The legend of Rory Gallagher lives on

Rory Gallagher (Photo by John Prew)

Former showband musician turned legendary blues guitarist Rory Gallagher died nearly a quarter of a century ago on 14 June 1995, aged just 47.

In the years since his reputation has only increased.

So, there has been some excitement about the release of a triple album of his work, Blues, lovingly overseen by his younger brother, and manager, Dónal.

The album features 36 blues songs – electric, acoustic and live – from stage and studio and radio and TV sessions.

Many were recorded for albums from which they were subsequently dropped and never released. Several of the recordings are from the early ’70s.

Spanning 1971 to 1994 and ranging from never heard before tracks to special guest sessions with legendary blues artists – Muddy Waters, Albert King, Jack Bruce, Lonnie Donegan and Chris Barber – the album showcases Rory’s sheer love for the blues.

Some of rock music’s most acclaimed and enduring performers from Eric Clapton, to Queen’s Brian May to The Smiths’ Johnny Marr, have cited him as an influence.

Clapton credited Rory with “getting me back into the blues”, while May said: “I owe Rory Gallagher my sound.” 

William Rory Gallagher was born in Ballyshannon, County Donegal, in 1948, where his father worked for the ESB on building the hydroelectric power plant on the River Erne. 

The family moved to Cork where Rory, encouraged by his family, showed precocious talent, first mastering ukulele and then acoustic and, then, electric guitar. 

Rory listened to Radio Luxembourg and the American Forces Network, where he heard Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran and Lonnie Donegan, before later discovering two of his biggest influences, Muddy Waters and Lead Belly.

“We didn’t have a record player when I was growing up, so I spent a lot of time tuning in to Radio Luxembourg, the BBC, and the Armed Forces Network from Germany. The first electric blues I heard was Muddy Waters on AFN. It was very late one night, and it came across real clear.

“He was playing slide on a Telecaster and that really hit me. So, the following weekend I went into the library in Cork and I got books out on the origins of the blues. Then I started getting into Lonnie Donegan and Lead Belly and Big Bill Broonzy.”

He noticed similarities with the music he’d heard while growing up: “Blues music and Irish music have a lot of singing, a lot of wailing.

“There’s a lot of bending of notes in the singing, and when the girls are playing the uilleann pipes, that’s not that far from bending notes with a slide or something. And the fact is that they’re both folk music.

“There’s a lot of stories in the songs, and there’s a lot of melancholy, a lot of minor key things, so there is a parallel.”

He taught himself to play slide guitar and the rudiments of bass, mandolin, harmonica and saxophone.

Stratocaster

In 1963 he acquired his famous Fender Stratocaster from Crowley’s Music Store in Cork of which he said: “It was made in November ’61 and I got it in August of ’63, so it was second-hand. It was the first Stratocaster in Ireland, apparently, but the guy who ordered it wanted a red one, like Hank Marvin’s, and they sent him a sunburst one instead. So, he had to wait for a year-and-a-half or whatever to get the red one, and then he sold this one through the shop. So, I got it.”

Aged 15 he joined the Fontana Showband (later renamed The Impact) as a sideman playing the UK and Irish club circuit as well as clubs in Hamburg.

After that band broke up in 1966, he went on to form blues-rock trio Taste, initially with two Cork-based musicians, Norman Damery and Eric Kitteringham, and later joined, in 1968, by drummer John Wilson and bassist Richard McCracken.

The band got a residency at the Marquee Club in Soho where their fans included a certain John Lennon. Polydor signed Taste and released two acclaimed studio albums, Taste, and On the Boards (1970).

Rory Gallagher (Image by John Prew)

The band supported Cream at their Royal Albert Hall farewell concert and toured North America with Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker’s short-lived post-Cream supergroup Blind Faith.

Rory’s band released two more albums before splitting up in 1970, Live Taste and Live at the Isle of Wight. The band’s final performance was New Year’s Eve 1970 in Belfast.
Rory started a new trio, Rory Gallagher and Deuce, this time with Belfast musicians Gerry McAvoy, on bass, and Wilgar Campbell, on drums.

The ensuing studio album, Rory’s first, in May 1971, led to the first of seven consecutive gold discs.

