My brother’s keeper

As Rory Gallagher’s ‘lost’ album is finally released, his brother Donal tells Marc O’Sullivan about guarding the guitar legend’s legacy

DESCENDING the stairs in Hayfield Manor Hotel in Cork, Donal Gallagher is instantly recognisable by his shock of white hair. He’s casually dressed, in slacks and a jacket, but his pointed shoes are pure rock’n’roll, and reflect on the decades he spent subsumed in the music industry, managing his brother, the late Rory Gallagher.

It’s lunch-time, there’s a function on in the foyer of the hotel, and a string quartet is playing by the staircase. Donal recognises the tune they’re performing and is suddenly spooked. “That music,” he explains a little later. “It’s a piece by Johann Pachelbel. It’s got different names: I know it as One Day We Will All Be Together. It’s the same piece of music I arranged to have played at Rory’s funeral Mass.”

As it happens, one of the musicians is Joan Campbell, who also performed the piece at Rory’s funeral. Donal excuses himself to say hello. “Joan’s husband, Johnny Campbell, was the drummer in Rory’s first three piece,” he says on his return. Donal has become used to such coincidences.

Donal grew up in Cork, and returned often with Rory to visit their mother Monica. These days he lives in London, but he’s back to town to promote a new album of his brother’s music, Notes from San Francisco, which features one CD of songs Rory recorded at His Master’s Wheels Studio in 1977 and another of live material he recorded at the Old Waldorf venue the following year.

Donal has also been invited to Cork Institute of Technology that afternoon, to attend the unveiling of two paintings by his friend Frank Phelan. Donal has fond memories of CIT. The Gallaghers’ uncle, Jim Roche, was for many years its principal, back when it was known as the Regional Technical College. It was also where Rory played one of his last gigs, an acoustic concert that suggested how he might have progressed as a performer were it not for his untimely death, of complications arising from a liver transplant, on June 14, 1995, aged 47.

Rory had been a professional musician since his teens and was widely regarded as one of the guitar greats, a master who counted Brian May of Queen, the Edge of U2 and even Jimi Hendrix among his legion of admirers.

Rory’s chosen genre was the blues, which he’d first heard on the radio in the Gallaghers’ home in Cork. The artists he tuned into — Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf and Jerry Lee Lewis — were legends of the genre. Later, he’d record with them in London.

Upstairs in his suite at Hayfield Manor, Donal pours tea and recalls how music was in the Gallaghers’ blood. “Growing up with Rory, you were dragged into it,” he says. “My father was a piano accordion player, an Ulster champion. He had his own céilí dance orchestra. And my mother was a good singer. So was Jim Roche, her brother, he was a great singer.”

Rory’s first instrument was the ukulele. “Initially, he liked Roy Rogers, but then his interest turned to rock’n’roll.” Rory acquired his first guitar and began performing in public while still a child but, as Donal recalls, “you couldn’t play certain material in a place like St Augustine’s church hall. Up in the North Monastery, where we went to school, you couldn’t even be known to have a guitar: it was a phallic symbol of the devil. I was warned not to tell anyone at school that Rory had one.”

At first, Donal performed with his brother. “We would play little socials around Cork: the Academy, St Francis Hall, St Augustine’s. What it was basically was that Rory wouldn’t have enough suitable material, so I’d be called up to harmonise. We’d do the Everly Brothers’ Wake Up Little Susie. It was all quite innocent compared to the real rock’n’roll he wanted to perform.”

One evening, in St Augustine’s Hall, they ran out of material. “But we’d been well received, the crowd wanted more, so Rory said, ‘do your party piece’. At home I’d sing The Scottish Soldier. I’d been born in Derry, so I could do the Scottish accent. So I sang it, and Rory started strumming away behind me. But after the first verse, I said, ‘Rory, there’s no guitar on it’. And he said, ‘just get on with it’. So I did.

“The mums and dads probably loved it, but Rory was so disgusted with me. Backstage afterwards, I was immediately fired. As far as Rory was concerned, I’d been unprofessional: you’d never row on stage, you’d never behave like that in front of the audience.”

How old were they? “There was less than two years between us: I was probably nine, and he was 11. After that, he taught me the guitar, he always encouraged me, but it was like having a brother who’s an athlete and you can’t keep up. He never let me grace the stage with him again.”

Rory acquired his first good electric guitar, a 1961 Fender Stratocaster, when he was 14. He joined a showband, the Fontana. On one occasion, they were booked to play a string of dates with singer Bridie Gallagher. “The band would come on and do their usual set, then Bridie would turn up and sing,” says Donal. “But this night in Coachford, she was late turning up, and the band kept apologising, saying she’s on her way. And they assumed she was.

