He's been a record producer, an A&R man, a sound engineer and a drummer. He's worked in record promotions and marketing, as a licensing agent, a radio program director and in concert production. He has written oodles of liner notes, sells rare and vintage records on eBay and--although the longtime Tempe resident has lived for brief periods in England and Hawaii--is considered by many to be the unofficial Arizona music historian.
Dixon's passion, though, is playing records. You remember those--round, petroleum-based, usually black and most often 7 or 12 inches across. They're what people used to listen to before CDs.
Known by friends and fans as Johnny D., Dixon got his start as a DJ in the early 1960s, playing sock hops, car washes or between acts at concerts. Later, he was a DJ on Armed Services Radio while stationed in Vietnam.
In the 1970s and '80s, Dixon became known for his popular show R&B With Johnny D., which found a home on many Phoenix-area radio stations. Dixon will bring that show--jam-packed with rare and obscure soul and funk sides--to a nightclub setting on Tuesday, Aug. 29, when he appears on stage at Club Congress.
Aiming to inject a little old-school flavor into the world of scratching and sampling, the 60-year-old Dixon will do something a little unusual among today's DJs, he said via telephone last weekend.
"I'll start a record and play it until the end, and play another one--whole songs, not fading and mixing. Maybe I will make little comments about the music or the artist. And it will be almost all vinyl. I've got some drop-ins, a few little sounds that I burned on CD, but otherwise, it's mostly 45 singles.
"I've been doing it this way for more than the last 30 years or so, but I find that some listeners actually find it to be new and different."
Dixon's set will last about three hours, and the nightclub will be arranged with seating at cocktail tables and room for dancing.
"There'll be room for those people who want to sit and listen, but I also hope that if they want to shake their butts, they will. It's the sort of music that inspires butt-shaking."
As do many of his younger contemporaries, Dixon approaches the craft of spinning platters as would any performer, he said.
"It's just like playing in a band. It's a performance; no two nights are the same. It's an artistic expression of something that probably won't happen again. It's like a painting being created while you listen. It's a moment in time of sharing some musical tidbits and music history with folks."
For Dixon, the rush he gets from sharing music is what's all about. "It's wonderful to be able to get it out and expose people to music they may not have heard before, or stuff that is really hard to find."
Among the styles of music Dixon is likely to touch on during his set are hard funk, Northern soul and classic R&B from Detroit, Memphis, Tenn., and Philly.
He plans to include a few sides from his extensive collection of Arizona artists, most notably groups such as Eddie and Ernie, and Dyke and the Blazers, both acts for which Dixon has produced and compiled retrospective albums for such labels as Ace Records in England and Bear Family Records in Germany.
Dixon maintains a massive archive of LPs, singles, master tapes, sheet music and various memorabilia, all focused on Arizona music from the 1950s to the present. Occupying three bedrooms and a hallway in his Tempe home, the collection includes about 60,000 pieces of vinyl, two-thirds of which are LPs, the other third being 45 singles.
Recently, Dixon compiled the album Soul Side of the Street: Hot Phoenix Soul Sides From the Vaults of Hadley Murrell, a CD collection of tunes produced by the eponymous impresario from 1964 to 1972. It includes tunes by Eddie and Ernie, Freddie and Henchi, the Soulsetters, Roy and the Dew Drops and several others.
The album was issued by Los Angeles-based independent label Dionysus Records, which is owned and operated by garage musician and former musician Lee Joseph.
Dixon, although considered by many to be a legend in Phoenix radio, hasn't had a regular gig on the air in a decade. He cited the corporatization and homogenization of contemporary radio as the culprit.
"(Stations) don't want a guy to play what he wants to play. They don't want a DJ; they want announcers who play the same 300 songs all the time. Maybe I could do that, but that's never been of interest to me."
So Dixon's appearances on Phoenix radio lately have been limited to one show a year on the jazz and NPR station KJZZ (91.5 FM).
Dixon frequently appears as a guest, though, on the Monday-night show Al Perry's Clambake, hosted by his pal Al Perry on Tucson community radio station KXCI FM 91.3.
"One of the reasons Tucson is so interesting and cool is KXCI, which is not pre-programmed, and it's geared to the music that the public wants to hear, not a corporation obsessed with ratings." (Full disclosure: The author of this article is a member of the station's board of directors.)
Perry, a revered Tucson musician for more than 25 years, grew up in Phoenix, listening to Dixon on the air. He also works the front desk at Hotel Congress and helped set up Dixon's upcoming performance there.
"Al's been so good. Tucson's really lucky to have him," Dixon said. "Bless his heart, he'll play a square dance next to a rockabilly record, next to soul and gospel. And every other week, Al does nothing but Arizona music on his show.
"It's just very hard in this day and age to get people to appreciate the history of the local music that's out there. I'll share stuff I have archived with him, so he plays a lot of stuff that hasn't even been released."
In fact, Dixon will sit in on Perry's show, from 10 p.m. to midnight, this Monday, Aug. 28, the night before he does his Congress gig.