This month saw the 70th birthday of the late Rory Gallagher, who quite possibly remains one of the greatest guitar players who ever lived, and who most of today’s generation probably never heard of. Born on March 2, 1948, the late Irishman’s down to earth appearance and aw-shucks (in the best way possible) demeanor and attitude almost masked a musical talent that literally and not arguably sometimes stood toe to toe with other heavyweights of the craft like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Jimmy Page, all of whom sang his praises and were in complete awe of his talents, like millions around the globe.
And yet, there still remains a kind of ambiguity and mystery about who the man was if one asks the John Q guitar playing public.
Who he was, at least on wax and on stage, was a vital performer and unbridled conduit that would explode in its technicality most of all. Also, he had — and this was something that a lot of his guitar playing contemporaries didn’t possess — a penchant for soul, derived from the rich mine of American Blues. Probably every white boy who picked up a guitar as a kid in 1940s Europe wound up fronting bands or becoming individual powerhouses on their own by the crest of the electric blues swing that peaked in the late 1960s, where bands like Cream, The Yardbirds, The Jeff Beck Group, and eventually crystallized by Led Zeppelin, would take the simplistic strains of music found deep in the American south delta, recycle it through a high decibel amplifier wringer, and the end result would be music that had equal weight in terms of its power and volume.
And while he eschewed a lot of the bombast and visual strut that a lot of the other hard rock/amplified blues bands were putting front and center, Rory Gallagher held individual and influential court by taking things one step further. Obsessed with the blues and literally using it as a complete template and framework for his embryonic years — crucial years growing up in Cork, Ireland where he literally would not put his guitar down as a kid — Gallagher took his beloved influences like the early blues pioneers Big Bill Broonzy and Leadbelly and always used that as his center of his music, even when he tried to create music that had a foot in the progressive.
But for the most part, first with the band Taste and then on his own, Gallagher’s music remained firmly in the blues idiom, and there’s probably no doubt he gave many audiences of the late 60s, 70s, 80s, and even into the 90s their first taste of these artists, without them even realizing it. Playing almost right up until he died on June 14, 1995 at the age 0f 47 of an infection after receiving a liver transplant, exacerbated by years of alcohol use, he incessantly and constantly toured and recorded for a loyal fanbase around the world that by the end, wound up selling over 30 million records. Gallagher created a legacy and a musical memory that remains sky high to many, especially in his home country of Ireland, where, like Van Morrison or Phil Lynott or U2, remains part of a scant amount of musical legends from that part of the world.
While a lot of Rory Gallagher’s studio albums remain adventurous and certainly listenable, it’s the multitude of live recordings that really showcase the man’s fiery flair and musical blaze. Mostly dressed in a flannel shirt and jeans, sweaty long hair waving under the stage lights, Gallagher’s on-stage performances are almost flawlessly stupefying, no matter what the era. A mix of songs, which are originals and covers like “Just A Little Bit,” “Walk on Hot Coals,” “Tattooed Lady,” “I Take What I Want,” “Moonchild,” “Cradle Rock,” his signature piece “Messin’ With the Kid,” and literally scores of others, live, are some of the most electrifying music ever recorded. The fact that he was able to continuously do it at a high level, even when his illness changed his physical appearance near the end, is a testament not only to Gallagher’s supreme talents, but his gift for tenacious, infectious passion.
One might be reading all this and gleaning to themselves, if this guy is so good, how come I never heard of him before? Sometimes things are right in front of us and we don’t even know it. It may have been as simple as that. The musician remains and always has been a cult figure in the States and more of a superstar in Europe and other places, even having statues erected for him near his hometown. A quick trip to YouTube can easily set the musical record straight, because there is no doubt, sometimes even upon listening to a few notes right off the bat, that one’s jaw will need to be lifted from the floor after listening. Again, it’s as simple as that.
Someone once asked Jimi Hendrix, what is it like to be the world’s greatest guitar player? There have been multiple urban legends as to what his answer was, and nothing has even been substantiated by any credible sources, but it is said that he answered to either ask Terry Kath from Chicago, Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top (both bands were in their just-starting stages at that point) or Rory Gallagher, since in Hendrix’s mind, one of those men was actually the greatest guitar player. Since all three are spectacular in their own right, but because Kath and Gibbons still remain very well known to this day in their respective bands, I’d like to think Hendrix said Rory Gallagher, just to be able to also keep him in that “for all time” ether. I’d like to imagine Hendrix in awe when he watched Gallagher perform, and even wonder if perhaps he could be as good as him one day.
That might be a ridiculous statement to some, but to those who know and have really absorbed the musical breadth and depth of Rory Gallagher, they might know exactly how I could make such a grandiose statement. Bottom line, Rory Gallagher was that good, period. Better than good, in fact; he was every adjective for good and great and even genius. Discover for yourself.
Rory Gallagher’s entire catalog will be re-released this month via UMC.