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When you look around Dixon's house and see pictures of his teenage self, there's something that reminds you of the 17-year-old Bill Clinton who earnestly shook John Kennedy's hand in front of the White House. Maybe it's the thick, dark hair or the warm, confident smile. Interestingly enough, both men were born in 1946, in the heady afterglow of World War II. Both men lost their fathers before they were born, and consequently formed uniquely powerful bonds with their mothers.
Dixon's father was killed in 1946 while stationed in the Phillipines. Dixon, an only child, was born in Oahu, Hawaii, where his mother worked for the U.S.O. When Dixon was two, they settled in Tempe, where he has spent most of the last half century.
Dixon's mother taught third grade for 29 years, before retiring a decade ago when she found that students were becoming too unruly to handle. Still vibrant in her mid-80s, she is also impossibly sweet and considerate. She warmly dotes on John, and he returns the favor, affectionately referring to her as "Momma D."
During our interview, Helen Dixon regularly offers us cocoa, and before I'd arrived, she'd already prepared a carefully wrapped bag of taffy for me, which she hands me as I bid her goodbye. She also flashes a self-deprecating sense of humor that runs in the family. After returning from having her hair cut, she wryly asks her son, "Do I look lighter-headed?" She's not above good-naturedly teasing her son, either. In the middle of one of his anecdotes, she walks by and softly says to me, "I'll bet he's telling you more than you wanted to know."
Dixon credits his mother with supporting him in all his musical endeavors, particularly when he started his record collection and teamed with Harkins and Zettler. Once the trio established themselves at sock hops, they would take their money and sink it into their pet passions: For Dixon, that meant more records, and for his partners it meant better equipment. Soon they moved on to bigger events.
"We started doing sound reinforcement, where we would actually provide the microphones and amplifiers for concerts, on a very small level," Dixon says. "There was a band called the Sonics, and there was a big dance at the 59th Street Armory every Saturday night. We'd charge a buck a head. The Sonics would play, and we'd play records during the breaks."
"I used to love Fats Domino a lot," he recalls. "I remember I had a lot of his records until they were stolen out of my locker in high school. But the first album I bought at Hill's Books and Records was The Buddy Holly Story. I took it home, and I just thought it was great."
Once established as a local DJ, Dixon started receiving free records from M.B. Krupp, a local record distribution company run by Margo and Marv Grover. Every Thursday he would borrow a friend's Kushman motor scooter, drive across the Tempe bridge, and go to 16th Street, where he would pick up a bin of singles set aside for him. "I remember coming back on the scooter with a pile of 50, 60 records between my legs," he says.
In 1966, while studying broadcasting at ASU, Dixon ran sound and lights at the Red Dog, a local club that featured live music. He had also purchased a drum set, principally for his own amusement. Stan Devereaux and the Trendsetters played regularly at the Red Dog, and when their drummer took ill, they called Dixon with an offer to join them for a two-week stint in San Diego. The gig ended up lasting three months, but by the time he returned to Tempe, he found draft papers waiting for him. His career as a musician had ended abruptly.
Dixon was sent to Vietnam in 1967. He initially hoped to work for Armed Forces Radio, but found there were no openings. He ended up in a public information office, writing stories about the troops. He would often join fighting units and interview soldiers for broadcasts that could be played in their individual hometowns.
In 1969, Dixon finally got a gig for Armed Forces Radio, and he used the opportunity to broadcast what he believes to be the first rhythm-and-blues show in Vietnam. He called the show Soul Train, well before Don Cornelius took the same name and made TV history.
"Twenty-one hours a day you'd get the Saigon feed, and three hours a day you would break away from that and do local broadcasting," he says. "Most of the good-ol'-boy sergeants did country-and-western music, or maybe rock 'n' roll, 'cause they had their rank. But we were so far out there in Vietnam, there was no competition.
"It was pretty cool. I remember soldiers driving up in tanks, coming out of the fields, saying, 'Hey Johnny, this is great.' They'd say, 'Hey, I love you man. Could you play some James Brown?'"