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Rory Gallagher, 20 years later: 'I'd love to bring Rory back and tell him to look at his talent and legacy'

In the week that marks the 20th anniversary of the death of Ireland's greatest guitarist, Ivan Little talks to his brother Donal Gallagher about a life that ended too soon.

Published 13/06/2015

Rory Gallagher
Rory Gallagher
Rory Gallagher
Donal Gallagher below a plaque unveiled in memory of his late brother Rory at the Ulster Hall
Rory signing autographs for fans
Big guns: Gev Barrett, Oisin McMahon Trench, Johnny Gallagher, John Paul Prior and Christian Volkman recreate AbbeyRoad outside Music Maker in Dublin to launch the Rory Gallagher Festival in Ballyshannon

Rory Gallagher's brother, Donal, breathed in the intoxicating air and marvelled at the stunning views on a windy cliff walk in one of Ireland's most beautiful hideaways in Co Cork this week and remembered the good times and the bad times on the same coastal path with his rock star sibling, Rory, who died 20 years ago this weekend.

Donal, who was the blues musician's manager and constant companion, recalled fearing the worst three decades ago, when Rory failed to respond to his calls after they became separated on an afternoon hike.

On his visits back to Ireland, far away from the adoring fans and the noisy concert halls, Rory loved nothing more than to ramble along the east Cork coast, where actress Angela Lansbury had a home, but Donal started to imagine all sorts about his brother on the day he went missing.

"I was about to raise the alarm with the Ballycotton lifeboat when Rory shouted to me," says Donal. "He told me he hadn't been able to answer me immediately, because he was writing a song which he had to get down on paper."

The product of that solitary sojourn was one of Rory's finest songs - A Million Miles Away - and he was also inspired to write Lost at Sea.

The two compositions are more reflective, laidback songs than the raucous, up-tempo blues so beloved of Rory, who died long before his time on June 14, 1995, aged just 47.

And tomorrow, on the actual anniversary of his tragic passing, Donal, who has striven tirelessly to keep his brother's legacy alive, will take time out of a busy schedule of public remembrance to slip privately into a church to light a candle for Rory and pay a visit to his grave in Cork.

Around the world, too, thousands of Rory fans will mark the anniversary by attending special tribute concerts, including one in Belfast's Empire Music Theatre, where money raised will go towards erecting a statue of Rory in the city.

Former Catatonia singer Cerys Matthews, who now hosts a BBC Radio 6 programme, will devote part of her show tomorrow to Rory and, on TV, BBC's The One Show has already aired a tribute to him with a lengthy interview with former Guns N' Roses guitarist Slash (left), who was a huge fan.

But the remarkable truth is that Rory, a shy, self-effacing man, who probably undervalued his own immense talents, is almost as popular now in death as he was in life.

In Ballyshannon, Co Donegal, where he was born before his family moved briefly to Londonderry, until they settled in Cork, 10,000 fans have just attended the 14th Rory Gallagher International Festival.

And, even though Donal Gallagher is a regular at the event, it's a celebration of Rory's music that never ceases to amaze him.

For starters, most of the organisers are too young to have ever seen Rory strutting his stuff on a stage playing his battered Fender Stratocaster guitar.

But for Donal Gallagher, who several years ago unveiled a statue to his brother in Ballyshannon, something else was astonishing.

"In a hotel bar, I found myself surrounded by Rory fans, who included a policeman from New York, a girl from Texas, two people from Australia and a French film director who wants to use Rory's music in a movie."

Donal admitted that a day never dawns that he doesn't think about Rory, or the tragedy of his demise, saying: "In the end, Rory almost had a disbelief in himself and the talent that he had. I would love to bring him back somehow and show him what has happened since, to tell him to look again at his talent and his legacy. But I often wonder how he would have coped with the digital age musically and the downloading of music.

"Yet nowadays, there's a re-awakening of interest in vinyl and Rory would have loved that. I remember getting hot under the collar at how when he was paying an absolute fortune to record in the top, hi-tech studios, but he would say that everything should go back to mono to recreate the old-style rock 'n' roll blues vibes."

Donal is convinced that, if Rory was still around today, he would still be belting out the blues at the age of 67, which is by no means old considering that even more seasoned musicians like the Rolling Stones - who once tried to sign up Rory - are still playing rock 'n' roll.

Donal says reports that his brother, who had received a liver transplant not long before his passing, died because of an alcohol addiction are wide of the mark. "The surgeon who was looking after him in hospital said the damage to his liver was caused by medication."

Rory had developed a fear of flying and self-medicated with more and more prescription drugs, which caused the damage to his liver.

But it's Rory's life which is being remembered this weekend, especially by a raft of tribute bands, many of whom take their names from his songs like Sinner Boy, Shin Kicker and Shadow Play.

