Lib at Large: Jimmy Dillon celebrates a lifetime devoted to rock and blues

from the Marin IJ

Inspired by the concert film “Monterey Pop,” 17-year-old Jimmy Dillon packed up his guitars, said goodbye to his hometown in the Midwest and arrived in Sausalito in 1969, determined to become a master of American roots music like his idols, Mike Bloomfield and Carlos Santana — then two of Marin’s resident rock stars.

“I knew this was the place to be,” the now 64-year-old musician recalls one recent morning in the hillside Mill Valley cottage he shares with his dancer wife, Kelli. “You could still feel the blush of the Summer of Love when I got here. All this great music was happening. As a young musician in Marin, I had all the time in the world to play the guitar and work on my craft.”

Nearly half a century later, the affable local star more than lives up to the title of his latest EP, “Six-String Man.” And he’s long been established as, in the words of Bonnie Raitt, “a bad-ass guitar player.” But he’s never been satisfied with just being an A-List session guitarist and sideman. He’s also a teacher, a bandleader, a singer-songwriter and a producer of musical theater.

On Friday night at Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley, Dillon celebrates his diverse career and the 25th anniversary of his first solo album, “Bad and Blue,” with a band that includes some of the same local musicians who played on the record — keyboardist Austin deLone, drummer Kevin Hayes and singer-keyboardist Dallis Craft. One of his former students, Matt Jaffe, opens the show.

In the 1980s, Dillon formed the Edge, a popular Marin rock-reggae band, with friends Lorin Rowan and Ozzie Ahlers. But he’s best known for his long association with the late saxophonist Clarence Clemons, Bruce Springsteen’s famed “Big Man” in the E Street Band. When Springsteen put the E Street Band on hiatus in 1989, Clemons moved to Marin, forming his own group, the Red Bank Rockers, and installing Dillon as his lead guitarist and musical director.

“Meeting Clarence was pivotal for me,” Dillon recalls. “We hit it off right away. I toured the world with him. I got to play with President Clinton at his inaugural in 1993, with the Boss (Springsteen) and with Bob Dylan all at about the same time. Clarence was such a charismatic personality that everyone loved him. Being his right-hand man was great, but after a while I wanted to do my own thing.”

With an album’s worth of original songs, he went into Marin’s Alpha Omega studio and recorded “Bad and Blue.” Clemens not only encouraged him to venture out on his own, he added a sizzling sax solo on the track “Break the Chain.” Dillon launched the CD one hot summer night 25 years ago at Mill Valley’s original Sweetwater. And then he looked across the Atlantic for the next phase of his career.

“I had this cool album,” he recalls. “But I asked myself, ‘What am I going to do next?’ After touring overseas with Clarence a couple of times, I really wanted get something going in Europe.”

Knowing the movers and shakers in the European music business would be in Montreux, Switzerland, for the annual jazz festival, he booked a room in Montreux’s Palace Hotel and lined up a nightly gig at famed Harry’s Bar, playing as a duo with Austin deLone.

“All the musicians and promoters would come in,” he recalls. “I made so many contacts with promoters and musicians that I went for two weeks and ended up staying three months.”

After returning briefly to Mill Valley, he teamed with members of Robert Cray’s band and toured Europe for six weeks as Jimmy Dillon and the Gypsies, selling out every date. It was such a success that he ended up moving permanently to the south of France, living in a village overlooking the Mediterranean and touring constantly for the next decade.

“I played every city from Prague to London,” he says. “I was a bona fide star. I sold 30,000 copies of my records, which is not a lot, but it’s a lot for an independent guy.”

After being out of the country for most of the ’90s, he took himself off the road in 1999 and returned to Mill Valley. With the intention of passing on his knowledge of American roots music to the next generation, he formed the nonprofit Blue Star Music Camp, a summer program at the Playhouse in San Anselmo that he ran for 15 years.

“I wanted to teach kids the music we honor,” he says. “Now there’s a plethora of rock schools, but at the time it was one of the very first contemporary music camps for kids.”

To raise money for his school’s scholarship program, he wrote, produced, directed and performed in “Ascension of the Blues,” an ambitious musical that traced the history of the music he’s loved since he was a kid with a guitar for a best friend. “Ascension” ran in Chicago, Detroit and Mill Valley before closing at Bimbo’s in San Francisco.

The Detroit Free Press called it “provocative and original with a sexy, soulful strut,” adding, “Finally a musical that tells the whole story, from blues to bop, ragtime to rap with a whole lotta rock ’n’ roll.”

Dillon closed his music camp two years ago, but he still enjoys teaching, giving guitar lessons in various blues and rock styles online and on DVD through his website, jimmydillon.com.

In recent years, he’s been in demand as an organizer of all-star bands for benefits and fundraisers. Looking ahead, he’s been asked to put together a band for a Sept. 10 benefit at the Throckmorton Theater for the Mill Valley Fall Arts Festival.

“I’ve had a solo career,” he says, “but my greatest joy is as a collaborator.”

In the interest of full disclosure, he collaborated with me on a multi-media show celebrating Marin rock history last year at Sweetwater. And he’s played in my occasional rock band, the Liberators. His latest project has been backing singer-songwriter Tracy Blackman in a band with one of his teenage idols, Carlos Santana, and Santana’s wife, drummer Cindy Blackman, Tracy’s sister. Tracy will be a guest singer at Friday’s Sweetwater concert.

As an elder statesman of Marin rock, Dillon was interviewed recently for a Mill Valley Library oral history project.

“I was asked what I would say to kids growing up who want to be musicians,” he says. “What I said was to embrace the real part of the business, the organic part, picking up an instrument and playing it and savoring the joy that comes with it.”

Contact Paul Liberatore at liberatore@marinij.com or 415-382-7283, follow him @LibLarge on Twitter, read his blog at http://blogs.marinij.com/marinmusicman