“But some guys in the audience… it was the usual thing, whoever’s on stage gets it. They just decided, enough is enough. There was some messing. Then a fight broke out. The guys smashed all the instruments. Rory managed to dive under the grand piano and hide his guitar so it didn’t get damaged. But they all got a bad beating. Rory too.”

The incident came to the attention of the Christian Brothers up in the North Mon. “That was how they found out Rory was in a showband. After the beating, he got a terrible flu, which was actually distress, so he couldn’t go to school. And when he did go back, he had a note from my mother saying he’d had flu. But of course, it had been all over the Examiner, with all the band members’ names. It was front page. You can imagine what it was like in school. ‘Where’s Gallagher today?’. ‘In the paper, sir’.

“So when Rory went back to school, he got a bigger beating from the Christian Brother who taught him. A severe beating. We shared a bedroom, and after a few nights, Rory said his leg was sore. He asked me to take a look, and it was horrific, it had gone septic. He’d been hit with a blackthorn stick. He’d been welted. And I could see it had festered, I knew that from the cowboy movies.”

Donal told their mother what had happened. “She was horrified. She took Rory out of the North Mon and sent him to St Kieran’s College instead. I was given the option of going there too, so I did.

“My mother told them at St Kieran’s, ‘my son is a musician, he’s doing his apprenticeship, and I want it respected’. So he could come and go at St Kieran’s, there weren’t the same restrictions. A lot of the teachers were young, student teachers. They didn’t mind if he was late for school if he’d been playing a gig.”

By the time he finished school, Rory had established himself as a musician. “The day after he finished his Leaving Cert, he left for Spain, playing the air bases. I have a picture of that from the Examiner. It was Franco’s Spain, so he had to get his hair cut. That was in ’65.”

Rory spent a spell in Germany, in Hamburg, playing with his new band, the Impact. Around the same time, Donal was hired as a DJ at a new venue, the Cavern, on Coburg St. “The Cavern was essentially a youth club, a great place for the kids. We’d have parents come, they’d be concerned, but they’d be fine when they’d see what was going on.”

When Rory returned to Cork, he formed a three-piece, Taste, with Eric Kitteringham on bass and Norman Damery on drums. They became the resident band at the Cavern for a time. But Rory was hungry for success. He moved the band to Belfast, which he favoured over Dublin because of its vibrant R’n’B scene. Donal went with him, working as Taste’s road manager. They were the resident act at the Maritime Hotel, then the premiere blues club in Belfast.

Rory flew back and forth to London, performing at venues like the Marquee. He acquired a manager, Eddie Kennedy, and signed a record contract with Polydor. It was a condition of the deal that Rory replace Kitteringham and Damery with a new bassist and drummer, Richard McCracken and John Wilson respectively.

In May, ’68, Rory moved to London. Again, Donal went with him. For the next few years, the brothers shared a bedsit. Donal remembers that their uncle Jim was a regular visitor. “Jim was an inspirational figure for Rory. He was a terrific man. In ’68 and ’69, he’s come over and take courses in computers at IBM in Sandhurst. I’d take the Taste van and drop him off. I’d pick him up a week later, he’d come and crash on the floor at our bedsit.”

In November ’68, Taste supported Cream [Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker] at their farewell concerts at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Rory was offered the chance to replace Clapton in the line-up, but declined.

Taste released their first, self-titled, studio album in ’69 and toured American and Canada with Blind Faith, the new supergroup which featured Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Ginger Baker and Ric Grech. “We got off the plane in New York and the first gig was Madison Square Garden. The bands performed on a rotating stage.”

Blind Faith’s album was a runaway success, but out on tour, they were dying the death. “One of my jobs was to stop Ginger Baker from hitting someone,” says Donal. “I remember going into the dressing rooms after one gig and Janis Joplin was standing there. She said: ‘Ginger, I got to tell you, your new band, it sucks, man’. I thought he’d swing at her.”

Taste, Blind Faith, and a bevy of other acts travelled in a chartered Greyhound bus. There were 52 men on board, and one woman, Bonnie Bramlett, who performed with her husband as Delaney & Bonnie & Friends. At one point, Eric Clapton announced on the bus that they’d been offered slots at a festival in upstate New York. “And that was Woodstock,” says Donal. “I thought this would be fantastic. Eric wanted to go too. I told him, if you say we’re going, we’ll have to go. But he wanted to be fair, he asked for a show of hands.” They were voted down. “Instead, we drove 1,200 miles to a gig in Milwaukee.”

Donal hung out with Bonnie Bramlett. They’d go shopping together. To Donal, America was still a wonderland. And then one morning in August, they picked up the newspapers at a filling station in the desert. “They were full of the Sharon Tate murders. Bonnie went to pieces. One of the victims [Jay Sebring] was her hairdresser, her friend. Suddenly, we saw this other side of America. The killings were horrific, demonic, so much so that our next gigs were cancelled. There were no gigs allowed, because of the Tate killings’ association with music. It was extraordinary to be so close to an event like that.”

