Behind the Curtain: Bonding with Rory Gallagher

Behind the Curtain: Bonding with Rory Gallagher

For this month’s Behind the Curtain installment, Steve Rosen recounts a special kinship with late guitar icon Rory Gallagher. Photo by: Glen LaFerman www.glenlaferman.com

Rory Gallagher was a reluctant hero, a soft-spoken Irishman offstage who was nothing like the bigger-than-life persona his fans saw onstage.

When you watched the diminutive musician from Ballyshannon, County Donegal, Ireland up there on the stage jumping around and ripping through the meanest blues licks anyone has ever played, you’d never imagine Rory had another, much quieter side. But he did and I saw that softer side on several occasions.

I first met and interviewed William Rory Gallagher in 1974 when he was touring in America. He had just released Tattoo, his fourth solo album, and was performing in West Hollywood at the Starwood Club with his band—Gerry McAvoy [bass], Lou Martin [keyboards] and Rod de’Ath [drums]. Even though the gifted blues guitar player had released three previous albums as a solo artist and two records as part of the heavy rock trio Taste, Gallagher was never a major name in the U.S.

Still, he toured multiple times in America and on this particular trip, I had the great good fortune to sit and talk with him. Before meeting him at his hotel—it’s difficult to recall exactly where the interview took place but it’s a good bet our conversation took place at the Continental Hyatt House on Sunset Boulevard—I went back and listened to Rory’s music and studied his history.

He was born on March 2, 1949 and went through the normal routine of playing in an assortment of bands while still at school. These school bands provided music for local dances and other civic functions. However, before he ever picked up an electric guitar, the young musician strummed on a variety of acoustic instruments.

“I was playing with an Elvis Presley ukulele I got at Woolworth’s,” he told me later.  When he was 13 years old, he picked up his first electric instrument. Earlier, Rory had no real interest in plugging into an amplifier and cranking up the volume. He was enamored with skiffle music, a popular form of English and Irish folk music performed on washtub basses and combs. At that time, when he was still experimenting with acoustic guitars, he probably thought an electric guitar was not pure enough to satisfy his traditional musical cravings. six-strings.

Rory eventually bought a Rosetti Solid 7, which he plugged into a Little Giant amplifier. With an output of four watts—probably not much louder than a transistor radio turned on to full volume—the sound to the young guitarist’s ears was like a voice from heaven.

Gallager was bitten with the bug and went electric. Indeed he tuned up, plugged in and turned on. Ultimately, he would join a string of bands including would change guitars virtually every year. He ended up joining Fontana, an Irish show band that toured not only in Ireland but in the United Kingdom as well. It was the money he earned with this band that allowed Rory to make the payments on a Fender Stratocaster, the guitar that would forever change his life and everybody who heard him play it.

RoryDonalGallagher-main

The infamous Stratocaster came into Rory’s hands when he was 15. Another guitarist had owned it for about three months when Gallagher laid claim to it. The Fender was a late-1959 model that would eventually be played on virtually every record and in every live show Rory ever performed. “In all those hot gigs in Taste,” he told me later, “the pickguard just folded up one night and came up off the guitar.”

It was fitted with a new pickguard. Additionally the bridge was swapped out to lower the action and after the tremolo arm fell off one night, it was removed completely. To accommodate the loss of the vibrato, Rory slipped a small wedge inside the bridge to keep the tailpiece from moving and to keep the other strings in tune if one breaks.

“I never put the vibrato back on because I don’t particularly like it,” he says to me. “l like the Clarence White attachment where you can bend up a second or third string a tone. But as to the tremolo arm, I try to get the vibrato with my fingers though it was fun in the early days with the dance bands, when you’d be playing a guitar boogie shuffle and go wooo” [imitates the sound of bending a guitar string with the vibrato bar].

He left Fontana and joined the Impact and by 1965 he was playing Chuck Berry covers in Hamburg. The German audience was familiar with American blues since they’d been listening to a four-piece out of Liverpool playing these same songs. Rory soon felt the irresistible tug of forming his own band and in 1966 he assembled Taste, a heavy blues rock trio that would open for Blind Faith in the U.S. and Canada. Taste recorded four albums—two studio records and two live recordings—and though they achieved a fair amount of fame in England and Europe, Gallagher disbanded the three-piece to pursue a solo career.

Taste broke up shortly after appearing at the Isle of Wight in 1970. Gallagher began his solo career in the 1970s and it would become his most prolific period ever. By 1974 when we met, the guitarist had released three prior albums before Tattoo including Rory Gallagher, Deuce and Blueprint. He was still waiting to break in America but with the release of Tattoo, the guitarist would take one step closer to popularity in the States.

