Rory Gallagher remembered (1948-1995)

On the 20th anniversary of the passing of one of electric blue's giants, Bob Hewitt looks back on the Irish musician's life and talks to Gallagher's brother Dónal in an exclusive new interview…

A Gallagher family favourite portrait, taken in Spain © Bob Hewitt

The great thing about music is the indelible legacy it leaves behind – for future generations to enjoy. Be it digital media, CDs, tape or the vinyl revival, it’s a constant source of learning, enjoyment and history.

Such is the case with Rory Gallagher, who left this world all too soon on 14 June 1995 due to pneumonia complications following surgery.

Like so many guitar greats before him who have passed away, his musical catalogue lives on, providing an ‘eternal flame’ – and ensuring Gallagher’s memory is entrenched in the history of rock and blues.

Born in Ballyshannon, Ireland, in 1948, Rory was raised in Cork along with his brother Dónal.

But who was this Irish guitar wizard, really?

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As a child growing up in the 1950s, Rory loved ‘cowboy’ musicians such as Roy Rogers and Gene Autry; he would see them on black and white television, riding a horse, shooting a pistol AND playing a guitar! It would have a long-lasting effect on him.

Skiffle, too, played a huge part in Rory’s musical education, and a life-long admiration of Lonnie Donegan was the result.

As a child, Rory was given a little plastic Woolworth guitar – they came with a picture of either Elvis Presley or Lonnie Donegan on the front. When Rory unwrapped the present, it was Elvis’s image that greeted him – he was excited to receive the guitar, but disappointed not to get Lonnie’s picture on his guitar!

Rory’s little acoustic guitar also encouraged him to explore the music of the blues, through Big Bill Broonzy, Lead Belly, Blind Boy Fuller, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.

At the age of five or six, he was surfing through the radio stations to find jazz and blues music stations – some of them at that time broadcast from American bases in Ireland.

Chris Barber’s radio broadcasts were also an inspiration – especially as Barber had Lonnie Donegan on banjo! Another favourite was ‘Six-Five Special’ on early black and white TV.
Rory and Dónal would walk into town to the local TV store – and watch the show through the showroom window. There were no speakers outside the store, so Rory would have to lip sync to sing along with the songs.

Passers-by were intrigued firstly by just watching the TV pictures – but then they noticed this little kid singing all the right words.

Bill Haley’s influence was another step in the right direction for young Gallagher. Rory even insisted on having a ‘kiss curl’ hairstyle to emulate the ‘Rock Around the Clock’ pop star.
Rory’s love of Buddy Holly, led him to sneak his brother’s comic book collection to the local bookstore – where he promptly sold the lot to raise the funds to buy one of Buddy’s albums.

Gallagher was only 15 when he took on an ‘apprenticeship’ with one of Ireland’s top show bands – The Fontana. This was a grounding in rapid chord changes and being able to prove yourself in a busy band situation.

There were no YouTube guitar lessons online back then – it was ‘seat of the pants’ learning.
Gallagher would be playing from 8pm through to 2am. The repertoire would vary from old-time waltzes, traditional Irish music, country and western through to rock ‘n’ roll hits of the day.

The Fontana transformed into The Impact R&B group – and later to Taste. This would be the start of the three-piece format, which would catapult Rory Gallagher to the dizzy heights of stardom – although that terminology would be something Rory would shun his entire life. He was always the well-mannered, soft-spoken gentleman – never the headline-seeking, drug-crazed rock star.

 

On stage, Rory emulated some kind of gangster cowboy. In Levi jeans and a western-style plaid shirt, he would ‘menace’ the thrilled audience with his Fender Stratocaster tucked into his shoulder – like a Thompson machine gun, blasting staccato notes as he launched into his opening number.

Gallagher’s was a high-energy set – often improvised as ideas came into his head halfway through a number, which he ‘telegraphed’ to long-term bassman Gerry McAvoy and drummer Brendan O’Neil.

He would segue a Rory song into a tune by anyone from The Beatles or Jerry Lee Lewis to Bo Diddley or Larry Williams!

Half an hour after a show, Gallagher was a different animal altogether. The lengthy, wild and sweat-soaked set behind him, he would relax and chill out to the music of Derek Bell’s dulcet neo-Celtic harp playing – on the tape machine in brother Dónal’s car.

Although Gallagher is best known for his famous ‘sweat-stripped’ Strat – and his incredible skill as an electric guitarist, his love of acoustics was enduring throughout his life.

He was an accomplished player in standard and open tunings – and could play superb slide, as well as being adept on mandolin. Rory also enjoyed using the Coral Sitar guitar – and had a love of Fender Esquires, Telecasters, Gretsches and Airline guitars… oh, and he could play a mean saxophone and harmonica, too!

Writing this article is a bittersweet task. I am fortunate to have been a friend of the Gallagher family for over 30 years – although I was probably more of a nuisance for many of those…

Having been a huge Gallagher fan since the 1970s, I penned a magazine interview with him at Spain’s Calpe Jazz Festival in the early 1980s – and from then on photographed a lot of his shows and hung around, getting under everyone’s feet, at the London offices of Strange Music.

Helped by my bass-playing pal Chris White, I also organised one of Rory’s first gigs with new band members Richard Newman and David Levy, alongside the brilliant harp player Mark Feltham. This would be Rory’s only appearance in North Wales – as he was passing through on the way to Dublin’s Guinness Music Festival. It was a real thrill, too, for my own band The Misery Brothers, to open the show for him.