In Cork last night, radio stations played the same Rory song - Tattoo'd Lady - at the same time and the city's famous Shandon bell rang out in memory of its most famous musical son, who is also expected to feature on Sky Arts programmes and in tributes in Greece and Germany.

There are Rory Gallagher streets in several places around the world, including Paris, and Fender guitars have just named a conference room at their headquarters in Scotsdale, Arizona after their most illustrious customer.

For Donal, it's hard to believe that 20 years have gone by since Rory's death. He says: "That is staggering. Obviously, his absence is huge, but on the other hand, because we are doing so much with Rory's music, watching videos and listening to records, it's almost like he's there with us."

The two Gallagher brothers were like the proverbial peas in a pod as they grew up, but it was Rory who showed the first sparks of musical ability. However, there was a problem, according to Donal.

"He was only nine and people frowned on a young boy like Rory singing rock 'n' roll songs. And so he turned to the likes of Roy Rogers' Four Legged Friend or Lonnie Donegan's Rock Island Line. If the song was about a place, or an object, it was okay, but a boy/girl relationship wasn't deemed proper."

Songs by the Everly Brothers were acceptable, too, but Rory needed a sidekick. And that's where Donal came in handy.

"He used to drag me up onstage to do Wake Up Little Suzie and Ebony Eyes. But I didn't particularly like the spotlight and I got bored. Which was Rory's cue to fire me after one of the shows. I ended up carrying his guitar case."

But there was no holding back Rory, who cut his teeth in showbands like the Fontana and the Impact before forming a three-piece blues band called Taste with fellow Corkmen Norman Damery on drums and the late Eric Ketteringham on bass.

But when Taste signed a record deal, Rory's sidemen weren't to the music company's taste, so to speak, and two Ulstermen were recruited in their places - drummer John Wilson from east Belfast and Charlie McCracken from Omagh.

Rory's nephew, Daniel, is a Taste fan and is trying to unravel a complicated web of legal issues around the band's music to help revisit on record and on film their finest hours, including a memorable gig at the Isle of Wight festival in 1970, when one of the group's last performances was also one of their best.

After Taste split, Rory again gathered Belfast musicians around him, Gerry McAvoy on bass guitar and later Brendan O'Neill on drums. Gerry later wrote a critically acclaimed book called Riding Shotgun about his 20 years by Rory's side.

And Donal Gallagher is also planning to write a book about his brother and to set up a mobile exhibition about him, which would tour the parts of the world where he is still an icon for thousands of people.

"I have kept a lot of material about Rory, like Press cuttings and the advertisements for his concerts, including the earliest ones, and his fans are always keen to see his guitars, especially the Stratocaster," says Donal, who added that Belfast will have a special place in his book.

For Rory played some of his earliest gigs with the original Taste in the city and even lived for a while in Bangor in 1967. At the peak of his success, Rory always stayed loyal to Belfast, returning every year throughout the worst of the Troubles, which had frightened off many another big name.

Most of the homecoming gigs were at the Ulster Hall, where a plaque has been erected for Rory, but he also went ahead with a concert in the Grosvenor Hall in January 1975 on the night after 10 Protestant workmen had been shot dead at Kingsmills in south Armagh.

The fears of reprisals turned Belfast into a ghost city, but 1,500 Rory fans still turned up as he refused to cancel the gig, which I reviewed for the Melody Maker newspaper, which was intrigued that a gig could go ahead at a time of such suffocating tension.

They weren't the only ones. Many fans had to walk home because the buses weren't running late.

But it was the Ulster Hall which was Rory's spiritual home in Belfast and it was an appropriate choice for folk singer Christy Moore to showcase a tribute song called Rory is Gone. There wasn't a dry eye in the hall.

But Rory's place in the annals of Irish rock music history is assured. I made a documentary for UTV, which aired a couple of weeks after Rory's death, and Irish stars queued up to pay homage to Rory, who had been a major influence on them.

Adam Clayton of U2 told me he and the rest of the band were massively influenced by Rory, whom he described as an innovative pioneer for later generations of guitarists like Eddie Van Halen.

Lisburn-born Vivian Campbell (below left), who plays with Def Leppard, said he'd met the world's greatest guitarists, but added: "Nothing compared to meeting Rory, because he was my childhood hero. And after a concert, I got to play his battered Strat. It was a big deal for me."

In the documentary, Gallagher's Blues: A Requiem for Rory, which has found its way onto YouTube now, I included a clip from an old UTV studio interview with Rory.

He said: "I don't want to be Boy George. I don't want to be Bryan Ferry. I want to be me. My idols really are people like Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie and Muddy Waters. And they shunned it (fame) as well.

"They did what I would love to do - they played into their old age. And they built something that meant something. It wasn't something that was handed them in a bean tin all the time."

He never did make it into his old age.

But like his American heroes, Rory's music will never die for blues fans who weren't even born when he passed away.

Belfast Telegraph

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