Remembering the fiery Irish guitar icon, 25 years gone
There’s a street in Paris named for him. Guitar players like Brian May, Johnny Marr and even Eric Clapton cite him as a seminal influence.
He’s even at the center of an urban legend that holds when Jimi Hendrix was asked how it felt to be the world’s greatest guitar player or something to that effect, he replied, “I don’t know, ask Rory Gallagher.”
Having spent twenty years in increasing obscurity, Gallagher who died 25 years ago this summer, has suddenly been receiving some long overdue acclaim, thanks to a pair of new Gallagher albums. The completist retrospective Blues, released in 2019, has in its deluxe format, electric, acoustic and live sides. Upon release, it reached #2 on the Billboard blues chart. A 2020 release Check Shirt Wizard contains 20 live tracks compiled from four UK shows recorded in 1977. It has the distinction of being the only Gallagher album to ever reach the top spot on the Billboard Blues chart.
As a guitar player, Gallagher had it all: speed, endless ideas and the brain-to-fingers connection to pull it off. Self-taught and devoted to playing blues and blues-based rock in all its forms, he’s most famous for the over 300 nights that he spent on the road each year, almost always fronting a power trio in theaters packed with fans, working himself up into faster-and-faster blues explosions on original tunes like “The Devil Made Me Do it,” (from 1973’s Jinx). He was also adept at authoritative 12-bar blues stompers like his ever popular “Too Much Alcohol,” the first Gallagher tune to catch my teenaged ears.
A student of American blues guitarists from Blind Boy Fuller, Charley Patton and Big Bill Broonzy to Earl Hooker and Hubert Sumlin, Gallagher could also play fantastically crisp and complex acoustic guitar tunes like his “Unmilitary Two-Step” from his 1973 album Blueprint. When so moved he also had an almost supernatural way with Leadbelly tunes. On numbers like “Alexis” from 1990’s Fresh Evidence he also played a mean slide on his battered ’61 Stratocaster, very much in the league of such slide masters as Duane Allman. He was also an instinctive, better-than-average singer who made up in passion what he didn’t possess in range or phrasing.
After a time as a part of Irish bands like The Impact and The Fontana, he formed his first power trio, The Taste later shortened to just Taste. After opening for Cream and Blind Faith (Eric Clapton became a friend), Taste dissolved amid management disputes and Gallagher went solo, reportedly writing one of his most famous tunes, Used to Be,” about Taste. A solo career of 14 live and studio albums followed. Spending your life on the road takes its toll and after his liver failed on June 14, 1995, Gallagher succumbed to infection following a liver transplant at the age of 47.
VIDEO: Taste perform “Sugar Mama” at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival
Although he’s sold over 20 million albums and while alive completed 25 U.S. tours, the reasons that Gallagher is often a forgotten man when lists of guitar gods are compiled are not hard to discern. A single-minded music obsessive who never married, he eschewed the spotlight and the whole rock guitar god mythology while he was alive. In a famous 1972 quote from Rolling Stone, Gallagher thought it was a “waste” to work for years on your music, just to “make it big, as some people do and just turn into some sort of personality. You play less, you perform less you circulate less. It becomes something completely different.” Suffice to say, Rory wasn’t in it for the fame. The music alone was his life force. And that alone may be why he isn’t better known today.
He was also the kind of performer who really needed an audience to catch fire, which means while studio records for Polydor and Chrysalis like Deuce, Top Priority, Calling Card and Jinx are all well-done and worth a listen, it’s his live records, Live in Europe, Stage Struck and Irish Tour`74 that to many fans contain his finest work. Two guest appearances with his heroes, with Muddy Waters on the 1972 The Muddy Waters London Sessions and on Albert King’s 1977 Albert Live album are also standout Gallagher performances. But studio records mean singles and that leads to airplay, increased sales and stardom—which again was not a path Rory Gallagher was all that interested in going down.
Although he jammed with the Stones in 1975 as a possible replacement for Mick Taylor, Gallagher rarely strayed far from blues rock. He continued to play in the same well-worn vein, which limited his appeal to blues nuts and guitar aficionados. This led to repeating himself and playing the ever longer and more derivative blues solos that his fans demanded. Oddly enough, these half hour explorations are in many ways the antithesis of the Delta bluesmen and early electric players the Gallagher so admired—musicians whose definition of professionalism was to get into a solo, have your say and get out! Ultimately, he had to face the same dilemma that Stevie Ray Vaughan also had to solve: playing the blues exclusively, where the audience, not to mention the music, will always be limited, becomes a trap. In the notes to the 2005 Sony boxed set Big Guns, The Very Best of Rory Gallagher, the Irish guitarist calls his own songwriting, “a cross between ego and the heritage thing,” he also understands the limited nature of blues, saying “you should never get clogged up with old stuff to the point where you won’t move forward.”
VIDEO: Rory Gallagher Rock Goes To College
Confirmed by literally all his recordings, Jimi Hendrix who started out playing the electric blues but immediately moved into rock, was headed towards space funk, jazz rock and genres yet unnamed before he died. In his final studio recording, In Step, Vaughan moved in a more mainstream direction bending the blues with accessible rock hooks in a song like “Crossfire.” Needless to say, it would have been interesting to hear where Gallagher would have gone musically had he survived. Perhaps he’d have never stopped being a blues guitar hero? A 1977 studio album that he made in San Francisco with producer Elliott Mazer but was shelved by Gallagher and not released until 2011 included songs like “Wheels Within Wheels,” which clearly leaned in more of a mainstream rock, if not singles direction. Even this album peaked four spots higher on the Billboard Blues charts than anything released during his lifetime.
Great musicians can only play what they feel and there is no disputing that Gallagher was singularly animated by the blues. What he left behind in his too short life remains some of the greatest blues on electric guitar ever tracked.
And yet even 25 years after his passing, it’s hard not to wonder was there more?
We sure hope so.