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Behind the Curtain: Bonding with Rory Gallagher

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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.”

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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.

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.

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