possible.’

In addition, Gallagher played a maple-necked ‘57 Strat (studio work only), two black Telecasters (one with three pickups), a 22 1/2” short scale Fender Duosonic (fitted with a Musicmaster neck and tuned up a semitone), a 1960 Gibson Melody Maker, a ‘58 Les Paul Junior with a single P90 pickup, an early ‘60s Burns Bison guitar, a ‘57 Gretsch Corvette, plus the Coral Electric Sitar (used on Top Priority's Philby and Fresh Evidence’s Ghost Blues) and the Danelectro Silvertone, bought for $15 in a US pawnshop, used for A Million Miles Away and Cradle Rock. For acoustics Rory favoured a Martin 0-35 fitted with an Ibanez pickup, a Martin mandolin, a ‘32 National Duolian, a single cutaway Takamine and a long-serving Stella Harmony.

His range of amps was. large too, encompassing Ampeg VT4Os, 50-watt Marshall heads and combos, a Vox AC3O and three Fenders: a ‘54 Bassman, ‘54 Twin Twin and ‘61 Concert. ‘Like most guitar players, Rory was never satisfied,’ chuckles Donal Gallagher, ‘but in the studio, he particularly liked the old Fender Tweeds. If there's such a thing as a gritty but clean sound, that was it for Rory. Stacks just weren't on, as far as he was concerned.’

This article comes from the Dec. 1998 issue of The Guitar magazine
Thanks to Greg Pincott for passing it along
The background is a capture by donman from Rock Goes to College
Article reformatted by roryfan

 To Join The Loop
Mailing & Discussion List 
email roryfan

 Back to main RoryON!! page
 Back to Articles page
Back to previous article
 Forward to next article