I arrived at his hotel room in the early afternoon and what struck me immediately was Rory’s small stature. Onstage he appeared to be six-feet tall but in reality he was only about 5’8.” He welcomed me in his thick Irish brogue and we soon dug deep into a conversation about the difference between Fenders and Gibsons.

“I don’t feel that at home with them,” he says about Gibson guitars. “I’m obviously so much a Fender musician. I can’t get the clarity from a Gibson, the metallic clarity you can get from a Strat. You can’t get syncopated rhythmic things with most of the Gibsons. There’s a few odd Gibsons, which are beautiful. But then again you can get a beautiful big fuzzy chord from the Gibson that on a Fender can be sometimes difficult to get. I don’t think it travels as far as a Fender either—a Fender will hit the back wall. Even playing with a small amp in a huge band with brass, though a Fender might not be loud enough, it always peaks through. That’s the main difference.”

We talked for quite some time and Rory revealed that very quiet side of his personality. Gone was all the bravado and fire he created in his concert appearances. It was replaced by a sense of humility—when I told him he had created one of the most unique Stratocaster sounds of all time, he hemmed and hawed and almost went speechless—true modesty.

Rory Gallagher 3

However, during our conversation Rory kept staring at me in a strange way. I couldn’t figure out what it was. He seemed to be enjoying our conversation and never did anything like look at his watch or clear his throat in a gesture that indicated, “It’s time to wrap this up.” Rather we talked about guitars and amps and his theory about playing.

“I like to keep that acoustic approach,” he explains. “I mean I like to have electronics, sure, but I’m just into the guitar. I don’t want to get into the so-called popular blues style—playing single notes and then turning your guitar down and singing. I’m into getting as much as possible out of the guitar, which was the original idea of the guitar. I’m almost, if you will, into the classical approach to the guitar. Segovia had the concept of getting everything you can out of the guitar by the use of all the fingers and all the means you can get. There’s a million things in there to come out. Sometimes you can get them out with an electronic device, but that’s the beauty of the instrument.”

We talked some more and through it all he kept staring at me. I finally had to say, “Rory, did I do something wrong? You keep looking at me and I don’t know what I did.”  The tiny Irishman broke into a huge grin and laughed softly. “No, no, no,” he says, his Irish accent as indecipherable as it is charming. “I was just looking at your jacket.”

I had no idea what he was talking about. Not remembering what I had put on, I glanced down and saw I was wearing a white Levi’s jacket. I thought he was kidding me since he was wearing a Levi’s jean jacket. In fact, whenever you see a photo of Rory in concert, he’s more times than not wearing matching Levi’s jeans and jacket.

It turns out that white Levi’s jackets were exceptionally rare in his native Ireland and he had only seen them in this color a handful of times. We talked a bit more and I knew the conversation was drawing to a close. I didn’t think twice about Rory’s comment about my jacket. However, as I was leaving he said to me, “That’s a very nice jacket.” At that point, I could tell how much he truly loved it. It was nothing more than a jacket to me and so I took it off and said, “I’d like to give this to you.”

He turned a deep shade of red and started stuttering and kept repeating, “No, I can’t. Thank you. I can’t. I can’t.” I said, “Please. It would mean a lot to me if you would take it.” He put his hands out and I laid the jacket in his arms and he was truly stunned. It was as if he was cradling the Holy Grail. He could not thank me enough. He was absolutely delighted and when he put it on and it fit, he grinned a grin that lit up the entire room. He invited me down to his show that evening at the Starwood and I told him I wouldn’t miss it.

Rory played amazingly that night. Several songs from the Tattoo album—Tattoo’d Lady, Cradle Rock and A Million Miles Away—would become Gallagher classics and when he ripped through them that night, it was easy to see why they’d be performed many times in the future. Following the show, I went upstairs to the VIP lounge and ran into Donal, Rory’s brother.

I’d met Donal briefly when he walked in during the interview for a moment. He told me that Rory was absolutely blown away that I’d given him my jacket. I told Donal I was happy to do it and now I had bragging rights about Rory Gallagher wearing one of my jackets.

He handed me a small box and said management had made a few of these items for band members and people close to the band. He told me that Rory said he wanted me to have it. I thanked him and opened the box. I figured it was some kind of button or something but what I saw left me dumbstruck.

THE Rory Gallagher pin.
THE Rory Gallagher pin.

It was a guitar-shaped silver pin about two inches long that had Rory Gallagher scrawled along the body and neck in embossed lettering. The pin was beautiful and was worth far more than the jacket I had given to Rory. I told Donal that his brother didn’t have to give this to me and though I was honored and touched by the sentiment, it wasn’t necessary. Donal insisted that I take it and said again how much Rory wanted me to have it.

I couldn’t believe they were giving this to me. I still have that pin and I’m wearing it now as I write this.

