Rory Gallagher * The Irish Toreador Lasted Till The End

„…the Irish guy playing, his speed and skills were frightening.“ Yes, this is how in an interview for the press media the black magician of the electric guitar Jimi Hendrix expressed himself on the dress of a lovely Irish lad who in no time had to be ranked into the gallery of the greatest.


But let´s take things in their proper order. On 2 March,1948 in the Irish village of Ballyshannon in the Donegal region a little boy was born to Mrs Monica and Mr Daniel Gallagher and was given the name of Rory. Next year Dónal saw the light of the day and, all of a sudden, an inseparable pair of two brothers appeared, brilliantly functioning for the next 47 years. Since he was six years old, Rory took interest in jazz and blues and he soaked up this music straight from the American radio stations which then broadcast for sailors and soldiers in Europe. Irish folk music did not interest Rory too much, and so he got excited when he received his first guitar at the age of nine years. It was a cheap, classic Spanish-style guitar but Rory took it up very goal-directedly. To this very day there have existed authentic records about how he learnt to know the individual positions and tones on the fingerboard, when Rory himself had drawn them to make his education easier. Gallagher Sr. was an amateur musician, Monica sang very prettily, and so their son´s efforts met with an understanding.

Foto Heinrich Klaffs 1973

    Since 1956 the Gallaghers lived in Cork, and so Rory had his first occasions to perform in public, which he had already tried to achieve when he was only ten. First of all, it was in the pub owned by his grandparents where Rory had his first audience. When he was twelve he could lay hands on his first electric guitar with which he won in a competition of talents at the Cork City Hall and, when fifteen, he acquired the instrument that became his lifelong companion. It was, of course, that famous Fender Stratocaster 1961, which then in fact got to Ireland by mere chance. And here, for the first time, the stage was significantly entered by Dónal, Rory´s brother. It was he who convinced their mother to go to the local Crowley´s Music Shop and to settle the whole business transaction for her then underage son.

When 16 years old, Rory set up his first group called Fontana, to be later renamed The Impact. At the same time he was still going to school and is said to have been a good student. That band crossed the border of Ireland, performed in clubs in Britain, Germany and Spain. Although the band broke up, one year later Rory came up with a new group – The Taste.

A very important period for Rory began. The Taste performed in Ireland, England and Germany too, and in 1969 a decisive breakthrough for them took place. They went to the USA and Canada as guests of the then supergroup Blind Faith (Eric Clapton, Stevie Winwood, Rich Grech, Ginger Baker – the former members of The Cream, Spencer Davis Group and Family) and went through their whole tour. At that time, the young Irish group had a contract with the Polydor company and the records Taste and On the Boards appeared. And the memorable performance at the festival "Isle of Wight" took place, of which a successful  sound recording was made, later published entitled "Taste Live at Isle of Wight". It was right there that Jimi Hendrix saw Rory in action and expressed his warm appreciation to him.

Rory Gallagher draw attention to himself in such a distinctive way that suddenly the musical public had an immediate sensation. Already when twenty years old, he got among the guitar celebrities of that time and the audience just as the professional critics had to recognize him as such. There was nothing to prevent this young hopeful Irishman from starting a successful solo career. And his devoted brother Dónal was of course always present there and, though a talented musician himself, he gave his abilities at Rory´s disposal as his manager.

The Gallagher brothers came across a big piece of luck in the person of the legendary manager of Led Zeppelin, Peter Grant. Using his instinct, he very soon recognized that Rory was a really exceptional personality, a modest communicative man with an enormous passion for music, willpower, persistence and mainly talent. So Grant helped to start off and develop Rory´s solo career and he also managed to direct everything right. Brother Dónal had one of the best teachers for his managerial work.

    Events were going to roll fast. Rory was joined by drummer Wilgar Campbell and bass-guitar player Gerry McAvoy. He, an earlier Gallagher´s fan, became then a permanent member of Rory´s band for another twenty years.

    His success became more and more eminent and the nice and musically enthusiastic Irish boy was changing into a star of world fame. Musical periodicals placed Rory at the top position when awarding points to the best rock or blues guitarist, be it votes of experts or of the public itself. Even from the Czechoslovak magazine Melodie could its readers learn that, after Jimi Hendrix´s death, Rory Gallagher was becoming an enfant terrible of the western guitar scene and leaving behind even such stars as, e.g., Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page.

