How Gary Moore reignited the British blues scene with the help of a famous guitar

A close-up of Gary Moore
Gary Moore (Image credit: Getty)

Spring 1989. Gary Moore was touring across Europe promoting his latest album After The War, his fifth rock album for Virgin since 1982’s Corridors Of Power. Sales and profile were growing with each album, culminating in Wild Frontier in 1987. But the new album hadn’t done so well and Gary was tiring of the 1980s rock treadmill; the emphasis on soulless fret-melting guitar, big hair and looking serious in daft pop videos. He realised, too, that he was repeating himself as a songwriter. He needed to take some risks if he was to move on – but which way to turn?

Sitting in the tune-up room loosening up before a gig in Germany with his long-time bass player Bob Daisley (ex-Rainbow and Ozzy Osbourne), the answer came. “We were messing about playing bits and pieces of blues,” says Daisley. “Stuff from the Bluesbreakers’ Beano album. And then it came to me. I said to Gary, ‘Why don’t we do a blues album?’”

Flashback to Belfast 1966; Gary Moore, then still only 14, had been making a name for himself as a guitar prodigy on the Belfast beat scene. Starting around the age of 10 with a jumbo acoustic almost as big as himself, he progressed so far over the next four years that he was the proud owner of a white Telecaster – one of the very few available in the city and bought on hire purchase by his dad for 180 guineas (an eye-watering £2,800 at 2013 prices).

He’d been playing pop covers since his first band The Beat Boys, but then in July 1966, the Beano album came out; “I remember going round to a friend’s house one Sunday afternoon. I’ll never forget it because it was such a big thing for me. He had the album and a lot of people were talking about it. It was the first time anyone had heard a Les Paul going through a Marshall amp. My friend put on the opening track, All Your Love, and it changed my life in a second, it was an unbelievable epiphany. It was only a little stereo, but the guitar was screaming out of the speakers. I’d never heard a guitar sound so big and so passionate, and so full of energy and emotion.”

Moore borrowed the album and never gave it back. That very same copy with the name ‘G. McFarlane’ written in the top left-hand corner now resides in Belfast’s Oh Yeah community centre, alongside a display of stage clothes and a black Les Paul.

It wasn’t that long after hearing the album that Moore ran away from home, travelling to Dublin with The Method as a stand-in for the guitarist who had hurt his hand in a car accident and then joining Skid Row, featuring a tall, skinny black kid called Phil Lynott on vocals. If hearing Eric Clapton was an epiphany, the next step in Moore’s blues journey became a lifelong obsession.

Moore first clapped eyes on Peter Green in 1967, when Fleetwood Mac played the Club Rado in Belfast. Like most fans, he stood there, arms folded, waiting to hear from the guitarist who had the job of replacing Eric Clapton. Moore said later, “From the opening licks of All Your Love it was obvious that here was someone very special. As for his guitar sound, I’d never heard anything like it in my life. It seemed that the whole room was resonating, such was the depth of his tone.”

That guitar, a 1959 Les Paul Standard, would become as much a part of the Gary Moore story as it was embedded in the legend of Peter Green.

Moore didn’t meet Green until January 1970, when Skid Row supported Fleetwood Mac at Dublin’s National Stadium. “After we’d played our set, a local DJ, Pat Egan, who was compering the show, came up to me and said Peter wanted to say hello. Peter told me that he liked my playing and invited me back to his hotel after the show. I had another gig to play about 50 miles away, but he wanted me to go back and we sat up playing and talking until the early hours. After that we became friends and he persuaded his manager Clifford Davis to sign Skid Row.”

Thin Lizzy in 1974

Thin Lizzy in 1974: Brian Downey, Phil Lynott and Gary Moore (Image credit: Getty Images)

Skid Row moved to London, where Moore and Green stayed in touch. By then, Green’s life was unravelling; he left Fleetwood Mac, began to offload money and possessions and started down an awful slope into mental illness and obscurity. Moore recalled a particular night at The Marquee: “Peter asked me if I wanted to borrow his guitar. All through the Bluesbreakers and Fleetwood Mac he had played that particular guitar… and so I jumped at the chance.

