Peter Dobson, a Laguna Beach resident and a regular in Orange County java joints, is a first-class blues singer and guitarist with a long and interesting history that belies both the modesty of his gigs and his humility.
Dobson's five-fingered picking technique, mastery of virtually all country blues styles and rare control of tone are nothing short of revelatory.
Add to that a rich and naturally soulful vocal form, and Dobson represents a package so complete that you wonder what in the world this guy is doing performing at a level clearly beneath what his talents warrant.
"I don't know that I was ever much of a trier," Dobson said in a recent interview, explaining why he isn't known on a national level. "I've never been particularly good at self-promotion; I've never been too concerned about it. I just love music, and I was always more interested in the music itself than in anything else--playing it, being involved in it, finding out how it works. That's always what's taken my attention."
Dobson, 49, was born in Stoke on Trent, England, to a family that encouraged his interest in music as a child, if not his choice of ax.
"I decided that I wanted to play guitar early on, which didn't particularly please my parents, who wanted me to play the piano," he said. "My father used to call [the guitar] 'that instrument of torture.' So I always went to see friends who had guitars to play on, and eventually, by some war of attrition, I wound up owning my own and it got accepted."
Dobson sang in his mother's choir and took classical music lessons, but it was the sound of American blues that drew him in.
"There were these import records coming in, and they were like gold to me," he said. "If you could get a hold of a Muddy Waters record or a Howlin' Wolf record, that was very special."
While Dobson was on vacation as a teenager in Royan, France, a local radio personality heard him casually picking his guitar and invited him to come perform live at the station. His confidence pumped, Dobson followed up with a visit to a local radio station upon returning home. Tapes of his performances were sent to the BBC, which in turn played his music, and Dobson, at the BBC's invitation, moved to London in the late '60s to pursue a career in music.
He formed a three-piece acoustic band called Mythica, which performed regularly on British national radio and recorded for producer George Martin's A.I.R. label.
Mythica was house band at a London venue called the Country Club, where fabled Fleetwood Mac guitarist Peter Green would regularly stop by unannounced to jam with Dobson and company. The group also toured Europe as opening act for Muddy Waters.
But the brakes were put on Dobson's career, at least temporarily, when he moved to Laguna Niguel in the early '70s--he's vague on exact dates--to marry an American girl. Their union that would prove to be stormy and brief.
Dobson couldn't get his acoustic music across to Yank audiences.
"I'd go up to Hollywood and try to get some stuff happening, but I really didn't know anybody," he said. "It was like, 'Uh-oh, I have no way in here.' So I bought an electric guitar and started learning how to play whatever was necessary in the American music scene. It was very difficult, indeed. I played country rock in little bars, whatever I could get."
Dobson's luck began to change when he joined an R&B combo called the Roots Band. Through that group he met and jammed with soul sensation Al Green's backup band.
"I could relate much better, oddly enough, to black soul musicians than to the white Americans I'd been playing with," he said. "I don't know why, but there was an affinity. As soon as I started playing with black musicians, it all made sense."
Dobson made some connections from Green's band and soon found himself touring the so-called Chitlin' Circuit one summer in the '70s with the Soul Train Gang, a group of singers, dancers and musicians from the popular "Soul Train" television show.
In the late '70s, Dobson formed the Friends Band with bassist Larry Fulcher, Taj Mahal's longtime bassist. The duo also formed Riddim Records, basically a company name to use on cassettes they sold at shows, although Riddim is still going today, with Dobson using the handle for his current solo releases.
Throughout the '80s, Dobson was guitarist with the International Reggae All Stars, a Laguna-based group centered around Tony Chin and George "Fully" Fullwood, formerly of the Soul Syndicate.
With the All Stars, Dobson recorded in Jamaica and toured the world, working onstage and in the studio with reggae stars including various members of the Wailers, Mighty Diamonds, Sly & Robbie, Eek-A-Mouse, U-Roy and Jack Miller. By 1991, though, the All-Stars were drifting apart into various other projects, and Dobson was getting tired of being a sideman.