It’s a bit tarnished and not as sparkly as it once was but I wouldn’t trade it for a handful of diamonds. I’d run into Rory several years later when he was touring in the U.S. again. Though we only met a couple times, I really feel like we were friends—or at least as friendly as you can be with someone you’ve only met a few times. Rory continued to play and tour and make great records but it all ended on June 14, 1995 when he passed away. He loved Levi’s jackets but he loved his drink even more. He’d receive a liver transplant in 1995 but later died due to complications. He was only 47 years old.

I miss him terribly. I’ve interviewed literally dozens of musicians who have passed away but Rory’s death hit me terribly hard. All I could think when I heard about his passing was the look on his face when I handed over my jacket and he held it in his arms. I knew how much it meant to him and what he could never know is how much more it meant to me. When Donal gave me the pin he said, “Rory likes you.”

I think about that a lot and as I bring this story to a close, my heart is heavy but there is a smile on my face.

I know somewhere up there in guitar heaven, Rory Gallagher is still burning through guitar licks on his ’59 Strat—and is looking most fashionable in his white Levi’s jacket.

37 Responses to "Behind the Curtain: Bonding with Rory Gallagher"

  1. amy   April 4, 2016 at 7:08 pm

    This memory brought a tear to my eye. Thank you so much for sharing it, Steve.

    Reply
    • Steve   July 10, 2017 at 9:52 am

      Hi:
      That is so sweet.
      I miss him too.
      Best,
      Steve

      Reply
  2. Mitch Frisch   April 4, 2016 at 10:30 pm

    Lovely story. My favorite artist.

    Reply
    • Steve   July 10, 2017 at 9:53 am

      Thank you so much.
      Best,
      Steve

      Reply
  3. Milo   April 5, 2016 at 2:57 am

    What a great story, Steve!

    Reply
    • Steve   July 10, 2017 at 9:53 am

      Hi:
      That means a lot to me.
      Thank you,
      Steve

      Reply
  4. Brigitte 'Bibi' Lehmann   April 5, 2016 at 3:02 am

    Thank you very much Steve Rosen! It’s a brilliant story…Rory is gone but not fogotten…R.I.P.!
    Best regards from Brussels,
    Bibi (RORY GALLAGHER VIDEO PAGE on FB)

    Reply
    • Steve   July 10, 2017 at 9:53 am

      Thank you for digging my story.
      All the best,
      Steve

      Reply
  5. Brigitte 'Bibi' Lehmann   April 5, 2016 at 3:49 am

    Thank you very much, Steve Rosen! It’s a brilliant story…Rory is gone but not forgotten…R.I.P.!
    Best regards from Brussels,
    Bibi (RORY GALLAGHER VIDEO PAGE on FB)

    Reply
  6. Doug Cullens   April 5, 2016 at 8:44 am

    You are a fortunate fellow to have even seen him playing live in concert, an experience that I missed out on. Gifting him the jacket gives you a badge of honor much brighter than the little pin, which itself reflects his gratitude and excellent heart. No one ever played guitar like Rory Gallagher, he was the best. God bless you sir.

    Reply
    • Steve   July 10, 2017 at 9:54 am

      Hey:
      I was very lucky to have seen him play and met him.
      I miss him.
      Best,
      Steve

      Reply
  7. Donal Gallagher   April 5, 2016 at 8:49 am

    Hi Steve, Donal here, loved reading your article. Pleased to see you still have the R.G. Pin, it’s silver and were produced by a jeweller.
    Best
    Donal
    donal@strangemusic.co.uk

    Reply
  8. Hurricane Jimmie   April 5, 2016 at 9:19 am

    Steve-
    Thank you for this very fine recollection. I think I saw Rory for the first time on the same ’74 tour… and have been a fan ever since.

    Reply
    • Steve   July 10, 2017 at 9:57 am

      Hi:
      He was so wonderful.
      Glad you dug the story.
      Best,
      Steve

      Reply
  9. Jeff Au'Court   April 5, 2016 at 11:14 am

    Thank you! What a cool story. I love his music and he has the same effect on me that most people proclaim that they get from SRV or Hendrix. (I like them too of course) BUT, Rory really had that “something”. Thanks again for that little window into his and your life. Jeff.

    Reply
    • Steve   July 10, 2017 at 9:58 am

      Hi, Jeff:
      Thank you so much for digging the story.
      He was such a sweet guy.
      Best,
      Steve

      Reply
  10. Redbeard   April 5, 2016 at 11:25 am

    This was worth the 40 year wait. Will share with my fellow Rory fans all over the world.

    Reply
    • Steve   July 10, 2017 at 9:59 am

      Hi, Redbeard:
      Thank you so much for digging the story.
      All the best,
      Steve

      Reply
  11. Idlewild   April 5, 2016 at 4:28 pm

    My first rock concert was Taste and Blind Faith..noone knew who the guitar player for Taste was..except he blew Blind Faith off the stage!We were all wowed.Love at first sight..there still isn’t anyone can touch him..I wonder if he knew how rare he was..