A few days later he called and asked me if I wanted it. I told him there was no way I could afford it, but he said if I sold my main guitar (a Gibson SG), then whatever I got for it, I could give it to him and then it would be like swapping guitars. It’s the best guitar I have ever played…it has a magic all its own and a sound that I have never heard from any other guitar.”

Moore spent the mid to late 70s alternating between the hard rock of Thin Lizzy and the prog rock complexities of Colosseum II. He met up with Green again during the recording of his solo album Back On The Streets, the source of his first pop success, Parisienne Walkways

Gary told Guitarist magazine in 2003, “He was downstairs in the bar and I said, ‘Come up. I want to play you this track’. We’d done this slow version of Don’t Believe A Word which was very much in the Fleetwood Mac style. The Les Paul was leaning against a chair in the studio and he came in, walked across and brushed it with his hand. That’s why it’s given me another 20 years of magic ever since. He put some of the old magic back into it for me.”

What is so special about that guitar is a matter of dispute. There are many stories of how it came to have that soulful, far away, out-of-phase signature sound. Inevitably the truth is probably a mash-up of explanations – the main ones being a botched repair at Selmer’s, where Peter had bought the guitar second hand feeling he should have the same guitar as Eric, and a possible factory fault unique to this guitar. But there is no such thing as a magical guitar; there are only magical guitarists.

One thing’s for sure, Gary Moore was a worthy recipient of the most famous Les Paul on the planet. He used it on Still Got The Blues and the subsequent tour – and dedicated the album to Peter Green.

But in 1989, exactly what form this blues album would take – or even if it would happen at all – was very much up in the air. When Bob Daisley said “why don’t we do a blues album?” – he meant Gary’s touring band of the moment, with keyboard player Neil Carter and drummer Chris Slade. But Carter wasn’t really into playing blues and, shortly after the tour ended, Chris Slade joined AC/DC. And Moore had other ideas.

The prospect of doing a blues album was raised with the record company by Moore’s manager Steve Barnett. According to John Wooler, part of Virgin Records A&R team, a very early thought was to make a Fleetwood Mac concept album using Blue Horizon producer Mike Vernon and trying to get some of the original band to play. But Moore soon ditched that plan and turned his mind to building a team of musicians under his own name. Graham Lilley, Gary’s then guitar technician, recalls conversations about including another guitarist in the line-up, with Snowy White’s name being mentioned.

Inside Virgin, the conversation initially focused on this being a side project – in other words, not an album that would count as part of Gary’s contracted commitments.

Briefly floated, too, was the notion that this could be released on the Point Blank label. John Wooler, who had good connections with a number of American blues artists on the Alligator label, was laying plans to have a blues subsidiary of Virgin. Nothing was going to happen, however, until Virgin could hear what Moore was planning.

Moore reached out first to bassist Andy Pyle, who he had played with back in 1980, in a short-lived band that recorded a live album at The Marquee. Moreover, Pyle had solid blues credentials with several bands, including Savoy Brown and Blodwyn Pig.

Moore and Pyle met and started working on some ideas. Activity then shifted to a small studio in a converted barn in Woodcray, Berkshire, not far from Gary’s home in Henley. Andy brought in ex-Blodwyn Pig drummer Clive Bunker, and when that didn’t work out, turned to Graham Walker, who was not specifically a blues drummer, but somebody who could be relied upon to play in the simple, uncomplicated way that Gary would be looking for. The original demo band was completed by pianist Mick Weaver.

Time has dimmed the memory of exactly which tracks they tried out and eventually played to Virgin, but probably Oh Pretty Woman, Moving On, Walking By Myself, Midnight Blues, Stop Messin’ Around, a Fleetwood Mac track Gary later recorded with Phil Lynott, possibly an early version of Still Got The Blues. Some of those basic tracks were so well developed, they can be heard pretty much intact on the final release.

After some polishing and refinements, Steve Barnett took the demos to Virgin.

“People reacted really well inside Virgin to some of the more commercial songs,” says Wooler. “People who were not blues fans, and they thought maybe this had got greater potential than just a straight-up blues record. The playing was great, so it would still appeal to the guitar fans and might appeal to a wider audience because the songs were so melodic.”