Melody Maker named him International Top Guitarist of The Year – ahead of Eric Clapton – in 1972.

Blues

During the ‘70s he guested with people like Jerry Lee Lewis and Albert King but most notably with his great hero, Muddy Waters, on The London Sessions album (1972).
He spent three nights recording with Muddy in London: “It was a real honour. Muddy taught me an awful lot during those sessions, and I came out a much better player than I went in. Just watching him tuning his guitar or doing something like ‘Walkin’ Blues’ was wonderful for me.”

Asked to explain just what type of music he played, he explained to an interviewer in 1978: “I never started out to be a strict recreator of the blues or even a modern young bluesman. I wanted to be me.

“Basically,” he said, “I’m into what used to be known as ‘down-home’ music, something that’s closer to the ground.

“Obviously, I do it my own way, but that’s the kind of feel I’m after. I wouldn’t be satisfied if I was just playing other people’s music or just the blues – mine or anybody else’s. It’s my own songwriting, my own development, which is more important.

In Ireland, Rory funded the rock magazine Hot Press and helped bring about, with his brother Dónal, Ireland’s very first open-air rock festival, Macroom Mountain Dew on 26 June 1977 in Macroom, County Cork, attended by more than 20,000, among them U2’s The Edge, for whom it was the first major concert he attended.

Rory toured heavily to the very end, regularly notching up 300 gigs a year.

By the turn of the 90s, he had played 25 US tours and appeared at both the Reading Festival and Switzerland’s Montreux Jazz Festival more times than any other act.

He released his final studio album, Fresh Evidence, in 1991 and gave his final North American appearances later that year during which he played country blues by Robert Johnson, Lead Belly, Son House, and Blind Boy Fuller.

During that tour he told an interviewer: “I still regard myself as a student but I think once you get to a certain age you start to see that whatever little talent you have, you do have a responsibility to pass it on. I know I’m not Elmore James or Muddy Waters, but I certainly have the power to enlighten people to their music – and on top of that, hopefully end up with something that stands up as my own document.”

His health began to fail as both alcohol and prescription medicines took their toll on his liver.

In January 1995 he collapsed onstage in Rotterdam. He underwent a liver transplant and died from complications while convalescing, aged just 47.

He is buried in St Oliver’s Cemetery in Ballincollig, just outside his adopted hometown of Cork – where some 15,000 people lined the streets of Cork as he was laid to rest – and where his headstone is a replica of his 1972 Melody Maker International Guitarist of The Year award.

But he is commemorated throughout Ireland and abroad.

In Ballyshannon there is a bronze statue, there’s a sculpture in Cork and a theatre and a city square – Rory Gallagher Place – are named in his honour.

Adrian Dunbar and Donal Gallagher

There’s a mounted guitar in Dublin and a blue plaque on Belfast’s Ulster Hall, and a Rue Rory Gallagher in Paris.

Meanwhile, Fender has globally marketed a tribute model of his paint-stripped sunburst Stratocaster

In a 1988 interview with Hot Press Rory said he still drew his inspiration from the original bluesmen:

“It’s a hoary old cliché, but I still live and breathe the blues. I’m still fascinated with it and with the people who make it. It’s my life. Even when I’m not touring or writing, I listen to it all the time.

“I listen to a lot but keep going back to the big guys, the all-time blues. It’s like the true creed. When all else fails in other aspects of life, in business or whatever, I can play a blues record. It’s as natural for me, as wholesome for my soul and heart, as probably traditional music is to somebody in the west of Ireland, who absolutely needs the music on a spiritual level.”

In a separate BBC interview Rory once said, somewhat poignantly in hindsight: “The ultimate dream, aside from 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.”

Rory Gallagher BLUES is available as a 15 track 1CD / 2LP version, a limited edition blue vinyl 2LP, and a deluxe 36 track 3CD version


You might also be interested in this article

Ailish McBride is a star in the making

Register now to keep up to date with all the latest:

  • Irish News
  • Sport
  • Community and Entertainment

Sign up to our Newsletter to be in with a chance to win a snazzy iPad and for all the latest...

  • Email updates
  • Regular features
  • Competitions and give aways