    Reply
    • Steve   July 10, 2017 at 10:00 am

      Hi:
      I saw that tour as well. Rory was amazing. I don’t think Rory ever had a real sense of how incredible he was and that’s what made him so incredible.
      Best,
      Steve

      Reply
  12. Steve T.   April 6, 2016 at 7:04 am

    I saw Rory play in St. Louis in March, 1974. It remains probably my most memorable concert. Today I still listen to more of Rory’s music than anyone else. He was and is special. Thank you very much for your wonderful and touching article.

    Reply
    • Steve   July 10, 2017 at 10:00 am

      Hey, Steve:
      Thank you. I’m from St. Louis originally.
      Thank you for digging the story.
      Sincerely,
      Steve

      Reply
  13. Ed Harmicar   April 6, 2016 at 10:19 am

    saw him play at the Agora in Youngstown,Ohio.Geez what a player.The crowd wanted him to play all night but he was the opening act for Rick Derringer and only played about 45 minutes.
    Still miss him and the Youngstown Agora.

    Reply
    • Steve   July 10, 2017 at 10:01 am

      Hi, Ed:
      Rory was a king.
      Those were beautiful days.
      Best,
      Steve

      Reply
  14. Claire Fullerton   May 29, 2016 at 6:29 pm

    Thank you, Steve. These are the real heart-tugging stories in life. It isn’t so much about the jacket as the sentiment behind it when you extended yourself with such generosity of spirit. What occurs to me is that, at one time, you thought highly enough of that white jacket to buy it, but came to think so much more of giving it away. This tells me much about your sensitivity. And I know a thing or two about the Irish, as I once lived there. It takes a lot for an Irishman to show their hand, but you’ve depicted Rory’s nuances here so beautifully. Lovely, lovely piece, and I enjoyed it immensely.

    Reply
    • Steve   July 10, 2017 at 10:03 am

      Hi, Claire:
      I am so touched. Hearing from readers/fans like you and reading these words is my greatest satisfaction as a writer.

      I probably would have given Rory my car and cat if he had asked!

      Thanks so much,
      Steve

      Reply
  15. Lee Ann Hillery   July 21, 2016 at 12:19 pm

    Thank you for sharing. Rory was so special. So wonderful the way you and Rory connected. Brought tears to my eyes as well.

    Reply
    • Steve   July 10, 2017 at 10:03 am

      Hi Lee Ann:
      I’m so happy my story meant something to you.
      I miss Rory terribly.
      Best,
      Steve

      Reply
  16. Dana Chapman   July 27, 2016 at 12:43 pm

    What a touching story! Have loved Rory Gallagher since the beginning and still pull out those precious albums. How lucky you were too meet him and share a part of your life with someone so gifted.

    Reply
    • Steve   July 10, 2017 at 10:04 am

      Hi, Dana:
      Thank you so much. I was very lucky.
      All the best,
      Steve

      Reply
  17. Gideon   January 9, 2017 at 1:54 pm

    Beautiful story, thanks for sharing! An amazing man and gifted musician.

    Reply
    • Steve   July 10, 2017 at 10:05 am

      Hi, Gideon:
      Many thanks for that.
      Best,
      Steve

      Reply
  18. Phil Bee   January 13, 2017 at 9:55 am

    Nice story! Is Rory wearing that very jacket in Montreux ’77 and Rockpalast ’77? To be honest, I’ve been looking for one of those jackets since I saw Rory wear one – I may have been staring at Rory in the same way he was staring at you. Anyway, here’s a short video that hopefully clears up the historical information on his Fender Stratocaster: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FKxM4xq635I

    Reply
    • Steve   July 10, 2017 at 10:05 am

      Hi, Phil:
      Thank you. I honestly don’t know.
      Best,
      Steve

      Reply
  19. Cynthia Marston   October 11, 2017 at 12:13 pm

    I would have traded! But you didn’t and then you got a special thank you. How nice some people are!

    Reply
  20. KATHRYN   July 31, 2018 at 12:35 pm

    A BEAUTIFUL ARTICLE! I HOPE RORY KNOWS HOW LOVED HE IS, WHERE EVER HE IS.

    Reply
  21. Bob Kutchko   August 1, 2018 at 11:14 am

    Wonderful story! Nobody out-played Rory, he was the virtuoso of virtuosos. Flew from the United States with my wife and two adult daughters to Ireland in late May/early June for the 2018 Rory Gallagher International Tribute Festival in Ballyshannon. WOW! Every fan of Rory should do this at least once! Three and a half days of info and music and love for the Man… Rory tribute bands as well as headliners like Wishbone Ash.

    Reply

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