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Remembering Irish bluesman Rory Gallagher on St. Patrick’s Day

A bronze statue of Gallagher in Ballyshannon, County Donegal

William Rory Gallagher (March 2, 1948 – June 14, 1995) was the best Irish bluesman ever. He was born in Ballyshannon, Ireland and raised in Cork. Rory’s parents were entertainers. Rory and his brother Donal, who were both musically inclined, were encouraged by their parents. Rory received his first guitar at the age of nine and taught himself how to play. In his teens he was performing both with acoustic and electric guitar. The electric guitar was purchased after winning a talent contest. However, his biggest purchase would be a 1961 Fender Stratocaster for £100. It would become his primary instrument and associated with him for the rest of his life.

Rory was first influenced by listening to Lonnie Donegan on the radio. Lonnie played a style referred to as Skiffle. It was a combination of Blues and Jazz. It was popular in America during the first half of the 20th century. In the 1950s, it became popular in the UK. Skiffle was a slang term for a rent party.

While still in school, playing songs by Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran, he discovered Muddy Waters. Rory was unable to afford record albums, so he stayed up late to hear Radio Luxembourg and AFN to hear the music that moved him the most. He discovered other influences in Lead Belly, Big Bill Broonzy and Woody Gunthrie.

Rory started out looking for an acoustic sound. He played and sang with a brace for his harmonica. Gallagher then taught himself slide guitar. Over time he taught himself alto saxophone, bass, mandolin, banjo and a coral sitar to varying degrees of skill. By his mid-teens, he was heavily into different blues styles.

While still a teenager, Rory began performing with Irish Showbands, which were groups that played the hits of the day. He joined a group called Fontana and toured Ireland and the UK. He eventually transformed this group into an R&B group, touring Ireland and Spain.

In 1966, Rory decided to form his own band. The result was the band Taste. They were a blues rock and R&B power trio. They performed extensively in the UK, having a regular gig at the Marquee Club in London. They supported Cream at their Royal Albert Hall farewell concert and backed up Blind Faith on a North American tour. The trio released two albums “Taste” and “On the Boards”. They also released a live performance “Live Taste”. Years later, another live performance was released from the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival. They broke up shortly after that performance on the brink of international success.

So began Rory’s solo career. Starting in 1971, He released his self titled debut album. By the end of that year, he already released his second record “Deuce”. That was followed by the album “Live in Europe”. This album features recordings of Junior Wells’ “Messin’ With the Kid”, Blind Boy Fuller’s “Pistol Slappin’ Blues” and Rory’s classic rendition of “Bullfrog Blues”. It was his highest charting record and first commercial success, achieving gold status. He also was selected as Melody Maker’s Guitarist/Musician of the Year, winning out over Eric Clapton.

With the 1973 release of “Blueprint” Rory added keyboard player Lou Martin and brought in a new drummer, Ron De’Ath, to go along with bassist Gerry McAvoy. This was the most successful lineup that lasted around five years. This group made TV appearances on Rockpalast and Old Grey Whistle Test. Some of Rory’s best albums were released during this period including “Irish Tour 74”, “Calling Card” and “Against the Grain”.

The 1978 album “Photo-finish” returned the band to a power trio. He dropped the keyboards and replaced the drummer after he scrapped an album recorded in San Francisco because of his dissatisfaction with the project. During this period Rory produced more hard rocking blues recordings including this writer’s favorite album “Top Priority”.

The 1980s produced “Jinx” “Defender” and “Fresh Evidence”. Rory also performed with Box of Frogs with ex-members of the Yardbirds.

Rory later developed a phobia of flying. To overcome this he was given a prescription for a powerful sedative. The medicine along with alcohol use led to severe liver damage. He continued to tour, but became noticeably ill. After his last performance on January 10, 1995 in the Netherlands, the tour was cancelled. He was taken to King’s College Hospital in London in March. It was determined he needed a liver transplant. After the transplant he contracted a staphylococcal infection and died on June 14th.

Rory was only married to his music and never took a bride or had any children. He was laid to rest in St. Oliver’s Cemetery just outside of Ballincollig near Cork City, Ireland. His headstone is a replica of the 1972 award he received for International Guitarist of the Year.

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