This week we made it to the town of Paisley, on the western fringe of Glasgow city. Paisley is a scenic place, famous for its 12th century Abbey, its textile mills of old, and as the place of origin for the Paisley Shawl and the Paisley print, a whimsical pattern that was apparently a favourite of the hippie movement of the 1960s (the design itself is Kashmiri, but became associated with Paisley’s name, likely due to the town’s strong history in the weaving industry).
Considerable artists and musicians have hailed from Paisley and continue to. Today we look at perhaps the most prominent musician to have originated there.
Gerald Rafferty was born into a working-class family in Paisley in April 1947. Raised in council housing, Rafferty’s father was a coal miner and a violent alcoholic of Irish origin who died when Gerry was 16, while his mother was Scottish, and taught him Irish and Scottish folk songs.
By the 60s, Rafferty’s musical influence had grown to include The Beatles and Bob Dylan alongside traditional folk songs. Inspired to start writing his own songs, Rafferty worked a series of menial jobs while performing on the weekends in a local cover band called The Mavericks, which also included his future bandmate Joe Egan.
In 1969 Rafferty joined a “folk-pop” group called The Humblebums, whose members included the comedian Billy Connolly, and Tam Harvey. Harvey soon departed, but Rafferty and Connolly carried on to record two albums. Upon the duo’s split in 1971, their Transatlantic label kept Rafferty on as a solo artist. He released his first solo album, Can I Have My Money Back? to critical acclaim, but commercially it enjoyed little success.
In 1972, Rafferty joined with Joe Egan to form Stealers Wheel, and together they recorded three albums in collaboration with the famed American songwriting and production team of Leiber and Stoller. Their biggest hit, “Stuck in the Middle with You,” was released that year, and rose to #6 on the US Billboard Hot 100, and #8 on the UK Singles Chart. Intended as a parody of Bob Dylan’s lyrical style and paranoia, the band was surprised by its success. An article in published in Sounds in 1975 describes it briliantly as “a sort of cross between white label Beatles and punk Dylan yet with a unique Celtic flavour that has marked all their work”.
The song enjoyed a revival when featured in Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 film Reservoir Dogs, although Rafferty refused to grant permission for its re-release.
The Stealers Wheel duo split in 1975, and contractual obligations kept either member from releasing work for a further three years. During this time, Rafferty made frequent train trips from Glasgow to London for meetings with lawyers attempting to resolve the Stealers Wheel contracts, and often stayed in a friend’s flat in Baker Street. Yes, it’s that same Baker Street made famous by its fictitious resident, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, who resided at the non-existent 221B.
In 1978, Rafferty released his second album, City to City, featuring the well-known single, “Baker Street.” Although the song rose to #3 in the UK and #2 in the US, its producer, Hugh Murphy, noted in a 1993 interview with Billboard that he and Rafferty had to fight to keep the song as a single; the label had told them it was “too good for the public.” Session musician Raphael Ravenscroft performed the distinctive and haunting saxophone solo that I think must be seared into the consciousness of anyone who’s ever heard it. In October, 2010, “Baker Street” was recognized by the BMI for surpassing five million airplays worldwide; “Stuck in the Middle” has surpassed four million.
The tremendous success of “Baker Street” in particular placed the weight of fame on Rafferty’s shoulders. Although he continued to write and record, he never again reached such heights on the charts. He was uncomfortable performing live, and commented that his touring led him to travel everywhere and see none of it. In 1983, he based himself at his home in the country near the Kent-Sussex border, installed electric gates, built a studio, and worked exclusively with his producer, Hugh Murphy. It was 1988 before he released an album, and the reception to it was mixed.
The duo produced two more records together before Murphy’s death in 1998. These latter records were much better received by the critics, but Murphy’s death heralded the end of an almost 30-year creative partnership. By the late 90s, Rafferty was based in London, and technological advancements allowed him to further isolate himself into writing and production, eschewing ‘the business’ as much as possible while collaborating with notable musicians such as his old Stealers Wheel partner Egan, and Mark Knopfler.
Rafferty became increasingly reclusive, struggling in his latter years with alcoholism and depression. His sometimes-erratic behaviour and occasional disappearances made the tabloids, especially in the late oughts. In November 2010, Rafferty was admitted to hospital with multiple organ failure, but appeared to rally after being taken off of life support. The improvement was short-lived, though, and Rafferty passed away of liver failure in January, 2011.
As tributes flowed from musical artists across the generations, and Paisley named one of its streets “Gerry Rafferty Drive,” it seems that Rafferty’s musical legacy continues to shine. It’s a legacy Paisley can place with pride alongside their famous and beautiful shawls.