Vintage Phoenix Q&A: Arizona's Unofficial Music Historian John Dixon
John Dixon stands in his enormous music library.
You know him as Johnny D., as in Mostly Vinyl with Johnny D., the radio program on KWSS that celebrates rare and obscure soul and funk. But John Dixon is also an obsessive collector of recorded music -- mostly on vinyl -- as well as a record producer, a former A&R man, and a musician. Besides infusing the often bland local airwaves with a lot of soul, Dixon has made a career of archiving, documenting, and reissuing Arizona music by local artists like Floyd Ramsey, Loy Clingman, Eddie and Ernie, and Dyke and the Blazers -- artists lucky enough to own their recorded tape masters.
The longtime Tempe resident took some time off from preserving our musical heritage to talk about himself and the lost art of record collecting.
Robrt Pela: How'd you end up in Phoenix?
John Dixon: My mom and I got off the train in Tempe in 1953, and I've been here, off and on, ever since. Her plan was that she was going to stay in each place for two years. My dad was killed in Japan in World War II, and my mom was in the USO in Hawaii. From there, we moved to Minnesota for two years, then Oregon for two years, and Mom read about Tempe in a brochure, so we came here. We got off the train in the middle of August, and we nearly died.
RP: But you stayed.
JD: We were going to be here for two years and then head to Kentucky. But I started school while we were here, and Mom actually listened when I whined about not wanting to leave my friends. Instead of saying, "Shut up and get on the train," she gave up her wanderlust for me.
RP: Your mother is kind of a local icon, herself.
JD: Oh, yeah. All her students remember Mrs. Dixon. She taught in the Roosevelt District in the '60s, and she was the first white teacher they'd ever had. If you didn't show up at school, you got a visit from her that night. She brought kids clothes if they needed them. She'll be 98 this year, and she's doing just fine -- "waiting to sign the book," as she says.
RP: Your long career as a vinyl junkie began in grade school.
JD: Yeah. I used to play records for the kids during lunch period. And there were record hops on the weekends at Tempe High. I was the vinyl guy. My friends and I would bring our sound system, and I had hundreds of records. Then the Beatles came along, and everyone wanted to be in a band. So then the dances all had live bands, and the DJs got relegated to playing between live sets.
RP: Even back then, you were playing obscure stuff.
JD: Well, I used to hang out at Pearlman's Records and Books in Tempe, and Mr. Pearlman used to take me with him to all the record distributors where he went to buy for his store. That's when I found out what a promo was, and that they were free. And I thought, "This is for me, man."
RP: Oh, yes. The white label promo -- the vinyl junkie's heroin.
JD: I had a business card, and I would hand it out to the guys at the record distributor places. After a while I had a box set up next to KRIZ, KRUX, KUPD. The label guys would leave records for me, and that's how I found the music that wasn't getting played on the radio.
RP: Weren't you in a couple of bands back then?
JD: I was in the Sonics, and the Trendsetters. But I got drafted in 1967. When I got out I started working for [music distributor] Record Land, and now I was the guy putting the records in the deejay's boxes, trying to get them to play our records.
RP: And then you went to work at Capitol.
JD: Yeah, I was in promotion here, and then later in London. I was babysitting Be-Bop Deluxe, Gentle Giant, Kate Bush, and making sure that the Little River Band had their posters up in record stores in Dusseldorf. The new music scene in London was amazing -- the Police had just started.
RP: New wave!
JD: Yeah. I came back here to Phoenix and started K15. We played the Ramones, the Plasmatics, the Feederz.
RP: I loved K15.
JD: It was all the up-tempo new music that nobody else was playing. We went off the air at sunset. But they just couldn't sell it, so we only lasted six months.
RP: What's up with us? I mean, those of us who've been collecting vinyl for most of our lives.
JD: It's in your DNA, your blood. I had to build a separate building to house my records. It's 14 feet by 28 feet, and I just barely squeaked all my albums and 45s in. I don't know where I'm going to put my tapes.
These young whippersnappers who weren't around when the only way you could get music was on vinyl -- I mean, the joy of cracking open a new LP, staring at the cover art, reading the liner notes. It's a thing of the past. Eventually all our music will be on a little thing we carry around in our pockets. It'll be stored on our phones.
RP: I can't bear it.
JD: We're old farts. Dinosaurs, you and I.
RP: Some artists are putting out their albums on vinyl.
JD: It's a fad. It's less than 1 percent of the pressing. Some of these young bands think of vinyl as a novelty, so they're making 1,000 vinyl 45s before they put their new CD out. It's not the same.
RP: You've taken collecting to a whole new level: You don't just collect the records; you collect the master tapes, and the publishing rights, of music by Arizona artists.
JD: And the unsold overstock! I just bought 400 copies of 40-year-old records by Dick and Libby Halleman. I've got 40 copies of "Pizza Sure is Good" on 45.
But, yeah. I own the publishing and reproduction rights for a lot of old Arizona music. I get these tracks onto TV shows like Mad Men, and the songs are making more money now than when they were first pressed. I don't own any hits, but I have songs that sound like hits. If there's family left, I pay royalties to them. It's a way to keep Arizona music alive.
RP: What happens to all this stuff when you're gone?
JD: I'm a founding member of the Arizona Music Hall of Fame, and I'm still hoping my archive will be a part of that. In the meantime, the Musical Instrument Museum came along, and so luckily some of my stuff is out there. And I've continued to devote myself to the collecting, and getting the music out there in new CDs.
RP: You're always referred to as the "Unofficial Arizona Music Historian." What will it take to make you official?
JD: A proclamation from Jan Brewer? I don't know! It doesn't make any difference to me. I laugh at my unofficial-ness. In fact, I kind of like it. I'm just a kid from Tempe, but I've been so blessed to get to do what I do.
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