Gerry Rafferty: Scottish singer-songwriter who had global hits with 'Stuck in the Middle with You' and 'Baker Street'
Thursday 06 January 2011
Despite their ubiquity as recurrent oldies on radio stations around the world, Stealers Wheel's "Stuck in the Middle With You" and Gerry Rafferty's soft-rock classic "Baker Street" have endured better than most Seventies songs. Along with their undeniable catchiness and feel-good sound, both compositions retain the lyrical bite and the world-weariness associated with their author, the troubled Scottish singer who spent most of the last three decades trying to disappear from view.
Rafferty's distinctive delivery, his innate gift for melody and penchant for cynical, sardonic lyrics earned him comparisons with Bob Dylan, John Lennon and Paul McCartney but, in the Eighties, he turned down the opportunity to work with the latter as well as with Eric Clapton. More mainstream than John Martyn (with whom he shared a prodigious propensity for alcohol consumption) or Richard Thompson, who guested on Night Owl, Rafferty's excellent 1979 follow-up to his US No 1 album City to City, he never came to terms with the less creative demands of the music industry.
"Dylan once said that fame was a curse," Rafferty stated in 2001. "I think that, from an early stage in my career, I was aware there were many, many pitfalls to so-called celebrity."
At various stages of his life he suffered from depression, yet managed to rise above it to pen some of his best-loved material, like the uplifting Top 30 single "Get It Right Next Time" or the nostalgic "Royal Mile (Sweet Darlin')". "It has been through some of my darkest moments that I have written some of my best songs," he said. "For me, singing and writing is very therapeutic. It's much more effective than taking Prozac."
He was born in an "ultra-working-class home" in Paisley, a stone's throw from Glasgow, in 1947. With his two elder brothers and mother, he lived in fear of his father, an Irish-born miner and lorry driver who would beat them when he came home drunk. "My father's life was not great, his vision of the world was extremely narrow. It was an incredibly hard life," Rafferty later reflected. "There were lots of unhappy times spawned from that when I was a kid."
His Scottish mother, Mary Skeffington – celebrated on his 1972 solo debut, Can I Have My Money Back? – taught him folk songs as a boy. He started playing guitar in his teens while attending St Mirin's Academy in Paisley, where he followed in the footsteps of the playwright and artist John "Patrick" Byrne, who mentored him and went on to design the striking covers of most of his celebrated Seventies albums with Stealers Wheel and as a solo artist.
After his father died in 1963, he left school and worked in a butcher's shop. With schoolfriend Joe Egan, he began playing in The Mavericks, and then The Fifth Column, another local group who managed to release one single, the Rafferty composition "Benjamin Day", on Columbia in 1966. He busked on the London Underground and, after a spell as a DHSS clerk, he joined The Humblebums, an outfit led by Billy Connolly, a shipyard worker turned folk musician whose ready wit came to dominate their stage act.
As a duo, they made two albums, The New Humblebums in 1969 and Open up the Door in 1970, for the Transatlantic label. But with Connolly's comedic asides and adlibs growing all the while, he soon followed Rafferty's suggestion and concentrated on a career as a stand-up, while his partner fulfilled the obligations of their Transatlantic contract with Can I Have My Money Back?
Rafferty's first solo album benefitted from the input of Egan and together they went on to form Stealers Wheel later on in 1972. The new group's eponymous debut, produced by the American songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, featured the Transatlantic Top 10 hit and Dylan pastiche "Stuck in the Middle", co-written by Egan. Despite their success, however, Rafferty balked at the prospect of a lengthy world tour and was replaced by Luther Grosvenor for much of 1973.
He eventually returned to Stealers Wheel, who had two further UK Top 30 hits with "Everything'L Turn Out Fine" and the Egan composition "Star", and made Ferguslie Park, their 1974 album, and then 1975's Right Or Wrong. However, he became embroiled in a lengthy dispute over vanishing royalties and the restrictive contract he had signed with the band's management, and was unable to record for the next three years.
Instead, Rafferty holed up at his in-laws' house in Scotland and demoed much of 1978's City to City on a four-track tape recorder. When he was eventually free to sign to United Artists, he managed to make the smooth, sophisticated, warm-sounding album, co-produced with Hugh Murphy, for a bargain £18,000.
"I did feel good about "Baker Street" right from the start. It's not so much a good song as a good record," Rafferty said of the second track on City to City, with its eerily prescient lyric about "giving up the booze and the one-night stands". He maintained he had originally intended to add a vocal or a guitar hook to the track before calling on the services of a session saxophone player, who provided the soaring signature riff.
"At the last moment I decided the song needed a wailing, lonely, big-city sound to it. The guy who eventually played the solo was called Raphael Ravenscroft. With a name like that, I reckoned he had to be good – and he was," stressed Rafferty. "It's every songwriter's ambition to come up with at least one song in their lifetime that's regarded as a classic. And "Baker Street" is mine."
Ravenscroft's cheque for a paltry one-off fee of £27 famously bounced, while the journalist and broadcaster Stuart Maconie later originated the urban myth that Blockbusters TV presenter Bob Holness had played the saxophone on "Baker Street".
The single was a defining moment in popular music. It created a boom in the sales of alto and soprano saxophones, known in the trade as "the 'Baker Street' phenomenon", and has since been referenced in The Simpsons and featured in the soundtrack to Gus Van Sant's film Good Will Hunting in 1997. It has also been covered by the likes of the Foo Fighters and was a hit all over again for UK dance act Undercover in 1992.
As well as "Baker Street", the multi-million selling City to City also contained the gorgeous US hits "Home and Dry" and "Right Down the Line", which Rafferty dedicated to his wife. "She had stood by me through some really heavy times and it was just my way of saying thanks," he said.
He only gave a few British concerts and refused to tour the US to promote City to City, Night Owl or 1980's Snakes and Ladders, recorded at George Martin's AIR Studio in Montserrat, which featured the McCartney-esque minor hit "Bring It All Home".
Rafferty bought a farm in Kent and a town house in Hampstead, but after helping shape the sound of adult contemporary radio stations the world over, he seemed to lose his way. Still, in 1983, he made a sterling vocal contribution to Mark Knopfler's soundtrack to the Bill Forsyth film Local Hero.
In 1987, he and Murphy produced The Proclaimers' debut hit "Letter from America", but North and South, his 1988 album, barely spent a month in the charts. His last three albums, On a Wing and a Prayer (1993), Over My Head (1994) and Another World (2000), were overshadowed by the bestselling 1995 collection One More Dream: The Very Best of Gerry Rafferty.
More worrying was Rafferty's increasingly reckless, alcohol-fuelled behaviour before and after his long-suffering wife left him in 1990. With the royalties from five million radio plays of "Baker Street" since 1978 generating an estimated £80,000 a year, and Quentin Tarantino's lateral usage of "Stuck in the Middle" in the infamous torture scene of Reservoir Dogs in 1992 bringing in a similar income, Rafferty lived comfortably and could hire a private plane on a whim to visit friends in Scotland as he famously did in 2008.
Drunken escapades and disappearances in Ireland, London and Dorset made headlines in 2008 and 2009, as concern grew over the health of Rafferty, who was hospitalised with suspected kidney failure at the end of last year.
Gerald Rafferty, singer, songwriter, producer: born Paisley, Scotland 16 April 1947; married 1970 Carla Ventilla (marriage dissolved, one daughter); died Poole, Dorset 4 January 2011.
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