The first solo album "Rory Gallagher" and then, shortly afterwards, "Deuce" came out. The shop counters sold them out in no time, Rory went on a tour around Europe and the USA, and he was soon selected into an all stars band, where he recorded with legendary Muddy Waters and the memorable "London Sessions" came into existence. Besides, he appeared in the TV programme "Bring It All Back Home".

The year 1972 brought more success in the form of another American and European tour and the British magazine "Melody Maker" evaluated Rory the musical personality of the year. The band was joined by a new drummer, Rod De´Ath – the name itself revealed that this man had had indisputably aristocratic ancestors. And the overall sound was enriched by the keyboard played by the excellent piano and Hammond organ player, Lou Martin.

Rory Gallagher and his group´s concerts were assuming almost Purple-like dimensions and acquiring the extent of a dangerous whirlwind.

    Next year the albums "Blueprint" and "Tattoo" were produced and Rory set out for the USA and Canada again and his series of performances took him to Europe even twice. Despite all that he managed to give a guest performance on a new studio album of the rock´n´roll star Jerry Lee Lewis.

    Rory carried on with this activity in the following year, this time with Chris Barber and once again Muddy Waters. His own activities then included another tour of Canada, the USA and Europe, and thus the Irish blues was getting to Japan. However, the unproclaimed top of the year 1974 was probably his giving concerts in his native country, among others in Cork, Dublin and Belfast. Tony Palmer shot a feature documentary  from these performances and the famous live album "Irish Tour 74" was published. Whoever likes this kind of music should get the DVD featuring Palmer´s film in the digital form. Those possibly interested won´t surely regret it.

    Rory became such a reputable musician that he got an offer from Mick Jagger himself to become a member of The Rolling Stones to replace the leaving Mick Taylor. He left for a short meeting to Rotterdam, where he talked to both Jagger and Richards and the whole band, jammed and had a go at recording. Finally he decided correctly when he refused this spectacular offer. He flew on another tour to Japan, then to New Zealand and Australia. When he performed, concert arenas were sold out, while the USA or Canada were a second home to Rory as these countries – blessed for good music –  were represented in his concert diary for the rest of his life.

    When signing a contract with the Crysalis company (where, e.g., Jethro Tull produced successfully), another Rory´s album "Against the Grain" was followed by still another treat for his enthusiastic fans in the form of LP "Calling Card". That album was produced by a member of The Deep Purple and the then already famous producer Roger Glover, and this can be heard here. 

    When giving concerts, Rory even stopped in Poland in 1976. Just think of how our northern neighbours were progressive and we may not even heard about this event then. Rory, together with the well-known bluesman Albert King, and gave a guest performance at the Rockpalast, a German TV-broadcast music festival, watched then by some 50,000,000 TV viewers.

Later he flew to the USA where, in San Francisco, the first experimental material for the album  "Photo Finish" originated. This was finally recorded in Germany and came out in 1978. His working pace was so fast that two musicians could not stand it any more and left the group.They were Lou Martin and Rod De´Ath. The new drummer Ted McKenna took up the drumsticks and Rory´s band carried on again as a trio.

    In 1979 the excellent album "Top Priority"  was produced with the great hit "Follow Me". A tour followed a tour, tours alternated with a recording studio, Rory did not take a rest maybe even at Christmas. His brother Dónal had to go through all of this, having a firm hold of his managerial affairs. The whole decade of Rory´s supersuccessful career was crowned with the fascinating live album "StageStruck".

    Ted McKenna did not stay long behind his drums and was replaced by Brendan O´Neill. And in 1982 the shops selling music media were supplied with another Rory´s album "Jinx".

One could say that the 1980s would not favour bluesrock music much, punk came and new wave, and together with them also a new generation of young people who could have been oriented differently. However, the bombastic rebirth of The Deep Purple was a spectacular response to misgivings of those who began to doubt the vitality of classic rock. So a wave of heavy metal was started, whose young audience suddenly discovered the timeless quality of rockblues music. This, of course, suited Rory and he threw himself into giving more concerts and recording more music. After the tight 1970s, when Rory Gallagher´s music albums were a big seller by millions and when he himself experienced popularity comparable with the most famous bands in the history of rock, the leader himself might have slowed down the pace and started to take it easy.

