Rebel Rouser

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

When John Dixon was a 15-year-old student at Tempe High School in the early '60s, he made pocket money on the weekends by working dances as a DJ.

Dixon and two friends had formed a company called Have Records Will Spin, and true to their word, they spun 45s at sock hops, car washes, and pretty much any happening that would net them their usual $15. Some nights, they even managed to work three dances at once and come away with a whopping 45 bucks.

Dixon's friends, Ron Harkins and Eric Zettler, provided the audio equipment, while Dixon contributed his already sizable record collection. For the most part, the young Dixon would spin the hits of the day, the tunes that kids recognized and wanted to hear. But he always made a point of sneaking in something rare, the kind of obscure R&B singles that no Phoenix radio station had dared to touch, records on exotic labels like Stax-Volt, Vee Jay, and Atlantic.

"You would find a cool record, and say, 'Hey, check this out,'" Dixon recalls, from the Tempe home he shares with his mother, Helen, a retired schoolteacher. "I'm sure there were a few records that only got played here, but that was part of the fun."

Dixon's teenage DJ experience established a pattern that persists to this day. Whether broadcasting to the troops in Vietnam in the late '60s or pitching British new-wave bands to the jaded A&R honchos at Capitol Records in the late '70s, Dixon has played the role of reliable team player just enough to be able to indulge the other Dixon, the nonpareil music archivist and historian; the guy who can identify the label and the stories behind just about any record you could think to mention; the guy once voted New Times' "Best DJ of the '80s"; the guy who former Phoenix DJ Jonathan Rosen once described as "one of the three people who built the Arizona music scene" (along with Rosen himself and Zia founder Brad Singer).

The man known to his friends as Johnny D would hardly make such grandiose claims for himself, but he recognizes the role he's played in spreading the word about Phoenix's music history. Sometimes it frustrates him that no one else has yet picked up his torch. He can hardly contain his disappointment that on the 40th anniversary of Duane Eddy's "Rebel Rouser," the so-called Twang Heard Round the World, which put Phoenix on the musical map, no one seems to care. He wonders: Why is there no Arizona Music Hall of Fame? Why are local TV and radio stations so resistant to showcasing the local artists who set the table for contemporary Valley music?

To his credit, Dixon doesn't sit around idly fretting about such oversights. He does something about it. When he's not making a living doing promotions for Evening Star, he's often working with one of the few functioning three-track recorders left in the country, converting old reel-to-reel tapes to DAT. He's perpetually working on reissue collections, providing source material and expertise to projects as arcane as a single-CD by Skip & Flip and as noteworthy as Rhino's forthcoming Alice Cooper box set.

At first glance, John Dixon's home looks like many of the others that surround it in downtown Tempe--nice and comfortable, but essentially modest. But when Dixon leads you down a hallway into the area where he keeps his record collection, you suddenly feel that you're entering a secret museum. His LPs fill up three separate rooms, where they're alphabetically filed on countless wooden shelves. Many record stores would pale next to such a massive inventory.

One whole wall is devoted to Arizona music, much of it by artists long-forgotten or never known. Along the way you'll pass encased sheet music for local milestones like Sanford Clark's "The Fool," a number-seven Billboard hit in 1956. You'll also spot tons of rare memorabilia--including local music 'zines from the '60s--and vintage concert posters.

Dixon built this collection the old-fashioned way, piece by piece over a period of many years. From the beginning, record collecting represented both a possible vocation and a chance to satisfy his deep, insatiable love for music.

"In eighth grade, I went to Payne Training School," he recalls. "ASU Department of Education ran a school for their education department so that teachers-to-be would come and study. Each class had a little one-way glass thing, so education students could look at a working class. I started playing records at lunchtime in the seventh grade, so I had an excuse to buy records.

"I'd go to Hill's Books and Records in Tempe. Howard and June Pearlman ran it. That's where I'd hang out. They had two little phonographs in the back, and you could actually listen to records in the record booth. One day I looked under their counters, and they had all these boxes and they were full of records that had white promotional labels. I said, 'What are these for?' They said, 'Those are for the DJs, Johnny. They give them out free.' I said, 'Free records? This is for me.'"

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."

Then as now, Dixon's musical taste was eclectic and well-considered. Unlike many of his peers, he never went much for Elvis, preferring peripheral artists like Eddie Cochran and Ritchie Valens.

"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?'"

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.

"Then when I moved back from Hawaii, Weize was putting together a Duane Eddy box set," Dixon says. "He's always looking for outtakes and tapes that he doesn't know about 'cause he's an anal completist. So he wanted me to see Floyd Ramsey to see if he had anthing we didn't know about. So I got involved in writing the liner notes for the Duane Eddy set. That was my first really big project.

"So then I made a deal with Floyd; I'm kind of his in-between guy. He offers a price, they either say yea or nay, and then he'll write up a contract, and I'll make sure it gets signed. And then I'll follow up and get the pictures and tapes."

If he hadn't been before, in the '90s Dixon became the undisputed, ultimate source of information on Arizona music. He enabled Bear Family to broker deals for old records, and provided it with concert photos and historical information.

Thanks to Dixon, seminal artists like Al Casey, the unsung virtuoso behind the Duane Eddy sound, started to see their catalogues resurface. Casey's mid-'60s instrumental hit, "Surfin' Hootenanny" has been licensed in recent years to both Rhino and Capitol, offering Casey welcome financial rewards for his work.

"Al's laughing," Dixon says. "He's making more money now than he did the first time around, 'cause even though it was a hit, he never really saw that much money off it. So that's a kick, seeing that happen."

Along the way, Dixon started suggesting projects to Bear Family, such as a collection by the Velaires, a band that moved from Iowa to Phoenix and had some minor national success. He's also established a relationship with labels like Ace and Sundazed, and now can determine which label might be best suited for a particular reissue project.

When Rhino called about using two 1965 tracks by Alice Cooper's early band the Spiders, Dixon represented the tape's owner, Jack Curtis, in the licensing negotiation. The two songs, the Stonesy original "Why Don't You Love Me" and an appealingly raw take on Marvin Gaye's hit "Hitch Hike," promise to be highlights of Rhino's four-CD Alice Cooper box set in February.

But perhaps the project closest to Dixon's heart would involve contemporary Arizona bands covering tracks by their forebears. Along these lines, The Revenants have already tackled Jody Reynolds' brooding "Endless Sleep," and the Beat Angels have expressed an interest in covering Tucson's Dearly Beloved, but Dixon is still working on getting financing for the project.

As much as he involves himself in the business side of music, it's obvious that Dixon's passions have less to do with money than with seeing important seminal artists get their just due in their own hometowns. All these years after he got his start spinning discs at local sock hops, he still relishes the chance to turn people on to an exciting piece of music.

About five years ago, Dixon worked a weekend graveyard shift at KZON. From midnight to 3 a.m., he followed the station's strict format. But from 3 to 4 a.m., Dixon shut off the tape recorder meant to monitor each DJ's performance. For one hour, Dixon played what he wanted, a tasteful combination of world rhythms, hip rock obscurities, and local favorites. For one hour, Johnny D's loyal army knew that in an age of stifling radio regimentation, they'd get to hear the real deal. When the subject of his KZON adventurousness comes up, Dixon's smile gives away his satisfaction.

"I kept thinking, 'Maybe this is the night that the program director is burping his new baby and will listen in at 3 a.m., and I'll get fired,'" he says. "But that was part of the fun. It was the last real vestige of true radio for me.

"So yes, I've been known to do that," he says. "But if I ever get another radio show, I'll never do it again!"

Contact Gilbert Garcia at his online address: ggarcia@newtimes.com

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