Virgin then decided that this was no side project, this was going to be the next contracted Gary Moore album with the full backing of the record company and a budget to match. Rehearsals began in earnest at John Henry’s in north London. Wooler oversaw the project and Moore co-producing with Ian Taylor, who had engineered After The War. As well as Pyle and Graham Walker, Moore decided to try out other rhythm section combinations. So in came Bob Daisley to play with Moore’s long-standing friend Brian Downey from Thin Lizzy. Keyboard player Don Airey had known Moore from back when they both played in Colosseum II.

As the work progressed through November and December 1989, it was decided to add a horn section to give it that Albert/BB King, big-band vibe and also to add strings. Moore could hear the arrangements in his head, but he couldn’t write music, so Airey wrote the scores and worked with the horns and string sections. When Airey told guitarist Mick Grabham, who lived in the same village, what he was doing, Grabham dumped a load of Albert King albums in his lap, saying, ‘you’d better listen to this lot’. During rehearsals, even Jack Bruce came down to jam just to help Moore gain a sense of how he wanted the album to shape up.

Gary Moore at home

Gary Moore at home in 1984 (Image credit: Getty Images)

Once rehearsals were over, the main recording sessions began at Sarm West, the old Island Recording Studio in central London. It wasn’t the cheapest but, as Ian Taylor explains, “We didn’t book much time. The philosophy was going to be that the whole album would be done in a few weeks, not months, plus two or three weeks to mix. And we wanted to get a live feeling from the band, getting people together to get some chemistry, rather than stripping it all down and doing lot of overdubs.”

For this to work, it needed studio discipline and Gary had that by the bucketload. It was almost like a day at the office, rather than people ‘hanging out’ getting wasted and doing nothing. Moore needed people around him who knew exactly what was expected of them and were ready to go when he was.

Says Ian Taylor, “Gary liked working with me because I could get his guitar sounding good. I knew where he wanted the guitar in the mix and I made his life in the studio as easy as possible. It allowed him to go in the studio and not have a lot of fucking about. So Gary arrives, everybody is there and ready, right let’s go. When he had the guitar in his hand, he was a slightly different person. He would come into the studio very relaxed, but as soon as he put that guitar on, everything had to happen or the moment was lost. So everybody had to be with Gary and I could make that happen.”

From Taylor’s point of view, “Andy and Graham were perfect for Gary because it was really all about Gary and his guitar, so he didn’t want any ‘surprises’ from his backing band. He wanted the landscape clear so he could do exactly what he wanted. He didn’t want to hear that the bass player had put a funny note in there. Or the drummer had suddenly done a drum fill when he wasn’t expecting one. With Bob (Daisley) and Brian (Downey) Gary wanted a different feel, but also to bring in guys he had played with before, who were mates. Bob Daisley was the one guy who could make Gary laugh all time. He was a continual one-liner guy.”

It is remarkable, then, that Still Got The Blues was done in one take. Moore recalled later, “I remember exactly when we recorded [that track]. I was in a very determined frame of mind. I was up for the whole thing. I had the sound of the guitar in my mind and I really got it sounding the way I wanted, got the right balance in the headphones and just went for it… we were all so comfortable together, we just played, nobody make any mistakes. That was it, it all came together.” To which Taylor adds, “Gary had perfect pitch, so we dropped in two notes where the tuning wasn’t spot on. That was such a small amount to fix. Gary was a very tough critic of his own playing.”

Everything that Gary loved about the early style of Clapton and Green, he brought to his own playing; passion, emotion, energy and the most sublime of tones and touches. The solo on the track Still Got The Blues is almost symphonic in its construction and was typical of Gary’s playing at its very best. He brought rock aggression to blues playing and his blood is running through those strings. On this track, as on so much of his work, Gary Moore played as if his life depended on it, as if each note would be his last.

As well as using solid British musicians, the talk was of maybe bringing in some of the real deal blues legends from America. Over to John Wooler: “We had been at the rehearsal studios and I was giving Gary and Steve (Barnett) a lift back. We were talking in the car and I said, ‘Have you heard of Albert Collins? I’ll play you a great track. You’ll love his guitar playing.’ 

