He was the first Liam Gallagher, albeit with a hundred times more talent than the former Oasis lead singer. That’s because he was christened William Rory Gallagher. The William bit never caught on and we all know him simply as ‘Rory’. In this country, if you just use his first name, everyone knows who you mean.
He was the Siamese twin of a sunburst 1961 Fender Stratocaster—Serial Number 64351— purchased for around £100, second hand, in Crowley’s Music Store in MacCurtain Street in Cork in 1963, when he was fifteen. He wanted a guitar like Buddy Holly’s. As a kid, he loved Lonnie Donegan and skiffle, graduated to Muddy Waters and the blues, and played the music of Eddie Cochran and Buddy Holly, before he found his own unique voice. He couldn’t afford to buy records, so he listened a lot to Radio Luxembourg and the American Armed Forces Network, drifting in and out of coverage, on the family radio. Eventually, as a guitarist and, arguably, as a singer and songwriter, he would eclipse all his early influences. Because Rory Gallagher was the business. He was also shy, charming, engaging, modest, and an out and out gentleman.
Just to rewind a little. William Rory Gallagher was born in Ballyshannon, Co. Donegal—I would be justifiably slaughtered if I omitted to mention that—but was raised in the city of Cork, from where he got his accent, as well as his first electric guitar, which, by the way, was once stolen from the back of his van, and found in a ditch a few days later.
As a music crazy teen-ager, he earned the money to pay for the Fender Stratocaster by playing with the Fontana showband, but pop music covers were not his thing and, in 1966 he formed the R&B trio Taste, along with Norman Damery and Eric Kitteringham, also from Cork. Two albums later, he went solo, and began a twenty-year association with bass player Gerry McAvoy. By 1971 he was topping the Melody Maker’s Guitarist of the Year list, ahead of someone called Eric Clapton.
In a career that lasted more than thirty years he sold an average of a million albums a year, but it was his live performances that got his juices going, and endeared him to a generation of air-guitar playing fans. Alongside Van Morrison and Phil Lynott—to both of whom lead guitar was anathema—Gallagher became a bona fide Irish rock superstar, without ever courting or exploiting that status. His check shirts, blue jeans, flowing hair, battered Fender, and passion, set him apart from the posers, pranksters and piss-artists who populated rock music in the 1970s and 80s, just as they do today.
Rory always remained true to himself and his music. He was asked to replace the legendary Ritchie Blackmore as lead guitarist with Deep Purple, and, allegedly, Mick Taylor of the Rolling Stones, but opted to stay solo. Throughout his career there is little doubt that, despite his notorious perfectionism, he placed far less value on his own abilities than did his legion of fans, and music industry admirers. Sometimes you can be just a little too modest and self-deprecating.
He also had time for everyone. One young guitarist recalls asking Rory how he achieved his unique sound. Gallagher sat him down and showed him. The young man went on become Brian May, so Queen owe at least some of their distinctive sound to Rory.
Although never your stereotypical recreational drug-taking rock star Gallagher had a fondness for alcohol which, over the years, adversely affected his liver. In 1995, he was admitted to King’s Hospital in London for treatment, and while awaiting a liver transplant contracted an MRSA infection, and died at the age of forty-seven.
Jimi Hendrix was once asked who was the greatest guitarist in the world, he responded, with becoming modesty, ‘I don’t know, go ask Rory Gallagher.’
Ireland’s greatest guitarist, Rory Gallagher, was born in Ballyshannon—there, I’ve said it again—seventy years ago, on this day.
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