It's not unexpected but still somewhat ironic that Gerry Rafferty, who died of liver failure this past Tuesday, should be remembered mainly for one song -- "Baker Street" -- rather than a long and consistent career that stretches back nearly 45 years. Granted, that particular song was a massive hit that put him on the musical map, but like many artists who suffer the onus of being a one-hit wonder, there was far more of note in his catalog that resides below the surface and hasn't been widely circulated in the public consciousness.
Rafferty, who was born in Paisley, Scotland, in 1947, got his first professional break when he partnered with Scottish musician, and later comedian, Billy Connolly and formed the folk duo Humblebums. Signed to the esteemed Transatlantic label, one of the U.K.'s leading folk banners, the duo achieved some significant success before splitting in 1970 due to Rafferty's perception that Connolly's witty repartee had become an increasingly dominant part of their stage performances.
Rafferty opted to record a solo album, Can I Have My Money Back, employing the musical contributions of one Joe Egan. The album failed to garner more than incidental attention, but the combination of Rafferty and Egan laid the foundation for the formation of Stealer's Wheel, a band that achieved optimal success on both sides of the Atlantic and, eventually, a massive worldwide hit with "Stuck in the Middle With You." Produced by the revered songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the record established both Rafferty's droll vocals and the sense of irony that was to become his signature sound.
I had the chance to meet Stoller a few months ago at a workshop he performed at the University of Miami's School of Music. I carried a copy of the eponymous album that yielded that hit, got the prerequisite autograph, and asked him what he recalled about the Stealers Wheel sessions. He was generous in his assessment of the band and remarked how eager and enthusiastic they appeared from the outset. He was especially complimentary of Rafferty, as both an artist and a musician, and there was more than a hint of fondness in his recollection of their shared experience.
Indeed, Rafferty's musical persona fostered that sense of easygoing nonchalance. "Baker Street," culled from his first post-Stealers Wheel solo album City to City, exuded that unassuming persona in its nostalgic narrative about a Londoner's fondness for his hometown environs. The searing solo from saxophonist Raphael Ravenscroft elevated the melody with a rock-steady riff and gave the song an instant infectiousness that ultimately took it to the top of the charts, selling millions of records and dominating the airwaves for much of 1978. A follow-up effort, Night Owl, rode on its momentum, but while Rafferty continued to record well into the '90s, his later efforts brought diminished returns.
Still, that folk finesse remained intact, and those wistful vocals still entice.
Ultimately, Rafferty's legacy will likely always be confined to that sole solo hit, aided and abetted by the fact that it remains a staple on oldies radio and the odd commercial and film soundtrack (it appeared prominently in Quentin Tarrentino's Reservoir Dogs). He met a sad and ignominious demise after falling prey to an ongoing struggle with alcoholism, a battle that also cost him his marriage some 20 years ago.
I mentioned this to my wife, Alisa. "Guess who died today?" I inquired, curious if she'd get the connection.
"Gerry Rafferty. Ever hear of him?"
"Oh sure. The guy who did that song 'Baker Street.' What did he die of?"
"Alcoholism. A bad liver."
"That's a shame," she replied. "Great song, though."
I suppose that's it, then. One great song is all that's needed to create a brilliant epitaph. And in Gerry Rafferty's case, it served him well.