Taking Aim : Music: Bigger Than Dallas leader Bruce Dallas thinks his new band has a shot at stardom.
For 14 years, Bruce Dallas has been one of the more ubiquitous faces--and names--on the local music scene. As co-leader of the Dallas-Collins Band (1978-83), more recently as half of the Bolton Dallas duo (1985-present), and, now, as leader of his seven-piece namesake, Bigger Than Dallas, the vocalist-harmonica-player has played enough area gigs to qualify for the rock equivalent of a meritorious service award.
But as Bigger Than Dallas prepares to headline a show Monday night at the Belly Up Tavern, the 38-year-old musician figures he might finally have turned an important corner toward realizing long-held goals. Not only is Bigger Than Dallas his first truly self-reflective musical vehicle, but Dallas feels it also could represent his best shot yet at securing a major-label recording contract.
Not bad stakes for a guy who began his local career playing accordion in a Japanese restaurant, as the good-natured Dallas took great glee in pointing out during an interview this week.
“For a whole year before I moved here from Boston in December of 1977, I had made a living playing rock ‘n’ roll electric accordion,” Dallas recalled, laughing. “So, in my first San Diego gig--at Miki San on Fifth Avenue--I sang rock, reggae, and singer-songwriter-type material while accompanying myself on the accordion. I even did a couple of Japanese tunes. It was hysterical.”
If Dallas’ San Diego debut was hardly auspicious, it did have personal precedent. In his native Massachusetts, he played keyboards and sang in a group with Brad Delp and Fran Sheehan, who would later become the vocalist and bassist, respectively, in the mega-selling band Boston. But while obtaining a degree in marketing at the University of Vermont, Dallas supported himself by playing accordion in small bars on weekends.
After the Miki San gig, Dallas played squeeze-box in such local haunts as the Ivy Barn in Mission Valley (now Willy’s American Bistro), where he met guitarist Tom Collins. The two formed a band, with Dallas eventually switching to more contemporary keyboards, and began a five-year stretch of frequent gigging in San Diego clubs.
“After Dallas-Collins broke up, I moved to Hollywood and was writing music and trying to touch base with a lot of publishers,” Dallas said. “I wanted a solo career, and a number of people expressed interest in what I had to offer, but it was hard for me to close deals. I found myself in the middle of all this talk, and not making much money. Plus, I was paying session players $50 each, every time we got together. I ended up driving a limo to support myself.”
In 1985, friend and veteran local performer Ron Bolton called Dallas and suggested he return to San Diego. The two could write together, Bolton said, and there was plenty of work available to a high-tech “Howard Jones-plus-guitar” duo willing to utilize the latest technology to replicate the sounds of a live band. The two have been working steadily ever since.
“I still like working with Ron, who is one of the best guitar players I know of,” Dallas said. “But our influences are a little different. We both like that syncopated, Bryan Ferry-type stuff, but Ron’s more of a Journey, Richard Marx guy, while I’m more of a Huey Lewis, Thomas Dolby, Steve Winwood, John Cougar (Mellencamp) type. About a year and a half ago, I said I wanted to branch out, and by that time Ron was making good money on the side writing jingles and stuff, so he gave me his blessing.”
Dallas’ first stab at an extracurricular project produced some self-inflicted wounds.
“I put together a 12-piece band that included four horns, and it was a logistical nightmare,” he groaned. “It’s hard getting great talent to work on spec, anywhere. So, everyone has been replaced about three times since then. But things started coming together last June, and now I’ve got a super band--people who are doing it because they believe in it, and not because they’re getting paid to do it.”
Whereas the Bolton Dallas repertoire is a mixture of popular and self-penned songs, the new band will perform only Dallas’s originals, some of them co-written by Bolton. But even after the current lineup was completed, it still lacked a name. Dallas explained that the moniker they settled on is more than just a play on his surname.
“At one time, our drummer, Caesar Ivy, and our keyboardist, Paul Cougll, were both living in Dallas, and they have a saying there, when they want to describe something really large. They say it’s ‘bigger than Dallas.’ I liked it because it implied that this was more than just me; I didn’t want this to sound like a solo act.”
Dallas describes the band’s sound as straight-ahead, power- pop-R&B;, with essences of the artists cited as his influences. There are no digital sequencers, samplers, or other instrumental surrogates.
“Everything’s played live. It’s a down-to-the-bone, real human sound,” Dallas said. “Caesar, who played with the Village People, is out of town right now, so Johnny Friday, a great all-around drummer from Philadelphia (who’s been working locally with Dr. Chico’s Island Sounds) will be with us for a while. Rick Nash has played bass with Hank Easton, Burning Bridges, and others. Jamie Kime won the local ‘Guitar Wars’ competition this year. Paul is a keyboard whiz. And (singer-dancers) Laura Sullivan and Charlene Ventinilla sound and look great. It’s a real fun band.”
For Dallas, maintaining a group identity is more than just a gesture at democracy--it’s a prerequisite for the kind of sound and success he covets.
“My goal is to have a band that’s like John Cougar’s or Huey Lewis’s--one that sticks together,” he said. “I’m a real family-oriented guy and I want the band to be a unit, where you work together and reap the rewards together. I don’t want to be like Rod Stewart--someone who goes out with a different band on every tour. I want us to get a record deal together and then get out there and work it. And we will. Things happen when they’re ready to happen.”
In the meantime, Dallas is supporting himself and the new band by working with Bolton, and also by writing music for Solana Beach-based producer Ken Gladstone’s broadcast-quality video projects, which include commercials, industrial marketing videos, and soundtracks. It would seem that Dallas’s accordion-playing days are a thing of the past.
“Believe it or not, a little over a year ago I won something called the ‘Accordion Playoff,’ ” Dallas countered, laughing. “A local radio station was holding a competition, and they had guys from Italy playing the usual accordion stuff on the air. So, I dialed the number and played the Everly Brothers’ ‘Bye Bye Love’ over the phone. The deejays were screaming for me to stop, but I couldn’t hear them, so I just kept playing. Within five minutes, I had won plane tickets for two to any destination in the country, plus some cash--about $800 worth of stuff. Just by dancing around my kitchen in my underwear playing accordion. It’s a crazy business.”
Bigger Than Dallas, Big Bang, and Dude Groovy and the Paisley People will perform Monday night at the Belly Up Tavern, 143 S. Cedros Ave., Solana Beach. Although Bigger Than Dallas technically is headlining, the band will play first, at 9 p.m. For more information, call 481-9022. Bigger Than Dallas also will perform on a bill will Mark DeCerbo, Jan. 6, at Club Mick’s, 4190 Mission Blvd., Pacific Beach. For information about that performance, call 581-3938.