"I played him Too Tired and Gary said, ‘That’s incredible. Never heard of this guy in my life.’ So I made a tape up for Gary. I had already been talking to Albert about being the first artist on Point Blank, so I said it would be great to get him on the record.” Albert Collins came in and they got Too Tired down in three takes.

“Gary wanted to do Albert King’s Oh Pretty Woman,” says Wooler, “so he asked me if I could track him down. I ended up talking to Albert’s lawyer in Arkansas and we eventually worked out a deal.

“I had to meet Albert at Heathrow airport (where he’d been flown over first class), pick him up that night, take him to the hotel and the next day we were going to do the recording. So I’m down at the airport – no sign of Albert King. In the morning, I get this call, ‘Where are you Albert?’ ‘I’m at the hotel’. He’d got a different flight, but didn’t think to tell me. So it’s 10am and he wants me to pick him up so we can start recording straight away. 

Gary would usually come in about two. So I’m frantically trying to call Gary and Steve to say that Albert’s ready to go and he doesn’t want to hang around. I tried to delay things by taking him to breakfast. Albert’s track was due to be recorded at Metropolis studio in Chiswick, west London. Gary got there early and we cut the session around midday. For Albert, it was all about getting down to the studio, doing the song and going home.”

But he still had time to tell Moore off for misquoting the lyrics to Oh Pretty Woman and also freaked everybody out by tipping a load of bullets on the table in search of his pipe-cleaning knife. Turned out that back in his home town of Memphis, Albert was an honorary sheriff – and he produced the badge to prove it. It may also have been a subtle way of saying that at, 6 feet 4 inches and nearly 18 stones, you didn’t mess with Albert King.

Ian Taylor remembers trying to get the track done with Albert overdubbing on the basic rhythm track.

“He takes his guitar out, and tunes it up roughly. Graham Lilley says, ‘Do you want to plug into a strobe tuner?’. Albert says, ‘No I’m fine’. And then we try to play with the track and he’s miles out of tune. And then it’s, ‘well you need to be in tune with the track, Albert’. ‘No no, you need to be in tune with me’, because he is used to playing with his own band who had to be tuned to him – not the other way round. If he isn’t in concert pitch it doesn’t matter. If he says it’s in E and it isn’t in concert E, but it’s Albert’s E then it doesn’t matter, everybody tunes to him. We tried running the tape at a different speed. Then we spent a couple of hours going through the solo note by note and we fiddled around. Then Gary looked at me and said, ‘What are we doing? It doesn’t sound any better and it doesn’t sound like Albert. Let’s forget it and go with what we have.’”

As well as Sarm West and Metropolis, other studios were used to assemble the album. The strings were recorded at Abbey Road, while the George Harrison track That Kind Of Woman was done at George Harrison’s studio as a demo, with Nicky Hopkins contributing some beautiful piano and Graham Walker overdubbing the drums at Metropolis. Gary and his wife Kerry were living in Henley, close to George and Olivia Harrison. Gary was accepted into that Henley rock star enclave and became very close with George for a while, appearing on the second Traveling Wilburys album and even turning down a request to be in Bob Dylan’s touring band.

Although the Peter Green Les Paul did feature on the album on Midnight Blues and Stop Messin’ Around, the main guitar was another 1959 Les Paul Standard purchased at the end of 1988. For such songs as Texas Strut, a tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughan and Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, out came the vintage 1961 salmon pink Stratocaster. The original owner was claimed to be Tommy Steele, but in 1981 it found its way to a Greg Lake recording session, brought in by a dealer looking to sell it to Lake. He thought it looked a bit battered, so Moore, who was also on the session, snapped it up.

Moore was extremely nervous about the reaction of the fans and the critics. He feared that it would alienate his rock fans while failing to impress the blues community who would sneer at his credentials. But even quite early on in the process, while the shape of the album was uncertain, Bob Daisley turned to Moore and said, “This is going to be the biggest thing you have ever done.” How right he was.

