The music world is filled with tragedies, artists who showed great initial promise, only to descend into drugs and alcohol. Such was the fate of singer/songwriter Gerry Rafferty, who performed greatly successful songs such as 1978’s massive hit “Baker Street.” A greatly talented musician who knew how to write a powerful pop hook, Rafferty lost his long battle with alcohol on January 4, 2001, dying of liver failure at the age of 63.
Readers may not immediately recognize Rafferty’s name, but his hits remain adult contemporary and “oldies” radio staples. Born in Paisley, Scotland in 1947, Rafferty grew up a music fan, looking to establish himself on the local music scene in 1968. He eventually formed a band, the Humblebums, with fellow Scotsman Billy Connolly (who would later find greater success as a comedian). After the duo broke up in 1971, Rafferty recorded his first album as a solo artist, enlisting help from a school friend, Joe Egan. While Rafferty earned good reviews for his debut album Can I Have My Money Back?, the LP sold few copies. However, Rafferty and Egan soon formed Stealer’s Wheel, a band that scored one huge hit: 1972’s “Stuck in the Middle with You,” an irresistible slice of ’70s pop. The guitar riff, along with Rafferty and Egan’s deadpan vocals and a shuffling beat, gives the song a timeless quality. The chorus remains in the mind long after listening to the song: “Clowns to the left of me/Jokers to the right/ Here I am, stuck in the middle with you.” Songwriting legends Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller produced the group’s self-titled album; by the time of its release, however, Rafferty had already parted with the band.
After suffering over three years of legal battles with his management, Rafferty came roaring back with 1978’s City to City album. His crowning achievement was “Baker Street,” a rock-pop masterpiece that featured a memorable saxophone riff and lush production. Rafferty’s clear voice was never overpowered by the band, and the song essentially contained two movements: the instrumental sections, with the saxophone, guitar and whooshing keyboards; and the vocal section, with gentle percussion and Rafferty singing what, in retrospect, may have been highly personal lyrics: “He’s got this dream about buying some land/He’s gonna give up the booze and the one night stands,” he states, but he knows that “You know he’s never gonna stop movin’/Cause he’s rolling/He’s the rolling stone.” The single eventually topped the adult contemporary charts and reached number two on the Billboard Hot 100. Due to “Baker Street’s” triumph, City to City reached number one on the Billboard 200 in 1978.
While not as huge a hit as “Baker Street,” “Right Down the Line” also demonstrates Rafferty’s gift for pop craftsmanship. A mid-tempo love song, “Right Down the Line” spotlights Rafferty’s understated singing style. While not flashy, his voice still conveyed the lyrics’ emotion: “It’s been you, woman, right down the line,” he sings, leading to the track’s best hook: “I just wanna say this is my way/Of telling you everything/I could never say before.” Again, Rafferty scored big on the adult contemporary and Hot 100 charts, seemingly on his way to a hugely successful career.
Unfortunately, he was never to duplicate that success. His subsequent albums, Night Owl (1979) and Snakes & Ladders (1980) failed to sell nearly as well as City to City, and he began a decades-long legal battle with various record labels. His last release, 1995’s Over My Head, attempted to rearrange Stealer’s Wheel songs, but resulted in few sales.
Since that time Rafferty’s drinking dominated his life, effectively cutting his career short. But his best-known songs remained, most notably the appearance of “Stuck in the Middle with You” in the 1992 film Reservoir Dogs. The wistful “Baker Street” will always be a classic, attracting new fans with its hypnotic sound. While Rafferty may not be a household name, his music will remain his lasting legacy.
For more information on Rafferty’s life and career, visit AllMusic’s Gerry Rafferty page.