By Elmer Ploetz
Phil Dillon knows the realities of the music business, and just how few songs actually make it to the public.
So the fact that he worked on two of the legendary unreleased albums of Buffalo music doesn’t haunt him. He’s had other projects that have worked out, such as having his songs recorded by the likes of Nashville country star T. Graham Brown and Canadian country star Lisa Brokop.
But “ that’s just the way the business is, you know,” he said in a recent interview.
He was referring to an album he recorded with fellow guitarist John Brady (not to be confused with the John Brady who drums for the Steam Donkeys … Buffalo seems to be well supplied with John Bradys).
That album and the one he recorded with the band Flash, perhaps Buffalo’s foremost band of the early 1970s, have never seen official release despite all-star casts of musicians playing on them.
Dillon recently moved back to the Buffalo area after 28 years in Nashville and he’s been playing in the Dillon and Whitford Band with Jim Whitford, drummer Pete Holguin, guitarist Doug Morgano and sax player Al Monti.
But before his long stint in Music City, Dillon spent two decades near the top of the Buffalo music scene. The Dillon & Brady album was one of his best chances at breaking out beyond Buffalo.
The album’s credits read like a who’s who of Buffalo and Rochester musicians from the era. In addition to the band’s namesakes, the recording has Harvey Brooks playing on bass … yes, that Harvey Brooks, the guy who played on Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” sessions, on Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew” and as a member of Electric Flag.
The year was 1977, and Dillon had been through a few performing configurations since Flash had broken up for a second time when guitarist James Ralston left for Los Angeles, where he would go on to serve as Tina Turner’s guitarist for 30 years or so.
He had forged a partnership with Brady after Michael Campagna pulled him into the orbit of doing shows at places like the Buena Vista and Steak & Ale.
“Michael just had a way back then pulling people together,”Dillon said. “All of a sudden I’m playing with Jimmy Calire. And that’s how I met Jay Beckenstein and Jeremy Wall (co-founders of Spyro Gyra), Tommy Walsh and Steve Sadoff. That was just such a great scene.”
Eventually Dillon & Brady put a band together that included percussionist Gerardo Velez, who had played with Jimi Hendrix and would go on to join Spyro Gyra.
As the band was evolving, Dillon said, “My friend Carl LaManto came to us and said,’what would it take to get a Dillon & Brady record going?’ And my first thought was ‘Let’s call Gary Mallaber.’”
Mallaber was already a legend in Buffalo as the drummer for Raven, the city’s first major label recording act of the “rock” era, and was earning national notice as the long-time drummer for the Steve Miller Band.
Mallaber asked who Dillon had in mind to play bass, and when Dillon didn’t have anyone set, the drummer asked, “Would you like to use Harvey Brooks.” Mallaber had just played on a Tom Rush album with Brooks, and Brooks had already known Mallaber from Raven. So a connection was made.
Mallaber himself would produce and play drums, so that gave them the basic four for the album. Wall (keyboards) and Beckenstein (sax) contributed to the sessions, as well as Bobby Militello (flute). Phil’s brother, Mark, would contribute congas, Dave Garland played Hammond organ and Sheila Smith provided background vocals.
The jazz players were no surprise.
“All the jazzers in Buffalo wanted to play with us because we wrote cool songs,” Dillon said. “We weren’t just 1-4-5 folk songs.”
Garland also provided string arrangements, with the strings played by musicians from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester.
Dillon had a pretty good idea from the start where they’d be recording. When Flash recorded its album, it was at PCI Studios in Rochester. That was where his bandmate, bass player Larry Swist, met Mick Guzauski.
“Well, those two guys met and they were (audio) geekdom to the max,” and a team was made,” Dillon said. “So when it came time to pick a studio for Dillon & and Brady, well I’m gonna call Larry and Larry’s gonna take us out to PCI, where he had privileges.”
The album took about a month to record in March and April of 1977.
“Carl, with his big Cadillac, would pick me and John and Gary up and we drive to PCI, every morning around 9 or 10 o’clock. Gary was staying with his mother over by La Nova. We’d get to Rochester and we’d run over to the grocery store and get a whole bunch of snacks and beers and pop and whatever, but it was more of a 9 to 5 kind of thing.”
LaManta funded the project and was executive producer.
“It was just Gary, Harvey, me and John,” Dillon said. “We tracked those four pieces live, and then overdubbed everybody else. It was so much fun working with Harvey and Gary, but especially with Harvey because I’ve known about him since the Electric Flag and John Sebastian and Richie Havens’ ‘Mixed Bag,’ and he was a hero.”
The resulting project, nine tracks, is a perfect album of its era, a combination of folk, jazz, country, rock and a little bit of funk, smooth and clear as cut glass. It holds up well to this day.
Five of the songs were Dillon’s and four were Brady’s. They each sang lead on the songs they wrote.
Then came the hard part: trying to place the recording.
They tried Island Records, where LaManta developed a relationship with a producer, but nothing happened.
They tried Columbia Records, where their friend Richie Calandra had connections, but no dice.
“What the labels told us was that it was too much like Steely Dan, … it’s too slick or blah, blah, blah … And then just to bust our chops, you know, in 1980, Christopher Cross comes out with his first record, which is basically the style that Dylan Brady was.”
So Dillon & Brady faded, although both players went on to continue making music to this day. Dillon’s resume includes the Phil Dillon Band and time with Junction West and the Lance Diamond Band. He filled in with The Thirds.
He was part of an a capella group, the Shoo Bops, and an all-star band, the Saints, which also featured Nick DiStefano on drums/percussion and vocals, Bruce Brucato on guitar, Jim Brucato on bass and vocals and Howard Fleetwood Wilson on drums.
He moved to Nashville in 1994.
He had been concentrating on writing songs, and a his friend, Buffalo native and Nashville studio legend Steve Nathan, told him, “Phil, if you want to hunt tigers, you’ve got to go where the tigers are. And that completely made sense.
“I’m 42 years old. I’ve sung all these jingles in the ‘80s you know, from Mighty Taco to AM&A’s to Kissing Bridge, just tons of them. I’ve opened for acts, at Melody Fair, the Tralf … I had pretty much hit the ceiling. There wasn’t much more for me to do. And I was writing songs.”
Before moving back toward the start of this year, he worked with artists like the aforementioned Brokop and Brown, plus former Sea Level guitarist Jimmy Nalls and talented stars of the Nashville scene such as Rick Moore, Michael McGrew,
He has appeared on stages at the Grand Old Opry, Ryman Auditorium, Country Music Hall of Fame, the Bluebird Cafe and the Wildhorse Saloon, and a song he co-wrote was used in the feature film “L.A. Blues.”
It turned out that the home studio he built to record his own songs became a popular place for other musicians to cut their demos, so that took on a bigger part of his attention.
But times have changed, especially in the music business, with streaming paying only fractions of a penny per play and the sales of of physical recordings way down.
So Dillon decided to return to the Buffalo area. He still has the Dillon & Brady tapes, and the Flash, too.
They’re still waiting to be heard.