Rebel Rouser

Against all odds, John Dixon continues to carry the torch for Phoenix's unsung musical history

After eight months with Armed Forces Radio, Dixon returned to Tempe, where he completed his education at ASU. He was then hired by the Grovers to manage a Musicland store in Thomas Mall, which led to him doing promotions for the Grovers' distribution company, working records to local radio stations KRIZ and KRUX. He received a gold record for The Staple Singers' "Respect Yourself" for getting the single on KRIZ before the song had taken off nationally.

The local distribution experience led to Dixon being hired by national label ABC-Dunhill to work regional promotion in Los Angeles. From there, he became national promotion director for Impulse Records, at a time when the label was releasing monumental work by people like Sun Ra and Keith Jarrett. Much as Dixon loved Impulse's catalog, however, he felt a bit stymied by the company's reluctance to spend money on its artists. "I'm always on the artists' side," he says.

On a plane flight, he ran into Larry Hathaway, a branch manager for Capitol Records. Hathaway offered Dixon a job working sales and promotion for the label in Phoenix.

"Capitol had a lot of perennial hit stuff," he says. "For me, the most fun was Gentle Giant, Be Bop Deluxe, Pink Floyd--I was selling all of them. At the same time, I was promoting them too, which was unusual. I got to do both here because it was a small enough market at the time."

In 1977, Capitol A&R head Rupert Perry called Dixon and asked him to go out to L.A. to discuss a job possibility. Over lunch at the fabled Brown Derby, Perry asked Dixon if he'd take a job as international director of A&R, a gig that required Dixon to travel to Europe five or six times a year and filter out European product for the label. For Dixon, it was a dream come true.

"A lot of guys were salespeople, they could sell cars, they could sell records, they could sell Bibles, whatever. But if you're a music junkie, you wanna get in the A&R department, 'cause those are the ones who sign them and are responsible for finding the bands and working with them.

"I'm going to Europe seeing Kate Bush; I'm going out to Rockfield in Wales; I'm in London meeting the manager of Pink Floyd to pick up their tapes; and there was Be Bop Deluxe, Tom Robinson Band, Status Quo," he says. "So there was a lot going on."

Unfortunately, at weekly marketing meetings, Dixon would have to pitch pet projects to "sales geeks" dumbfounded by the quirkiness of Kate Bush or the blatant sexual politics of Tom Robinson's "Glad to Be Gay."

In 1979, Capitol sent him to England, flogging American artists to the British market. While there, he soaked up the explosive punk and new-wave scenes, and even got to work in Abbey Road, producing an album for fusion group Ian Carr and the Nucleus. He also started spending time at Radar Records, an English label that featured Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe, among others. When it appeared that Warner Brothers would give Radar its own boutique label in the United States, Dixon was only too glad to jump onboard, so he handed in his notice to Capitol. When the Radar deal fell through at the 11th hour, he was stuck in England without a job.

In 1980, he returned to Phoenix, armed with a trunkful of hot new vinyl. He accepted a DJ position at a small daytime AM station called KDJQ. The station was going nowhere with its oldies approach, so it shifted to a "rock of the '80s" format, which anticipated the eventual emergence of alternative-rock radio.

The format wasn't particularly profitable but it established Dixon as an original, unusually knowledgeable radio presence. With the help of Brad Singer and Evening Star founder Danny Zelisko, he later bought time on a station called KSTM, spinning music that reflected the wide range of his interests.

He eventually started working for Zelisko at Evening Star, babysitting bands, hiring the crew, and doing general troubleshooting work for arena shows. It was a stressful job, but Dixon didn't think it was having an adverse affect on him. One day in 1988, however, he experienced chest pains that resulted in doctors performing an angioplasty on him. Six months later, he had what he calls a "mild heart attack," requiring a second angioplasty procedure. By now, Dixon knew he had to slow down.

A friend of his, Bruce Burdon, was living in Hawaii and running a small music store, and he asked Dixon to move there and help him run the business.

"I just knew that I couldn't do the same gig anymore," Dixon says. "I needed something more relaxing."

Dixon only spent 18 months in Hawaii, but during his time there he made a contact that changed his life. Richard Weize, the head of Bear Family Records, the German reissue label, was looking for information on Floyd Ramsey's recording labels, which launched Phoenix music in the '50s. Bear Family needed to know where certain tapes could be found. Shortly before his move to Hawaii, Dixon had met with Ramsey and helped him document all his tapes. So Dixon was an invaluable source of information for Bear Family.

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