Ian Taylor first got a hint of what they might have achieved when he went to master the album at Abbey Road. “Chris, their mastering engineer, was one of their older guys there. He did various bits and pieces to it, then you play it in real time to master it onto vinyl. Chris turned round to me and said, ‘This is a really good album, you know.’ And here is a guy who is listening to albums all day. That was the first time it occurred to me because when you go to master it, you are listening to the whole album. In the studio, you are still fixing things, fiddling with the order. About two weeks later Steve rang me and said, ‘this is going to be a big record’.”

Gary Moore playing the "Greeny" Les Paul

Gary Moore playing the Les Paul once owned by Peter Green (Image credit: Getty Images)

It took a while to sort out exactly who was going to be in the tour band to promote the album. Eventually Moore settled on Andy Pyle and Graham Walker, with Don Airey on keyboards and also acting as MD with the horn section to form The Midnight Blues Band.

The original tour was only scheduled to run a few weeks, but as the single Still Got The Blues and the album began to climb the charts all over the world, the tour just grew.

For Airey, Moore was absolutely on fire: “His playing was unbelievable on that tour, just unbelievable. Sometimes I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Jon Lord came up to me and said something very complimentary about my Hammond playing. But he said, ‘Don’t take this wrong, but it’s not surprising given what’s going on out front.’ And Andy Pyle was also very important in all this. He was very rigorous about the tempo, a very sparse player, but just exactly the right amount of notes. He didn’t conduct the band as such, but he did what a bass player should do and he held it together beautifully.”

Although the band knew things were going well sales-wise because dates kept being added, they had no idea how well. It wasn’t just that there were more dates, the size of the venues rose dramatically, from theatre-size venues to massive outdoor festivals.

“We did a gig in Holland called the Parkpop Festival in front of about 300,000 people,” says Graham Walker, “and we came offstage and there were all these TV cameras and a red carpet with a fence on either side and motorbike outriders for the tour bus. We were completely shocked and didn’t understand what was going on. I think the album and the single were right at the top of the charts. You kept on tripping over record company people all of a sudden.”

They would pull into a truck stop anywhere in Europe and hear the single on the radio or, on some occasions, the whole album.

Albert Collins joined the tour for about 30 dates and Albert King was flown back to do the video shoot for the single Oh Pretty Woman and for the filming of one of the two nights at Hammersmith Odeon in May.

John Wooler was at the rehearsal: “Albert King walked in. He was extremely competitive and was known for going on stage, playing really loud and blowing the competition away. But as he got older he couldn’t deal with volume, so the first thing he said to Gary was ‘you’ve got to turn it down’.”

King also ticked Gary off for playing too many notes; Graham Lilley recalls King’s rebuke, “‘Ah told that other boy, my other son, Stevie Ray, stop playing all them notes. And Gary’s like ‘Ooh, fuckin’ hell, getting told off here!’ And he did take it on board; Gary himself said he had come from that rock thing – and he said that he was doing a blues album, but coming from the rock side of it and overplaying, too many notes and tearing the backside out of it – and on the later albums, he found another voice to it all and started listening to the space between the notes. Albert was saying ‘think 10 notes but play five’.”

Wooler remembers King trying to take over, saying he needed to teach the horn section what to do. “They were talking about doing Stormy Monday. Albert says to Gary, ‘What key do you want to do it in?’ And Gary says, ‘Anything but A flat. I hate the key of A flat.’ ‘Okay, no problem.’ When he walks onto the stage at Hammersmith Odeon, they are about to do Stormy Monday and Albert shouts out to Gary, ‘A flat!!’ and goes straight into it.”

The tour rolled on to Moore’s debut at the Montreux Jazz Festival (the first of five appearances) in July and then large festival dates in Europe supporting Tina Turner on her tour to promote Foreign Affair. But there was trouble in paradise.

“I remember we were at the Deutsche Museum in Munich,’ says Don Airey. “This is where Gary started having trouble with his ears and he was beside himself. He was sitting outside in the park having a coffee and I wandered past and he was so upset.” Graham Lilley remembers Moore trying out ear plugs and getting an infection, which made a bad situation worse.

