Gerry Rafferty was a popular music giant at the end of the '70s, thanks to the song "Baker Street" and the album City to City. His career long predated that fixture of Top 40 radio, however; indeed, by the time he cut "Baker Street" Rafferty had already been a member of two successful groups, the Humblebums and Stealers Wheel.
Rafferty was born in Paisley, Scotland in 1947, the son of a Scottish mother and an Irish father. His father was deaf but still enjoyed singing, mostly Irish rebel songs, and his early experience of music was a combination of Catholic hymns, traditional folk music, and '50s pop music. By 1968, at age 21, Rafferty was a singer/guitarist and had started trying to write songs professionally, and was looking for a gig of his own. Enter Billy Connolly, late of Scottish bands like the Skillet Lickers and the Acme Brush Company. Connolly was a musician and comedian who'd found that telling jokes from the stage was as appealing an activity to him -- and the audience -- as making music. He'd passed through several groups looking for a niche before finally forming a duo called the Humblebums with Tim Harvey, a rock guitarist. They'd established themselves in Glasgow, and were then approached by Transatlantic, one of the more successful independent record labels in England at the time, and signed to a recording contract. After playing a show in Paisley, Rafferty approached Connolly about auditioning some of the songs he'd written. Connolly was impressed not only with the songs but with their author, and suddenly the Humblebums were a trio. They were a major success in England both on-stage and on record, but not without some strain. Connolly was the dominant personality, his jokes between the songs entertaining audiences as much as the songs themselves.
Additionally, Rafferty began develop a distinctive style as a singer, guitarist, and songwriter, and this eventually led to tension between him and Harvey: the latter exited in 1970, and Rafferty and Connolly continued together for two more albums, their line-up expanding to a sextet, but their relationship began to break down. The records were selling well, and the gigs were growing in prominence, including a Royal Command Performance. Connolly, however, worked himself to the point of exhaustion amid all of this activity, and when he did recover, he and Rafferty ultimately split up over the differing directions in which each was going. Rafferty had noticed that Connolly's jokes were taking up more time in their concerts than the music he was writing. They parted company in 1971. Transatlantic didn't want to give up one of its top money-makers, however, especially if there was a new career to be started. Rafferty cut his first solo album for the label that year. "Can I Have My Money Back?" was a melodious folk-pop album, on which Rafferty employed the vocal talents of an old school friend, Joe Egan. The LP garnered good reviews but failed to sell.
Out of those sessions, however, Rafferty and Egan put together the original lineup of Stealers Wheel, which was one of the most promising (and rewarding) pop/rock outfits of the mid-'70s. Unfortunately, Stealers Wheel's lineup and legal history were complicated enough to keep various lawyers well paid for much of the middle of the decade. Rafferty was in the group, then out, then in again as the lineup kept shifting. Their first album was a success, the single "Stuck in the Middle with You" a huge hit, but nothing after that clicked commercially, and by 1975 the group was history. Three years of legal battles followed, sorting out problems between Rafferty and his management.
Finally, in 1978, Rafferty was free to record again, and he signed to United Artists Records. That year, he cut City to City, a melodic yet strangely enigmatic album that topped the charts in America, put there by the success of the song "Baker Street." The song itself was a masterpiece of pop production, Rafferty's Paul McCartney-like vocals carrying a haunting central melody with a mysterious and yearning lyric, backed by a quietly thumping bass, tinkling celeste, and understated keyboard ornamentation, and then Raphael Ravenscroft's sax, which you got a taste of in the opening bars, rises up behind some heavily amplified electric guitars. It was sophisticated '70s pop/rock at its best (and better yet, it wasn't disco!) and it dominated the airwaves for months in 1978, narrowly missing the number one spot in England but selling millions of copies and taking up hundreds of cumulative hours of radio time.
The publisher and the record company couldn't have been happier. Everyone concerned was thrilled, until it became clear that Rafferty -- who had a reclusive and iconoclastic streak -- was not going to tour America to support the album. The album, which finally reached number one, might've gone double-platinum and meant it (lots of records were shipped platinum in those days, only eventually to return 90-percent of those copies) had Rafferty toured. His next record, Night Owl (1979), also charted well and got good reviews, but the momentum that had driven City to City to top-selling status wasn't there, and Snakes & Ladders (1980), his next record, didn't sell nearly as well. Ironically, around this time, Rafferty's brother Jim was signed to a recording contract by Decca-London, a label that wasn't long for this world -- something that Gerry would soon have to face about his own situation at United Artists.
United Artists Records had seen some major hit records throughout the '60s and '70s, but by the end of the decade, the parent film distribution and production company was revamping all of its operations in the wake of the mass exodus of several of its top executives. The record label was one of the first things to go -- running a record company was a luxury that the current UA management felt it could do without. Rafferty was practically the last major artist signed to the label, and if City to City had been a hit when the label was sold to EMI, he'd probably have been treated like visiting royalty. But by the time United Artists Records was sold to EMI around 1980, his figures weren't showing millions of units sold anymore. His contract was merely part of a deal, and, in fact, almost none of the UA artists picked up by EMI fared well with the new company -- as with many artists caught up in one of those sale-and-acquisition situations, even if Rafferty had been producing anything comparable to "Baker Street" in popularity, it's doubtful the record would've gotten the push it would've taken to make it a hit.
Sleepwalking (1982), issued on the Liberty label, ended that round of Rafferty's public music-making activities, and he was little heard from during the mid-'80s, apart from one song contributed to the offbeat comedy Local Hero, a producer's gig with the group the Proclaimers that yielded a Top Three single ("Letter from America") in 1987. A year later, he released his first album in more than five years, North & South, which failed to register with the public. By that time, Transatlantic had begun exploiting his early recording activity, reissuing his early solo and Humblebums tracks on CD. On a Wing and a Prayer (1992) was similarly ignored by the public, although the critics loved it, and Over My Head (1995) was an attempt to reconsider his own past by rethinking some Stealers Wheel-era songs.
In January 2011, Gerry Rafferty died of liver disease at the age of 63 in Bournemouth, Dorset, England. At the time of his death he was still remembered primarily for "Baker Street" and City to City, which had been released as gold-plated audiophile CDs. And one might reasonably expect that when some Stealers Wheel track gets picked up for a soundtrack (as "Stuck in the Middle with You" was for Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs) or commercial, his voice and guitar will continue to get a fresh airing. ~ Bruce Eder