Music News

Rebel Rouser

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.'"

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Gilbert Garcia
Contact: Gilbert Garcia