    However, this was not the road Rory would have wanted to take, on the contrary. His group was joined by an excellent harmonica player, Mark Feltham, and again a tour of Ireland and the USA was organized. The Gallaghers set out for individual performances in the Benelux countries or Scandinavia and in 1985 they performed in former Yugoslavia and Hungary. It is not necessary to add that they then set out on another tour of the USA and Canada.

Besides a number of guest performances with various artists, another Rory´s album reached the market, entitled "Defender". It was the year 1987 and Rory still pressed on with his job. When not touring, he played at festivals both at home and abroad. One could say that he was persistent and unyielding, overstraining himself to the maximum, he did not want to become a commercial star on TV programmes, he refused to record playbacked videoclips, which, at the time when the media industry was already in full swing, represented a remarkable attitude of an independent artist. He certainly knew that, from the view of his commercial success, he was making a mistake, but he considered such a way of promoting music he had taken for his own and with which he was in perfect harmony as cheap or even offensive. And so he went his own way. He was like a toreador in an arena: either the bull or he himself would fall.

He celebrated his fortieth birthday with yet another onrush of work. He toured Ireland and England and participated in a number of festivals in Europe, first of all in Germany, where the public grew very much fond of him. Another decade was coming slowly to an end, the Iron Curtain between the East and the West fell and the eyes of not only the European public were focussed on the basic political changes which took place chainlike throughout the whole so-called Eastern block. It could seem that the interest in music, in the light of these events, was a bit petering out. It was time for Rory to finally take a rest. And he was in real need for it. His incredibly many years of working at full stretch were beginning to take their toll. His physical health was not so good any more, depressions started to appear and Rory resorted to medicines. He himself was in fact a very sensitive and thoroughly human being, wholly devoted to his beloved music. The immense strain brought on by his work alone on such a high level had to manifest itself somehow in his general state of health. For example, only a few knew that Rory was afraid of flying and, fancy that, the plane was just the only means of transport that could enable the artist all his working obligations. Once somewhere over Scandinavia, Rory and Dónal Gallagher experienced a very unpleasant situation, maybe bordering on life and death. Ever since, Rory had to use medicaments so that he could continue to travel by plane at all. And those trips were in abundance: Ireland, England, Germany, the Benelux, Scandinavia, the USA, Canada, cities, countries, and sometimes even continents were for Rory something like bus stops are for somebody commuting daily to work.

    In 1990 the outstanding album "Fresh Evidence" appeared. Rory and his band toured Great Britain and Germany, where their concerts were recorded by television.

The following year was dominated by tours of Japan, Australia and the USA, all culminating in a concert in New York. And then, after twenty years of fruitful collaboration, the bass guitarist Gerry McAvoy left Rory together with the drummer Brendan O´Neill. However, still another group was formed where the percussions were played by Richard Newman, the bass guitar by David Levy, Jim Leverton added keyboard instruments to the set-up, and the only one who stayed was Rory´s devoted friend Mark Feltham, the harmonica player. And with this set-up Rory went on another tour of the United Kingdom and further all over the whole of Western Europe. In the meantime, the gramophone industry was supplied with the compilation "Edged in Blue", which is a selection of 14 compositions from Rory´s previous 14 long-playing albums. Subsequently Rory again gave a guest performance on Chris Barber´s new record, appeared onstage at the first jazz festival in Cork and made independent trips to concerts all over Europe. He became a guest of the TV programme "Rock ´n´ the North", where he gave extensive interviews and then excelled in front of 50,000 spectators at the festival which is organized in the Irish capital of Dublin, entitled "The First Templebar Blues Festival". And then Rory and his band again departed for a tour of Europe. However, the circle was slowly closing and Rory´s health was already really undermined. He was gaining weight, suffered from a high blood pressure, sleeplessness, and permanently more frequent depressions. And he did not follow doctors´ advice and only let them prescribe him pills for everything. Although Rory avoided using hard drugs, which became fateful for many top musicians, he, nevertheless, was in a very bad way. He was never an alcoholic but, as almost all the Irish, he did not stay off drinking alcohol. And this, in combination with medicaments, even if prescribed by doctors, plus an excessive exhaustion of the organism did what was inevitable. A serious disease of the liver, a vital organ, was detected in Rory. Finally he was in such a bad way that his concert tour of Holland at the turn of 1994 and 1995 had to be finished prematurely.

