TRAVELLING the world with Rory Gallagher, performing to adoring crowds every night, was enormous fun — but not nearly as wild and fast-living as might be imagined.
Those are the recollections of Gerry McAvoy, who was Cork rock icon Gallagher’s left-hand musician for two decades. They had their laughs on the road, but mostly it was about putting in the hours and staying focused.
“The early 1970s weren’t as glamorous as you might imagine,” says the Belfast-born bassist, a staple in Gallagher’s band from 1970 to 1991. “There was a lot of hard work. As far as living in the fast-lane goes… no, not much of that at the beginning. With all the work, you couldn’t afford to live in the fast lane. As the tours got easier, maybe we would have gone out the odd night, had too much to drink, suffered for it the next morning. In the early days…no…not like that at all.”
For the past several years, McAvoy (62) has fronted Band of Friends, a hard-charging blues ensemble that reprises many of Gallagher’s best-loved compositions. It isn’t a tribute act — more a means for McAvoy to honour a musician he at first idolised and later came to know as a dear friend.
“Around 2007, 2008, I got my record player out and listened to all the old Rory stuff on vinyl again,” he says. “I’d forgotten how good the songs were. I thought it would be lovely to go back on the road with the right musicians. It wasn’t a tribute thing — there are a lot of very good Rory tribute acts. I wanted this to be a celebration.”
McAvoy was a teenager in Belfast when he met Gallagher, who had moved north with his band, Taste, and had quickly became renowned as a virtuoso. Aged just 16, McAvoy, one Saturday, visited the central-Belfast music shop where Gallagher was known to be a regular.
As McAvoy had hoped, he spied the guitarist, in a corner, strumming to himself.
“I was a budding musician at the time,” McAvoy says. “Everyone would go to this particular store to check out the guitars they couldn’t afford. I plucked up the courage to walk up and say ‘hello’ to Rory. He was quite a figure. I distinctly recall us chatting for about 15 minutes. And I was just this kid. He was lovely.”
Four years later, McAvoy was at Gallagher’s side as he set out to conquer the world.
It was an exciting time and would have a lasting impact on rock ’n’ roll, with Gallagher nowadays acknowledged as one of the most influential guitarists of the era.
“The number of well-known musicians influenced by Rory is incredible,” says McAvoy.
“Johnny Marr, from The Smiths, Brian May, from Queen, Slash… all these people built on Rory’s legacy. He was a one-off. He developed his own style of playing.”
Even at the zenith of his fame in the 1970s, however, Gallagher never conducted himself like a preening rock star, says McAvoy.
On stage, he played with an almost demonic intensity. Off it, he was quietly spoken, low-key.
“He was the perfect gentlemen,” McAvoy says. “It was different on stage. He went from introvert to extrovert. Around people, he was very quiet.”
McAvoy parted from Gallagher in 1991. He was restless, wanted to try something different. There was no bad blood, he says.
At the same time, once the bassist walked away a distance set in. That’s how it was with Gallagher.
“We parted on good terms. I told Rory I felt it was time for me to move on. The following year, he was still putting a new band together, so I went out on the road with him.
“He was fine — now, he was one of those people where, if you left the ranks, you had crossed a dividing line, so to speak. I would still call him every Christmas.”
McAvoy couldn’t believe it when, in June of 1995, Gallagher died at 47, as a result of chronic liver damage.
“I knew Rory had been ill for a while,” McAvoy says. “He was tough. I thought, ‘Well, he’ll be back on the road again at some stage, doing what he does best’. But it never happened.”
- Band of Friends play the Opium Rooms in Dublin on Thursday