By Steve Rider
It seems like there are two kinds of people when it comes to Rory Gallagher: people who love his work and people who haven’t heard of him yet. Sadly, I was one of those second varieties until a few short years ago, which I find astonishing considering that the root of my musical influence is old school rock and blues. As a longtime follower of those hallowed Guitar Gods, Clapton, Hendrix, Page, Stevie Ray, and more, as well as the bluesmen that inspired many of the names on that list, I could not believe that I had overlooked a musician of Gallagher’s caliber for my entire life. On top of that, it wasn’t even his music that served as the introduction; it was a discussion on guitar builder forums centered on the interaction of human sweat and guitar finishes. It was among the ebb and flow of questions, comments, and responses that I would come to learn of the courageous Irish music man. It turns out that Gallagher’s sweat was highly alkaline, reducing the finish on his 1961 sunburst Strat to mere patches of clinging finish floating across bare wood. And for all I know, it might have ended there. But it was not to be; someone had posted a video of one of his many live performances.
There was this young man with flowing dark hair, wearing a plaid flannel shirt under a vest like the one that Marty McFly catches so much grief for in Back to the Future, so late 70’s early 80’s. He was standing at a microphone, that rugged Fender Stratocaster slung across his chest, chanting “Have you ever…Have you ever…” at an audience mere yards away, his voice holding a surprising power. He wound the crowd up and then closed the short distance to the mic and let loose on that fretboard. Pure blues power! It was like slamming on the brakes, going fifty-five, and bouncing my head off the steering wheel. Who the hell was this guy, and how in the world had I never even heard of him?
“Rory Gallagher,” I was quickly informed, “He’s pretty good.”
At that point, everybody involved in the conversation quickly sorted themselves out to either camp one or two.
Now, if you are a resident of camp two (I haven’t heard of him yet), do yourself a favor and check out the free media on the Official Rory Gallagher website at the end of this article.
What you’re going to experience is a real treat: a guitar virtuoso with such a distinctive signature sound that once you’ve heard it, you will identify it instantly. Rory’s musical fingerprint is like nothing that I’ve ever experienced elsewhere, a seamless blending of blues, hard rock, and Irish folk. And that probably doesn’t do it real justice because the elegance with which the ethnic overtones flow across his guitar work leaves this space inside that somehow can hold both the wall-shaking rock and pure blues without ever clashing or fighting for a place. It’s a thing of beauty.
Gallagher’s distinctive style was grown organically in the Emerald Isle soil and watered with American blues and rock and roll. He was born in born in 1948 in Ballyshannon, County Donegal, Ireland. His mother was a performer, and his father a tradesman. The Gallagher family resettled in Cork within a short time, wherein 1956 Rory would begin playing the ukulele. At age nine, he would receive an acoustic guitar and teach himself to play the next year. His parents both encouraged him to pursue music, and he and his brother Donal were musically inclined. His mother acted and sang at a playhouse in Ballyshannon, which would later be renamed Rory Gallagher Theater. Through the next several years, young Rory was playing in Parish Centers and high schools around Cork. At age twelve, he would use the prize money he won at a talent contest to buy himself an electric guitar, but it was the 1961 Fender Stratocaster that he would take with him throughout his career, modding it over the years to have just one volume and one tone pot.
During his school years, Gallagher began to find his influences in early rock, blues, and folk artists like Woody Guthrie, Buddy Holly, Leadbelly, and especially Muddy Waters. Being unable to find or purchase many record albums, he would stay up nights listening to the American Forces Network and Radio Luxembourg, where he could hear the kinds of music that interested him.
Rory was a multi-instrumentalist, playing acoustic and electric guitar and harmonica, bass, alto sax, banjo, and even sitar. As his affinity for blues music deepened, he also learned to play slide guitar. To exercise his musical talents, Rory started to perform with Irish showbands. The showbands were a type of multi-instrument ensemble that performed a particular type of dance music. They generally wore matching outfits and stuck to a playlist that their audiences would be expecting. It’s hard to imagine the creative mind and musical preferences of a young Rory Gallagher would mesh well with the scene. While a good place to gain experience and musical chops, it seemed that Gallagher would be moving through the showband experience towards a musical vision that was quite well defined within. From 1963 to 1966, he would travel across Ireland and the UK with a showband called Fontana, which he would eventually mold into an R&B ensemble renamed The Impact. Following the band’s breakup in London, Gallagher returned home and decided to start his band.
Gallagher formed an R&B power trio he called The Taste, and later taste. They have a successful run, garnering Cream positions at their farewell show at the Royal Albert Music Hall and alongside the supergroup Blind Faith on an American tour. The band released two studio and two live albums. Their final live album, Live at the Isle of Wight, would only be released after the band had broken up following the performance. Following the band’s demise, Gallagher turned to solo work and released his self-titled first studio album and bassist Gerry McAvoy and drummer Wilgar Campbell. Rory was in his element at last, and he would put out ten albums during the 1970’s while also maintaining an energetic touring schedule. He was a massive hit at home, and audiences across the world were flocking to his intimately set shows, usually in small theaters. This is the point at which you would think that such a fantastic talent would spring to super-stardom, but it was not to be. Through his ideology, he shunned becoming a colossal name and sought to preserve what he considered to be the best way he was capable of connecting to his listeners. His performances were infectious, to say the least, bringing his music to the people in settings where that connection could best thrive. He continued to excite and electrify his fans face-to-face, bringing tremendous energy and talent to every show and every album.
He was an artist that sold more than thirty million albums across the world, but it was his live performances that most entrenched his music in the hearts of his fans. This dedication to his listeners and non-stop work ethic endeared him to people worldwide, but it was especially true for those living at home in Ireland. He had brought something to them that had seemed a world away, influencing scores of young guitarists, some, like U2’s The Edge, who would themselves become world-famous. While most acts decided to stay away from Northern Ireland during years of strife, he showed time and again that he believed wholeheartedly in the power of music to bring people together. He toured every year in Belfast throughout his entire career, touching his native people’s hearts and showing that it was possible to have an Irish act on the international stage.
After developing a fear of flying later in his career, he was given potent sedatives, which combined with alcohol to destroy his liver. Though the mid-nineties noticeably advanced his condition, Gallagher would not be dissuaded from touring, so he continued to perform until January of 1995. By then, he had become so severely ill that he could no longer go on, and the tour had to be canceled. When doctors discovered the extent of the damage to his liver, his doctors decided that the only course of action would be a liver transplant. He underwent the procedure, spending thirteen weeks in intensive care. Suddenly his condition worsened, and he was found to have contracted an MSRA infection. He died on 14 June 1995, at the age of 47. He had never married nor had children.
Rory Gallagher spent his endless vitality in transmitting his music, maintaining a deep and intimate relationship with his fans. He had released fourteen solo albums on top of the four with Taste. He is said to have influenced the lives and careers of many young guitar players. Brian May even relates that Gallagher directly explained how he shaped his sound, and that was what May used to achieve his signature tone. It only takes one look at how Rory interacted with his audience to see that he was a man who had nothing to hide, that in fact, his purpose for being was to share his heart and soul through his guitar, directly connecting to those of his listeners.
To learn more about Rory Gallagher, please visit: www.rorygallagher.com