In spite of Rory´s protests, Dónal Gallagher had soon him transported to hospital and arranged a liver transplant for him, which was the only thing that could still save his life. The operation was a  success and they all were full of hopes, but the destiny was merciless in the end and took its toll. Rory´s weakened organism and, moreover, from the viewpoint of the serious operation, his forcedly suppressed immunity could not resist a sudden lung infection and so, on June 14, 1995, Rory Gallagher died. It happened at the London King´s College Hospital at 10.44 am and Rory was only forty-seven years old then.

Rory´s funeral was broadcast live by the Irish television and thousands of people came to say their last goodbye to him. Among them grief-stricken Rory´s friends and renowned musicians too, Gary Moore and The Edge from the group U2. On that day, Rory´s famous Stratocaster 61 travelled with him for the last time. However, he could not carry it himself any more, and so his faithful and devoted brother Dónal did it for him and carried this magnificent instrument as far as Rory´s grave.

Rory refused to accommodate himself to the new commercial conditions in the music show business, he never had an inclination towards superficiality and cheapness, he never became famous for scandals, the only thing that really made him famous was his great music. Privately he was a pleasant and modest man who liked to spend some time with friends but preferred avoiding public media events. He despised the debatable practices of the commercially deformed music market and always wanted to stay independent. He was really one of a few who managed to do this till the end of their days.

    If you asked someone who had known Rory in person, he would surely confirm my words. And it does not matter whether he or she is an anonymous citizen from the town of Cork or some significant personality concerned with musical events. When we are talking about these, not only Irish artists thought highly of Rory. Even patriotic Englishmen like Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Roger Glover or Ritchie Blackmore talked about him with due respect. And John Lennon too expressed himself appretiatively about Rory during his lifetime. All that speaks for itself.

Rory & Dónal

    First of all, then thanks to Rory´s brother Dónal Gallagher, we can today listen to great music on ever appearing albums, various compilations and new, so far perhaps unpublished recordings from live performances reach us. Further, which is a great satisfaction for anyone of us, we can not only hear Rory, but also see him performing right on stage. The DVD format allows this to a considerable extent and, believe me, there is really something to be seen!

This year Rory Gallagher would have lived to be sixty years old. So he could not see how his sixtieth birthday was properly celebrated, mostly in the world where the regular rockblues still lives. As everywhere, and especially this year, music festivals take place in various places in Europe, above all in Ireland alone.

An extraordinary event of this kind was, for example, a series of concerts organized in Germany and conceived as a tour called "Rorymania". And we cannot overlook the regular jazz festival in Cork or the music feasts "Rory Gallagher International Tribute Festival" in Irish Ballyshannon. Such events are taken part in by many blues or rockblues groups from all the ends of the earth, including a considerable number of cover bands that present interpretations of compositions from Rory´s repertoire.

Again it is fitting to say that it is Dónal Gallagher who takes great credit for all of this, who honours and cherishes his brother´s memory and does not allow Rory to be forgotten. 

For already quite many years you can, e.g. in various countries in Europe, find a number of places which were devoted exactly to Rory. Most of them are evidently in Ireland, which only illustrates the fact that the local people know how to respect their great personalities properly. In the capital city of Dublin you can come to the Rory Gallagher Corner where, in the quarter of Temple Bar, there is a bronze cast of Rory´s legendary Stratocaster placed on a wall.

In Cork you can stand for a while in the square carrying Rory´s name or visit a theatre named after him, possibly visit the National Library, where a whole section is dedicated to this exceptional artist. The Irish state post has even published a special issue of postage stamps showing Rory Gallagher with his famous guitar.

In Ballyshannon you can find a memorial plaque at the local hospital reminding one that it was right there where Rory was born or, on your way, you can come across a new bronze statue of Rory erected at that spot right this year, on the occasion of his rounded anniversary.

But when you are in Cork and have some spare time, get on a bus at the local bus station and let it take you to the village of Ballincollig. And there, in the small peaceful churchyard of St. Oliver, you can easily find the place where Rory Gallagher came to his eternal rest. Here you may meet a musician who came here to honour the memory of a unique artist or someone who just arrived to reminisce. But if you just only light a candle here, something inside you moves and an imaginary door opens. It is Rory himself speaking to you and you could touch him right at this spot. If you play any of his albums back at home and have a well-chilled Irish Guiness to go with, it is almost certain that you start to perceive this excellent and timeless music much more deeply.

