Arizona Music Historian John “Johnny D” Dixon Throws 70th Birthday Bash at Crescent

Things have an uncanny way of coming full circle for John “Johnny D” Dixon, longtime Valley music scene fixture. Example: Back in 1967, he rolled tape at a small Scottsdale club called the Red Dog a Go Go, recording an act fresh from Las Vegas called the Nooney Rickett IV.

Rickett was “such a showman,” Dixon says in 2016, 49 years later, toweringly tall, even seated in an overstuffed red leather chair in his Scottsdale office, which is packed with vintage Arizona tchotchkes, records, and CDs. Rickett still performs, Dixon explains, rubbing his white goatee. In fact, he’s playing Crescent Ballroom May 12, which marks the occasion of Dixon’s 70th birthday. There will be a packed roster and of course, Mama D, his 100-year-old mother, and Ms. Lou, his lady friend, who he dated in high school before getting drafted. They resumed their relationship six years ago.

That such a wild lineup is gathered for him is a testament to Dixon’s status as a true Arizona original, with an unrivaled library of Arizona music and artifacts related to the state’s music history. It’s earned him the tag of Arizona’s “unofficial” music historian, an unsanctioned status that makes him laugh heartily.

“No one really cares,” he says regarding local government. “You think Doug Ducey gives a shit about Duane Eddy?” 
But chances are, the governor has heard him at some point on the radio, perhaps on one of the many soul, funk, New Wave, or unclassifiable free-form radio programs Dixon has hosted on and off on a variety of Arizona stations for nearly five decades. Dixon is a definitive “record man,” working in A&R for major labels, drumming, producing, promoting, curating, and archiving his findings.

He arrived in Tempe in 1953, where he was raised by his single mother. His father was killed in Japan in World War II. He got into records as a kid, and eventually parlayed his interest into a thriving DJ business with some friends. He graduated to drums with local bands like the Sonics and the Trendsetters after high school, before getting drafted in 1967. When his tour of duty ended, he got a job working for ARC Distribution in Phoenix. The music business took him to California, England, and Hawaii, working with bands and artists like Kate Bush, Gentle Giant, and Be-Bop Deluxe, but he always found his way back to Phoenix.

You’d be forgiven for thinking he’s made at least some of it up. But Dixon keeps everything. Like his records, he’s got an extensive collection of personal memorabilia: every photo with Kraftwerk or Sun Ra from his time at Capitol Records and ABC, photocopies of his radio show playlists from KDKB and KEYX 100.3 AM, the experimental rock, soul, and alternative station he started with alt-radio pioneer Jonathan L in the mid-’80s.

All the while, he’s amassed records. An exact count is hard, but he estimates he owns more than 80,000 records, stored in an air-conditioned barn behind his house. It’s like a museum. Every available space is crammed, and that’s after he cleared out a huge chunk of stuff to display in the actual museum, the Musical Instrument Museum in North Phoenix, where memorabilia like Alice Cooper’s giant inflatable School’s Out pencil resides on loan from Dixon.

For a year, I worked with Dixon in his barn, doing a live radio program called the Audio Ranch on KWSS 93.9 FM. It was difficult, but a pleasure, to keep up with Dixon’s frantic pace. Our format veered wildly from genre to genre, but stayed rooted in the sounds of the Sonoran, with John pulling vinyl records, unheard acetates, and tapes, interspersing them with drops and wild banter. He insisted we did the show live — “Real radio!” — which meant dead air when the power went out, bad jokes, and some songs played on the air for what was likely the first time ever.

Dixon’s Arizona collection is closest to his heart, spanning ancient cowboy songs, native chants, rockabilly, twangy surf, punk, pop, and soul. If it was recorded in Arizona between 1929 and 1980-something, Dixon likely owns a copy. Collecting’s always come naturally to him, but in the late ’80s he began to focus in on Arizona music, collecting anything recorded in the state, much of it “stuff no one else wanted.”

“You don’t know when you start,” Dixon says, recalling an afternoon in the late ’80s, hanging out at Memory Lane Records in Tempe. A collector came in inquiring about rare Phoenix soul 45s, promising the store owner he’d pay big money for them. Dixon realized he had quite a few of the discs in question. “I just remember going home and putting things in order.”

He befriended people like cowboy songwriter Loy Clingman; guitarist Al Casey, who got his start in the fertile Phoenix scene before heading to Los Angeles, where he played on records by the Beach Boys, the Monkees, and Johnny Cash; engineer Jack Miller; and ’50s label head and studio owner Floyd Ramsey, who owned Audio Recorders, where Lee Hazlewood recorded a young kid from Coolidge named Duane Eddy, who scored a major hit with “Rebel Rouser.”

“I just became known as ‘the Arizona guy,’” Dixon says. “I realized that there was such a great scene here. The sound of Duane Eddy’s twang, it dawned on me, was a worldwide sound. It was an Arizona export, just like cattle and cotton and copper. In England, Duane Eddy was as big as the Beatles.”

He began interviewing anyone who had been around the scene in the ’50s and ‘60s, going beyond the household names. He became enthusiastic about sharing the stories of those who never broke beyond the Grand Canyon State.

For the last decade or so, he’s worked mostly as an archivist and producer. In 2007, Dixon purchased a huge collection of music publishing from Floyd and Mary Ramsey, not long before Floyd’s passing in 2008. He makes his living selling records and licensing Arizona songs through Fervor Records to television and movies, as well as providing material to reissue labels like Rhino, Ace, Light in the Attic, Germany’s Bear Family, Numero Group, and more, in addition to releasing his own collections of vintage Arizona soul, rockabilly, pop, garage rock, and country on CD.

“I want this stuff to be archived and shared,” Dixon says, noting that the checks allow him to pay surviving musicians from those sessions, too.

“It’s one thing to have the records and collect them, but to be able to talk to the artists, have the master tapes, see the union sheets … I certainly don’t take it for granted,” Dixon says.

It’s his way of connecting to his home and to the past, and pushing it into the future. He gets a charge holding a 78 by Billie Maxwell, whose proto-feminist cowgirl songs are some of the oldest music ever recorded by an Arizonan, or strumming the late The Wallace and Ladmo Show musical director Mike Condello’s orange 1960 Gretsch, which will be played on stage at his birthday bash. It’s a thrill Dixon can’t shake, to “go even deeper, to add to the whole richness of these stories.”

He’s waiting for the right eccentric millionaire to come by and take the archive off his hands, making it available to the public, but beyond that, he’s thinking low key.

“I guess my dream gig, when I finally get everything organized here to the max, would be a live nightly show from the barn on the radio,” Dixon says. “Surrounded by records, just like I remember at KCAC and KDKB … sort of full circle.”

Correction, 12:40 p.m., 5/10/2016: Amazingly, Johnny D's mother is 100, not 90.
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Jason P. Woodbury is a music and pop-culture writer based in Phoenix. He is a regular contributor to the music blog Aquarium Drunkard and co-host of the Transmissions podcast.