Friends slate benefit for musician Girton |

Friends slate benefit for musician Girton

Dan BurkhartJohn Girton performs Saturday in the bar at the Hol- brooke Hotel in Grass Valley, his first show there after surgery in January.
ALL | GrassValleyArchive

It’s John Girton’s turn.

Ever since moving to Nevada City 21 years ago, the singer-songwriter-guitarist has donated his time at benefits for musicians in need.

Girton never thought he would be the subject of a benefit until a few months ago, when back problems escalated and he started to have difficulty walking.

In January, Girton had laminectomy surgery to relieve the pain. Because he was recuperating, he couldn’t work until a week ago.

Now Nevada County friends are organizing an April 7 benefit at Center for the Arts in Grass Valley.

“I think it’s great to get this community support,” Girton said. “It’s been kind of devastating. I have medical expenses and I was out of work for a couple of months. When you’re a musician, you’re a month away from homelessness. We just don’t make enough.”

Benefit organizer Peter Wilson calls the event a tribute to his good friend of 20 years.

The two have often played together, including in Wilson’s rock band “The American Pyramids” during the 1980s and 1990s.

“John’s a consummate artist,” Wilson said simply.

Local and national peers alike share Wilson’s sentiments. Dan Hicks calls Girton a natural musician.

“His hands were born to play,” said Hicks, on tour this week in Florida. “Of course, sometimes we don’t know how much work goes into being a natural. John’s versatility always made my tunes sound better.”

Girton was lead guitarist with Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks in the early 1970s and was also guitarist, saxophonist, clarinetist and mandolinist with vocalist Maria Muldaur in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Muldaur sometimes joined Girton’s jazz, swing and blues band, the Girtones, in the 1970s.

In the 1990s, Girton recorded and appeared on a few of Jonathan Richman’s albums at Girton’s Nugget Studio in Grass Valley.

Girton has also performed and/or recorded with other prominent musicians, such as Bonnie Raitt, David Grisman, Jackson Browne, Paul Butterfield, Ry Cooder, Commander Cody, Kenny Burrell, Benny Carter, Dobey Gray, the Shirelles and the Coasters.

He was just as enthusiastic to join the Nevada County music scene.

Days after moving here, Girton performed with Dakota Sid and re-established ties with Realtor and saxophonist Ken Burgan. Girton and Burgan had first performed together in the 1960s in Los Angeles. They became The Meisters here, and still play R&B and oldies occasionally at weddings.

While quickly becoming a popular solo jazz guitarist at local venues including Friar Tuck’s and the Holbrooke Hotel, Girton joined Backwoods Jazz and the Dogtones and periodically sat in with the George Souza Band.

Currently, Girton averages about five gigs a week at Friar Tuck’s, the Holbrooke and private parties. He regularly produces CDs for other musicians. To help pay the bills, he repairs computers at home.

Even with all the musical configurations Girton’s been in (he first performed on clarinet at age 9), the achievement that means the most to him is that he’s still a musician today.

“I think I’m proudest of staying a musician and not giving up,” said Girton, who when asked his age would only respond “over 50.”

“I saw a lot of good musicians who faded. I’m still hanging in.”

He’s done more than hang in, though.

“John’s one of the best musicians around and one of the most underrated. He’s an inspiration for me. He’s brilliant, he can do just about anything,” said Nevada City guitarist Mikail Graham, who will perform at Girton’s benefit.

“If I could play half as good as him, I’d be a much happier musician,” Graham added. “John’s just an all-around great guy as far as his playing. And he always has a kind word, always a smile on his face when I see him at Friar Tuck’s.”

Girton can’t stop smiling.

“I don’t know why I can’t,” Girton chuckled. “My wife said I’m always smiling. It’s just natural, I guess.”

Whatever genre he writes in – jazz, swing, blues or folk – his lyrics are also good-natured.

“My blues songs have a sense of humor to them. ‘A Bad Case of the Blues’ is maybe my one only serious song,” said Girton, pausing and then correcting himself, “My ‘No Dancing like Slow Dancing’ was sort of serious. Asleep at the Wheel sang it in the early ’80s.”

Hicks still appreciates Girton’s humor.

“He came into my band around 1971 right after the release of the Hot Licks album ‘Where’s the Money.’ A funny and fast dude, he fit right in,” Hicks said. “Also, he owned his own two-toned shoes, so what was not to like?”

Some Nevada County old-timers still refer to Girton as the “chicken guy.”

“‘I Used a Chicken for the Down Payment’ is my most famous song around here,” he laughed. “I have no idea how that song came to me but as a result, people started bringing me chickens. I’m the only musician with 10 chickens.”

Those chickens are featured on Girton’s Web page at

Girton wanted to perform, even as a child. As a Los Angeles pre-teen, he worked in national commercials.

“I had breakfast with Tony the Tiger when he had teeth and was even on the cereal box,” he said. “I did a commercial for Heinz pickles, where there were many retakes. I had to bite into many, many pickles.” (He still likes pickles.)

But Girton’s parents worked full time and couldn’t drive him to the never-ending auditions. They also wanted him to have a normal childhood, so Girton gave up any dreams of becoming an actor after a year or so.

Now Girton doesn’t regret giving up those dreams.

“I think I have a lot bigger talent in music than acting,” he said. “Even with the financial stuff, it worked out fine.”

Muldaur agrees that Girton is extremely talented.

“John Girton is one of the hippest, most lyrical, most delightful musicians I have ever worked with,” Muldaur said. “I recall when Dan Hicks had his 60th birthday bash and assembled all of his illustrious musical alumni to perform at the Warfield, John Girton’s mellifluous guitar playing shone over and above the work of the entire stellar cast.”

She wasn’t surprised with Girton’s sound at the Warfield.

“Years ago, when John was in my band, we were recording with an all star line-up headed by Benny Carter that included the famous jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell, and Benny Carter assigned the solos to John Girton,” Muldaur said. “That’s how wonderful a player he is.”

Singer-songwriter Kimberly Bass, who in her early career opened for Muldaur in the United States and Canada, will perform at the benefit. Bass moved back to Nevada City in 1999.

“I can identify with what a musician goes through. We’re constantly in motion, moving a lot of equipment,” said Bass, who was unable to walk in 1987 due to spinal injuries suffered in a car accident. “When you have any kind of pain, especially the back, it pretty much affects everything. For me, I want to celebrate John’s wellness at the benefit.”

And Muldaur, who will be on tour during Girton’s benefit, wishes him a speedy recovery from the back surgery.

“Nevada County residents are indeed lucky to be able to hear John Girton’s world-class guitar playing locally on a regular basis,” she said.

Anyone interested in performing or volunteering at the benefit for John Girton should call Peter Wilson at 477-0708. Other committee members are Richard Ellers, Paul Matson and Kirsten Wilson.

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