Rory Gallagher used to have dozens of instruments but that renowned Fender Stratocaster from 1961 was definitely the best known. In fact the instrument itself got to Ireland by accident. One day an enthusiast ordered in Cork, in Mr.Crowley´s shop with musical instruments, a Fender guitar, the Stratocaster model. The Shadows were in vogue then and a number of guitarists wanted to play like their leader Hank Marvin. And they also wanted to possess the same instrument. The guitar arrived but an error occurred and, instead of a red Stratocaster with a light-coloured fingerboard, it was the Sunburst model with a three-colour surface and a fingerboard made not of maple but palisander wood. The prospective buyer soon returned the guitar, for it looked a bit fishy to him.

And that was Rory´s opportunity. Michael Crowley offered the guitar in question once again, this time, however, as second hand. The price was £100, a very acceptable amount from today´s view.

At the beginning of the 1960s the money´s value was of course quite different and, after long persuasion done by Rory´s brother Dónal, Mrs. Gallagher went to see Mr. Crowley and bought the guitar in installments. The boys themselves  could not do it, because first they had no money to buy it, second they were by far not full of age yet, and so they could not clinch a deal. Rory himself had to promise his mother that he would pay for the instrument properly and that he would also stop playing at his grandfather´s pub. How far Rory met the other condition is not known but, until today, there exists a repayment plan where the individual amounts are recorded with which Rory paid for the long-desired instrument out of his modest income.

I saw this fabulous Stratocaster quite closely when I attended an exhibition of electric guitars in Dublin some time ago. There, Dónal even lent Rory´s instruments, and so it was possible, at least with your eyes, to touch the instrument in question. It is in fact a guitar produced in series, which was made by Fender at that time. Its body of alder wood, neck of maple wood, fingerboard of palisander, lacquered body, once a three-colour sunburst, today practically visible just in a few places. The rest was smoothed by a permanent use, and it is a well-known fact that old nitrolacquers had good resonance properties but they were rather unstable. This may be good from the viewpoint of sound, but a man not knowing the situation would probably reject it from the aesthetical view. These models were produced by the Fender company as early as in 1960 when they wanted to compete with the Gibson brand and for some time drew back from making the monochrome and two-colour models with light-coloured fingerboards of maple wood. This procedure manifested itself in the sound, also the microphones may have been wound a bit differently, but the magnets were probably the same.

Rory´s guitar is made of excellent light wood, well built and the microphones were just wound by someone very properly. This means that the sound transferred from the instrument is strong enough, but not as much as to suppress the character and timbre of tones. Rory did not use quaver, although this system is of course built in the instrument mentioned. Blues musicians play mostly with their fingers and their own tones make those unrepeatable and original players out of them. And right this was Rory´s domain. Listening to Rory´s live recordings, many times we get the impression that we can hear percussion barking, characteristic of, for example, the live sound of Les Paul´s Gibson guitar, played by Jimmy Page with Led Zeppelin. And don´t forget that Rory had Gibson guitars too, but played just the Stratocaster. I am referring to DVD recordings on which we can see what instruments are used by whom. But this is just the magic of such a good instrument – you can even get the unexpected out of it.

It must be said that besides its smoothed lacquer and generally much handled and worn out surface, which are things that don´t matter. On the contrary, they give the instrument the right patina. Rory´s Stratocaster is in a perfect condition even today. This means that its body, neck, fingerboard and scroll, then the perfect electronics as well as the whole hardware, i.e. bridge, tremolo strings, frets (these may have been replaced more than once but professionally), and then the tuning mechanisms too. Here it is strange that E1 to A5 are the original devices, but as for E6, Rory had one tuning mechanism of the Gotoh brand installed. I don´t know what his reason for this was and I would like to ask his brother Dónal about it if I had a chance for meeting him.

The serial number of the instrument is 64351, having five digits, but there is no other distinction. It is a great instrument and Rory must have recognized it. That´s why he played it all his life long. And we can thank Dónal Gallagher that Rory´s instruments have not ended up in an auction room as it often happens these days. This may be due to the fact that the Gallagher brothers were after all somewhat different from the rest of the population…

Author: Martin Koubek



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