Then there was the issue of touring. The album had gone gold in the US, racking up half a million copies and was still selling, far outstripping anything Moore had previously sold there. There was a plan to tour the US in support of the Vaughan Brothers until the horrific death of Stevie Ray on August 27 that year put paid to that idea and the impetus was somehow lost. The day after Stevie Ray died, Gary played The Sky Is Crying dedicated to the great Texan blues guitarist. In Australia, manager Steve Barnett reckons the album went platinum or even double platinum and a big tour was in the offing. But Gary didn’t want to do a long tour of anywhere; he hated both flying and being away from home for extended periods.

Barnett was frustrated by Moore’s refusal to extend the tour further afield. “In the world we live in, when you have that opportunity, you have to really strike. But, on the other hand, it took Gary to a much wider audience, both in terms of record sales and touring. Still Got The Blues dramatically changed his life. I went in and renegotiated the deal with Virgin. It all worked out brilliantly for him.”

Wooler has a disc on his wall for three million worldwide sales – and that may well be an underestimate.

For Gary, the success of the album set him on a path, which apart from a couple of deviations, he followed for the rest of his career. He even recorded a complete album of Peter Green compositions, Blues For Greeny, released in 1995.

The album had a broader impact, too. While the international white blues scene was dominated by British guitarists in the 1960s and 1970s; the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jeff Healey captured the territory in the 1980s. Still Got The Blues put British blues playing back on the map, inspired a new generation of guitar players and provided much of the repertoire for the UK pub blues scene of the 1990s.

There were some sour notes down the line; for any artist, the risk of major profile is the unwelcome attention from those who feel they have contributed unrewarded to your success. Moore had to fight two separate court cases in Germany from musicians both claiming that the riff for Still Got The Blues had been ripped off from them. He won one and lost the other, although there was a feeling that he was on a hiding to nowhere by having to face a case brought by German musicians in a German court.

Another case was brought by guitarist Ronnie Montrose, alleging that one of the Les Pauls used by Moore on the album had actually been stolen off the stage in 1972. Jurisdictional issues got that case thrown out.

And what of the famous Les Paul? Unforeseen financial problems forced Moore to sell it to a dealer. It floated around the collectors market for a while – Airey says he heard Joe Bonamassa play Midnight Blues on it at the Royal Albert Hall and he “just sat there and burst into tears” – and in 2014 Metallica's Kirk Hammett gave it a permanent home. 

There were the sad passings too; both Alberts died just over a year apart. Albert King had not been in the best of health for some years and died in December 1993 following a heart attack The ever-friendly Albert Collins was only 61 when he died of cancer in November 1993. Of course, the ultimately tragedy in this story was the death of Moore himself, struck down by a heart attack on February 6, 2011 aged only 58 years old.

As Gary had remembered Stevie Ray Vaughan, so Eric Clapton squared the circle of Gary’s lifelong love of the seminal Beano album by playing Still Got The Blues at his Royal Albert Hall dates in the weeks following Gary’s death and covering the song on his latest album, Old Sock.

“He (Gary) introduced himself to me a long time ago and I got an incredible feeling from the guy that he was a genuine good man and a great player. Lovely tone. And when he died I thought this was so sad. And well, it wasn’t ignored, but it wasn’t given a great deal of significance, so I just wanted to say thank you by doing this and I wanted his family to know as much as anybody in the public, that I cared. And I thought a good way to do it would be to show that the song itself is strong, enough to be adaptable – so I did it in a jazzy, clubby kind of way. Thank God musicians do that for one another.”

But last word to Albert King, never one to readily dish out praise; “I didn’t think he could play. I thought he was just another kid trying to get off into the blues guitar world… but listening to that kid play the wildest things… Golly Moses, where did he come from?”

This article first appeared in The Blues #7, June 2013.

Harry Shapiro

Harry Shapiro has been a writer, journalist and editor for over forty years specialising in all aspects of drug use and addiction and also popular music – rock, jazz and blues. He has  an extensive portfolio of books and articles – from popular biography and books for young people through to peer-reviewed academic journal articles. He is also the Director of DrugWise, an online drug information service, and active in the world of tobacco harm reduction through the Global Forum on Nicotine. He is the author of Jimi Hendrix: Electric Gypsy, Eric Clapton: Lost in the Blues, Waiting for the Man: the Story of Drugs and Popular Music and many other titles.