The Song Remains: Gerry Conway (1947-2024)

If you needed a British folk rock drummer, call Gerry Conway.

Anyone who has enjoyed British folk rock over the last fifty-plus years owes a debt to drummer Gerry Conway who died on 29th March due to motor neurone disease. Along with Dave Mattacks, with some input from Martin Lamble and Bruce Rowland, he helped develop a new drum sound to go with this new genre of music in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and in doing so he has played with virtually every major artist of the genre. Unlike Dave Mattacks, probably the only drummer to challenge his dominance, he never moved to America, simply keeping the beat in the UK. There are many drummer jokes in the music business, but the drummer is essential to folk rock, and Gerry Conway was more than a drummer, he was also an imaginative percussionist, something that is beyond the reach of a lot of drummers.

Gerry Conway was born in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, on 11th September 1947, and he played drums from an early age while still at school. Leaving school he joined EMI Records before playing drums with Alexis Korner and forming Eclection with Australian Trevor Lucas in 1967. There was an international flavour to the band, and they took their inspiration from the folk rock being played on America’s West Coast, something  Fairport Convention were doing at the same time. Eclection got a deal with Elektra Records, something of a coupe at the time for a band based in the UK. Elektra’s Jac Holzman was a fan, has said he wished he had taken the band to America where he felt they would reach their potential rather than releasing an eponymous debut album in 1968 before disbanding in 1969. The band formed the basis for Fotheringay, with some help from members of Poet and The One Man Band, which formed around the husband and wife team of Trevor Lucas and Sandy Denny after she left Fairport Convention. Fotheringay looked to the sound of Fairport Convention’s ‘Unhalfbricking’ rather than the traditional British folk rock that Fairport pioneered with ‘Liege and Lief’. The response to Fotheringay’s debut album was less than expected, prompting the launch of Sandy Denny’s solo career in 1970, As well as sharing drums with Dave Mattacks on Steeleye Span’s debut, ‘Hark, The Village Wait’, his major gig of the ‘70s was as a member of Cat Steven’s band, playing on ‘Teaser and the Firecat’ through 1978’s ‘Back to Earth’.

1973’s ‘Rosie’ was the first Fairport Convention album Gerry Conway played on, and he took a major hold on the drum chair with 1999’s ‘The Wood and the Wire’ after Dave Mattacks left Fairport Convention in 1998. Fairport Convention gave the broadest canvas for Gerry Conway’s skills before finally leaving in 2022 due to ill health. He also played in Richard Thompson’s live band throughout the ‘80s, and the more folk orientated Jethro Tull in the ‘80s, as well as Sandy Denny, John Cale, Joan Armatrading, Iain Matthews and Kate and Anna McGarrigle.  Gerry Conway also played drums with the various reformed Pentangle line-ups, and he was married to Pentangle singer Jacqui McShee, the one constant Pentangle member.

The British music scene, and specifically the British branch of folk rock, would have sounded very different without the drums and percussion of Gerry Conway. He played drums until he was 75, and when he left Fairport Convention they started touring as a drum less four-piece if Dave Mattacks wasn’t available to tour, a clear sign of the uniqueness of Gerry Conway’s craft. The sadness felt by the Fairport Convention community, however, will be nothing to the loss felt by his family and wife Jacqui McShee. Gerry Conway, one of the truly great British drummers.

About Martin Johnson 389 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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