A second Taste album, On the Boards, followed in early ’70. In August, they shared the bill at the Isle of Wight Festival with The Who, Leonard Cohen and Jimi Hendrix. It was bigger than Woodstock: at least 600,000 attended. But later that year, Gallagher broke up the band; they played their last gig in Belfast on New Year’s Eve.

Gallagher then recruited new musicians to support him in his solo career. They included the bassist Gerry McAvoy, and drummer Wigar Campbell — who was later replaced by Rod de Ath — and Lou Martin on keyboards. Rory was unhappy with his manager Eddie Kennedy: the legendary Led Zeppelin manager, Peter Grant, helped Donal take charge of his affairs.

From then on, Rory seemed unstoppable. He released six studio albums in as many years: Rory Gallagher in ’71, two collections, Deuce and Tattoo in ’73, Blueprint in ’74, Against the Grain in ’75 and Calling Card in ’77. He toured ceaselessly: there were also two live albums, Live in Europe in ’72 and Irish Tour in ’74.

In June ’77, Rory headlined the first outdoor rock music festival in Ireland, the Macroom Mountain Dew Festival, whose organisers had taken a novel approach to securing his services — they had simply rung his mother.

Later that year, Rory committed to recording his seventh solo album. This one was different; it would be the first he recorded in America, and his record company were prepared to put a lot of weight behind it to ensure he’d have a hit. Rory flew to San Francisco to meet with the producer Elliot Mazer. The two of them clicked.

“Elliot was recording The Last Waltz with the Band at the time. Rory was meant to perform on The Last Waltz, but we wound up going to Texas to spend Thanksgiving with the guys in ZZ Top instead,” says Donal.

Rory hoped to have his new album in the can by Christmas. But, Donal recalls, he was never really happy with the recordings. “We flew back via New York to Shannon to be in Cork on Christmas Day. I thought we had the album done, but Rory got into a mood about it over Christmas. There was this terrible sense that something was very wrong. He flew back out to San Francisco on New Year’s Day. He remixed the album. And then remixed it again.

“While he was doing so, the Sex Pistols came to San Francisco, and Rory went to see them perform. The next day, he said it was both the best and worst gig he’d ever seen. Musically, it was a complete shambles, they simply couldn’t play. The crowd were really angry, and the band stormed off the stage. But there was such adrenaline, he said.”

Rory had caught the mood of the times. In the previous few years, rock bands had been relying more and more on putting a production gloss on their recordings. Everything had become too slick and elaborate. Too sanitised. Too tame.

After seeing the Sex Pistols, “Rory realised he had come too far from his roots. He wanted to go back to a three-piece, like Eddie Cochran’s, and play rock’n’roll.”

Donal grew worried. They’d spent over $150,000 in studio costs alone on the album, never mind the outlay on their apartments and living expenses. Rory’s record company, Chrysalis, set a deadline for the album’s delivery, and arranged a listening party at its headquarters in Los Angeles, flying in more than 50 of its top executives from all over America. “And I had the job of representing the album to them,” says Donal. “That day, I knocked on Rory’s bedroom door in our hotel and said, ‘I’m going down to talk to them now, I need something to play to these guys, can I have the album?’. But Rory said no.

“What a time to tell me, I couldn’t get my head around it. But there was a brick wall. I said, ‘look, let me play them one track, they don’t even listen anyway’. But he still said no. So I got cross with him. I said, ‘come on, I’m taking it’. Then he held the album over the dustbin. And with that, I realised it was too late. It was a lacquered copy of the album, he dropped it and it shattered in the bin.”

Donal was furious. “I got to the point where I was about to say, I’ll break your legs, I was so bloody angry at him. But I was likely to be late for the function, so I stormed out. I went down and sort of garbled to the executives: I told them we’d need another few weeks. I didn’t really get away with it, but a lot of them knew Rory’s temperament anyway.”

When Donal got back to their hotel, the Red Lion, “I walked into the reception, and I could tell at once that there was something wrong. The girl at the desk said there were all these messages: Rory was in Mount Sinai hospital. She said there’d been an accident, involving Rory and a car. It was typical Rory. While I was down being spit-roasted, he’d gone to see a Bob Dylan film, Renaldo and Clara. And when he got back, he’d fractured his thumb in the door of the cab.”

The injury ensured that any notion of getting the new album finished quickly was gone. Back in Ireland, Rory made a decision: he’d break up his band, slim it down to a three-piece. He kept on his bassist, Gerry McAvoy, and hired a new drummer. They went back and re-recorded most of his new songs in a studio in Germany. Those recordings were released in ’79 as Rory’s seventh solo album, Photo Finish.

Rory recorded four more albums — Top Priority in ’81, Jinx in ’82, Defender in ’87, and Fresh Evidence in ’90 — eventually achieving sales of 30 million. A posthumous album of acoustic material, Wheels Within Wheels, was released in 2003.