Sadly, just three years later – after battling illness and undergoing surgery – Rory passed away. My final act, as a friend and fan, was to write his obituary.

Rory’s music lives on – thanks to his brother and manager Dónal and his nephew Daniel.

Interview
Dónal Gallagher spoke with me just before travelling to Eire, to participate in the numerous commemorative celebrations and tribute memorials, marking the 20th anniversary of Rory’s death.

Can you give me your thoughts on the past 20 years – and highlight some of the commemorations of Rory’s life?
“Obviously, there is the ‘bittersweet’ element of life – looking back over 20 years… the ‘absence’ of Rory. Yet his spirit seems stronger in some ways – and the appreciation of his music has grown, especially with the changes in technology. Rory was a guy who would almost want to go back to mono – and he would be thrilled to see a resurgence of his music on vinyl.

“But parallel to that, you have the whole internet experience. YouTube enables younger people to see Rory – those who would never have seen him when he was alive. So at least they can get access to umpteen live gigs. It’s the quantum leaps in that technology that makes it so striking.

“Rory is always in my thoughts, and I have re-occurring dreams now and then of Rory ‘coming back.’ There are occasions when – particularly if we are putting a new album together or a new release, I go through the agony of playing it for Rory – so he can check it over!

“If he was suddenly to reappear, I’d like to think he would be impressed and happy with the way his legacy has been handled and preserved.

“The legendary status he deserved has continued to rise, and Cork has named a part of the city centre ‘Rory Gallagher Place’. In Dublin, they have ‘Rory Gallagher Corner’ – and there is a sculpture of his Stratocaster as a tribute as well.

“In Belfast, they have permission granted to erect a stature at The Ulster Hall – there’s already a blue plaque to say he appeared there.

“There is even a street named after Rory just outside of Paris – and in his birthplace, Ballyshannon, there is a theatre named after him. Fender has named a conference room in their Arizona headquarters after Rory, too.

“So even if he doesn’t get played on mainstream radio, this provides a ‘backdrop’ to his memory.”

Planet Rock features him, though – I don’t think Rory would have worried too much about Radio One?
“Like any musician, you want your music played for its merits, but at the same time I wish there were more open minds in ‘radio land’ – because it’s that absence that makes some journalists ‘air brush’ Rory out of the scene… because there’s no ‘hit’ to hang his name on, you know?

“Sometimes you have to fight for recognition, but thanks to people like Andy Kershaw – who has been a champion for Rory, you get your voice heard.

“BBC 4 aired ‘The Story of Irish Rock’ – and Rory got a fair shout in that, so you can get there – but it’s a constant job for want of a better word… rattling the record company cages!”

Rory was almost like an anti-hero, wasn’t he?
“Yes. He saw himself as the ‘lucky fan’ – the one who could be up on the stage entertaining and playing, you know? He also acknowledged the fact that the person who comes to buy the ticket for the gig has as much hassle as the artist getting to the venue! He appreciated that fact, because he was a music fan himself.

“Rory would never look for a ‘free comp’ for a gig. Whether it was a Ry Cooder concert – or anybody. He could call anyone to fix a free pass – but he would always go and buy a ticket at the box office. Rory appreciated what it was like to be entertained – so anyone who came to his shows… he always delivered 100 per cent.

“Joe Bonamassa, [the late] Gary Moore, Brian May and Johnny Marr – all musicians of great integrity, have shown their support to bring Rory’s name to the fore – and it’s great, you know?”

What about Rory’s ‘lasting legacy’?
“The appetite and demand for Rory’s music continues. But after his passing – and the grieving and mourning period, the mission goes on to ensure his legacy is established.
“I think the best testimony to his legacy is when I go to see the tribute concerts – in particular the Ballyshannon Festival. You see all ages of guitar players – in a friendly competitive way, trying to ‘out best’ the other guitarists. People replicate the various genres of Rory’s music – from the folk acoustic, right through to the blues-rock. The legacy is established, when you have so many guitar players appreciating the subtleties of Rory’s playing – trying to perfect it and hand it on down.

“Rory would have thought of it as handing over the torch. He was going to name an album ‘Torch’, very much based on the thought of being the torch carrier for blues music.
“There are tribute concerts from Tokyo to Seattle – they are continually happening, in Greece, France, Germany – everywhere!

“There’s Barry Barnes and Sinnerboy – and Bernie Marsden has just played the Ballyshannon Festival. He does a great set with Rory’s former bandmates Richard Newman and David Levy.

“All the Rory Gallagher tribute bands I watch impress me – because I tried to learn the guitar… and failed – even though I had the greatest ‘teacher’ readily on tap!
“I just couldn’t ‘get it’, but I was so impressed by the amount of listening and studying Rory went through. So I appreciate that even learning the simplest Rory track is not an easy task.”

Long-term, what is going to happen to Rory’s Stratocaster?
“It’s looked after, but the difficulty is, it’s so revered – and so sought after. The insurance value has just gone through the roof. Early on after Rory had passed, we didn’t see any difficulties – and would bring it out for ‘Rory occasions’. But more and more, the risk of anything happening to it – and the insurance implications… but there again, I could have secured it in the Hatton Garden Safe Deposit!

“Instinctively, it should be in Cork – but it’s everything from being a family heirloom, to a piece of Rory. There must be more Rory DNA in that wood than there is in anything else you know?

“I take it out to look at – and it’s like looking at an orphaned child.”

What are your top five Rory albums?
Calling Card, Defender, Deuce, Tattoo, Irish Tour.”

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