Behind every rocker, there is always a story of struggle and rebellion. This is the very nature of rock ‘n’ roll; it is not just a genre; it is an attitude, a philosophy on life, that embodies the musicians who channel the same velocity and aggression into their music that charged Chuck Berry and pulsated through the fingers of Jimi Hendrix. There is no message or essence in a rock and roll song if that songwriter has had an easy ride. This is not just about the lyrical content, but instead, it is a feeling that the listener picks up in a song — knowingly or unknowingly — it is the heart of the song that moves people to chills.
When it comes to the feeling that resides in the heart of a real song, Rory Gallagher, an Irish guitarist who was born on this day 73 years ago, believed wholeheartedly in this idea. In a televised interview when asked where he got the blues from, Gallagher, with a sly grin, replied: “I don’t think you get the blues, it’s something you’re born with. That feeling or that mood that blues gives you. I don’t think it has to be a purist sort of approach, or academic, you just feel it, you want to express yourself in a moody way. I don’t think its an American thing or European, you just do it.”
So what is Rory Gallagher’s story of struggle? He knew from a very early age he wanted to become a guitar player, an electric guitar player more specifically. His mother, who supported him, helped pay a hefty sum of money on a beaten-up, red Fender Stratocaster that Gallagher held onto for the rest of his life. Indeed, his trusty axe of choice outlived its master, when he died at the young age of 47.
With his guitar by his side, it was clear that Gallagher was destined to make music for his living, but he still needed a place to do it. Gallagher found work on the Irish showband circuit as it was the only immediate option for him to play electric guitar live. From his battered Stratocaster right down to his everyday, regular kind of look: it all fed into his image of being a working-class bluesman who never pretended to be anything he wasn’t. His reluctance to never compromise and do everything, on stage and off, his own way often prevented Gallagher from reaching complete stardom and notoriety. Though it may seem like the crux of his struggle, his actual problem came with being a perfectionist and always pursuing a new and improved sound.
Not pleased with the way things were headed in the early ’60s in his showband, he decided to drop the group and went off to Germany to play the Hamburg scene which, at the time, was fairly loaded with other British acts, like The Beatles and Mott the Hoople. After Germany, Gallagher returned to Ireland where he formed Taste in 1966, with Eric Kitteringham on bass, and Norman Damery on drums. It appeared as if Gallagher had found his vehicle.
Taste only released two studio albums in their time, Taste and On The Boards, both of which expertly demonstrates Gallagher’s impressive skills. One of their most successful gigs was at the Isle of Wight where they performed as an opener act for the likes of The Who, Leonard Cohen, and Jimi Hendrix. Rory Gallagher’s ability to play the guitar was supreme, but another talent of his was capturing audiences and keeping their attention.
According to Gallagher’s brother Donal, who managed Taste, he said that the filmmaker Murray Lerner gave his crew instructions to film only one or two songs from the lesser-known acts and save the rest of the footage for the bigger names. These instructions soon changed when Lerner saw what Taste were doing to the audience and how captivated they were. Instead, Lerner got over an hour of footage of Taste and, perhaps more importantly, of Gallagher wailing like few could have dreamt of.
The respect he demanded from other musical giants is one of a kind. Brian May of Queen, who saw Taste perform regularly at a residency in London, said about the band: “I used to go see Rory every weekend there, open-mouthed I think at the way the guy played and the person he was and the way he interacted with his audience, the way he could just hold people by tapping his foot or something in his fingers or whatever he did. He was just a magician and an entertainer. Funny enough, he probably would think of himself as an entertainer, he’s such a pure man, he thought of himself as a musician.”
While Rory Gallagher never achieved world-wide fame of the sort that a guitar player like Brian May achieved, May is forever indebted to Gallagher for showing him how to perform the blues with electrifying energy. Another guitar player who has immense respect for Gallagher is Alex Lifeson of Rush who had toured with the Irish guitarist multiple times. He recalled the times they hung out and talked for hours: “He and I talked about all kinds of things, politics, family, he being from Ireland, the divisions, the sectarian divisions in Ireland, and my ancestors coming from Yugoslavia with the same sort of issues there – we spent hours and hours talking about that sort of stuff.
“It wasn’t just about the music and the band and his guitar, all of that stuff; it was his personality and his soul and he was so thoughtful and considerate to other people. He was so polite. Honestly, he was such a wonderful person, nevermind his talents and skills, he was just a really great man.”
Rory Gallagher wasn’t just a guitar player and mere musician as he probably would have liked to think of himself. Gallagher was more than that. He possessed an otherworldly character that so often separates superb artists from the rest. Mick Rock, rock ‘n’ roll’s resident photographer who has captured some of the most iconic photos, said of Gallagher: “At college, I was enamoured with the English romantic poets. I saw Syd in that way and I also saw it in Rory. He was handsome, had a thick mop of hair and that certain cavalier spirit about him. He was a very photogenic and charismatic person. You couldn’t take a bad picture of him.”
Gallagher spent time as the idol of many of his contemporaries throughout his career, yet outside of Ireland, Gallagher remains somewhat unknown. He may rest in peace as one of the most criminally overlooked guitarists in musical history, but that doesn’t mean we can’t all appreciate the searing genius of Rory Gallagher.
Watch raw footage of Taste perform ‘Sugar Mama’, at their famous gig at the Isle of Wight festival.