Rory Gallagher: Pure Musical Power

by Steve Rider

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, a fact which I find astonishing considering that the root of my own 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 simply 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 intrepid 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 obviously 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 (haven’t heard of him yet), do yourself a favor and check out the free media on the Official Rory Gallagher website:

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 leave this space inside that somehow can hold both the wall-shaking rock and pure blues without ever clashing or fighting for place. It’s a thing of beauty.

Gallagher’s distinctive style was grown organically in the soil of the Emerald Isle 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. The next year, at age nine, he would receive an acoustic guitar and teach himself to play. 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 much 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. 

It was during his school years that 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, as well as 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 predilections 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 which was quite well defined within. In 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 as The Impact. Following the breakup of the band in London, Gallagher returned home and decide to start his own band. 

Gallagher formed an R&B power trio he called The Taste, and later simply taste. They has a successful run, garnering positions supporting Cream at their farewell show at the Royal Albert Music Hall and also alongside the super group 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 along with 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 huge 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 an amazing talent would spring to super-stardom, but it was not to be. Through his own ideology, he shunned becoming a huge 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 that amazing 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 the hearts of his native people 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 powerful sedatives which combined with alcohol to destroy his liver. Though his condition was noticeably advanced by the mid-nineties, Gallagher would not be dissuaded from touring, and 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 cancelled. When the extent of the damage to his liver was discovered, 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. 

For ‘READY FOR TARK’ Feature on rock musician Rory Gallagher 3/1/1974 Ref. 168/92 old black and white guitarists blues taste

Rory Gallagher spent his endless vitality in the transmission of 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 own signature tone. It only takes one look at the way Rory interacted with his audience to see that he was a man that 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. 

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5 thoughts on “Rory Gallagher: Pure Musical Power

  1. Through a strange coincidence, I have just started re-collecting Rory Gallagher’s albums which I bought back in the day but lost
    over the years [they have all been re-issued in 2018]. Although I saw him many times [including the Isle of Wight], I think that his
    live work projects only one dimension of his prodigious talent. His studio albums are much more balanced and even allowed his
    abilities on other instruments to come into the mix. His first two releases from 1970 contain all kinds of subtle flourishes,
    alongside the stronger fretboard work he’s remembered for [was he the first to really develop pinch harmonics?–I think maybe
    he was!]. I am currently waiting for Wheels in Wheels, an acoustic album that was released posthumously, which points to yet
    another aspect of his playing.
    So pleased you posted this article!

  2. Well said, Andrew Kirby. Let’s face it, Rory was a Guitarist guitarist. All of the who’s who of players listed as “Guitar Gods” at the
    start of the article were big fans of the “G-man”. I had the pleasure of seeing him in 1973 & ’75. You don’t forget the great ones,
    and with that being said I’ve seen all of the so called “Guitar Gods” as well. Rory was better, much more energy, and as great as
    his electric playing is, his acoustic playing is equally as stunning! Spread the word !!!

  3. Had the good fortune to see Rory play live and up close 3 separate times in NYC. One of the most amazing guitarists I have ever
    witnessed. At the end of his set, he leaned his guitar against his amp to feed back and then jumped up and down at different
    areas of the stage to get the feedback to jump notes!


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