The material Rory recorded with Elliot Mazer at the San Francisco sessions was archived.

Then Daniel Gallagher, Donal’s second son, took an interest in it. Donal was hesitant about releasing the tracks at all. “Then Daniel said there was a lot of live material from the Waldorf as well. It’s incredible stuff. So why not put the two together? A double-album, a wealth of music. So I let Daniel and his friend Martin Dubka get on with it.”

Donal is particularly proud of Daniel’s work on the live album. “He put just as much work into that. There were recordings from eight concerts at the Old Waldorf that he cut down to a compact live show.”

It’s gone 3pm, and Donal has to be at CIT shortly. He excuses himself to change, and then explains how he has come to be friends with the artist Frank Phelan. The night before Rory’s funeral, Donal dreamt that he was driving his brother somewhere. He dropped Rory off outside a large building, a palace. Rory went in, and Donal followed. “And I fell into a void. It was like a coma, I couldn’t get out of it. I was groping in the dark. There was a little pin light in the distance, so I went in that direction. And as I got closer, I saw what I can only describe as these massive holograms hanging down before me.”

Pushing his way through, Donal found Rory on the other side. He was among people who seemed to know him. He seemed well and happy. “I kept pleading with Rory to come back. I said, ‘everyone’s worried sick, this wasn’t supposed to happen’. But he kept saying, ‘no, this is where I want to be now, I’ve moved on’.

“So, when I sensed that he wasn’t coming back, I started crying. And he turned to me and said, ‘now you’ve blown it. Now they’ll know you’re not supposed to be here’.

“Then I woke, and the worst of it was, I had to get up and bury Rory.”

Donal could never forget the holograms he’d seen in his dream. Years later, he was working on Wheels Within Wheels. He commissioned the cover art from a painter named David Oxtoby, whom Rory had admired. Oxtoby had initially declined the commission, not wishing to have his work reduced to the size of a CD cover. When he changed his mind, Donal asked why. “And David explained that Rory had visited him in his bedroom at three in the morning.”

The painting Oxtoby completed was more like a death mask than a portrait. “But the brief from Rory was, this is as I am,” says Donal. “So I went with it, knowing that the record company mightn’t get it. And that a lot of his fans mightn’t get it. I worried that I’d get hate mail, such as ‘the wrong brother died,’ which I did, as it happened.”

The night before the record company was scheduled to greenlight the cover, Donal says, he offered up a little prayer. “I said to Rory that a little sign wouldn’t go amiss.” The next morning, he went downstairs and got his mail. The first thing he opened was an invitation to an exhibition opening. “There was a very glossy, very beautiful catalogue. I recognised the images in it immediately, even though they were very abstract. They were the same as the holograms I’d seen in that dream the night before Rory’s funeral.

Donal went down to the gallery at once. They couldn’t explain how they’d got his name and address. And they became upset when he said he’d seen the paintings before. “They asked where I’d seen them, and I said, I know this will sound really stupid, but I saw them in a dream.”

The gallery was at the back of Chelsea Westminster Hospital, which has an outpatients mental surgery. Another man came on the scene and intervened in the row. Donal was still so agitated he thought at first they must have called a security guard from the hospital. “But he was actually the artist, Frank Phelan.”

To calm him down, Phelan walked Donal around the exhibition, and asked what he saw in the paintings. “In one, I could immediately see Rory’s profile. There was one figure on earth and another in heaven. I told Frank I thought the person on earth had died on their own sword, like a samurai. And Frank said the painting was called Rainbow Messenger. In Greek mythology, he said, the rainbow messenger is Iris, who translated the conversations between heaven and earth.

“I bought the painting. I still have it. And as I got to know Frank, we became great friends. Then last year he said, people still know you in Cork. He’d been talking to this lady who curates the CIT gallery. She’d asked him to bring an exhibition to CIT. And I said, that’s a bit of a coincidence, one of Rory’s last gigs was at CIT, my uncle was Jim Roche, the principal. Anyway, CIT have bought two of Frank’s paintings, so he rang and asked if I could come for the unveiling.

“And as it happens, Frank’s paintings are going to hang beside a portrait of my uncle Jim.”

Donal’s car arrives. It’s time to go. I ask how he occupies himself these days, and he explains that looking after Rory’s estate is still a full-time job. There’s the records, the DVDs, the publishing, all of which he administers.

“We have most of Rory’s catalogue,” he says. “Though I never think of it as owning the songs, or the recordings. I just look after them, for Rory.”

- Notes from San Francisco is out now. Going To My Hometown: The Rory Gallagher Annual Tribute runs this weekend in Ballyshannon, Co Donegal Cork Rocks For Rory is on June 10 and 11.

Picture: Fin Costello/Redferns


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