Published December 9th, 2021 at 6:00 AM13 minute read
In the early 1960s Kansas City native Dave Dexter Jr., as a record company executive, held the first right of refusal to sign the Beatles in the United States.
That’s exactly what he did after he heard “Love Me Do.”
He refused the Beatles.
“When I heard (John) Lennon playing a harmonica on this record, I thought it was the worst thing I ever heard,” Dexter once said. “So I nixed it.
“I didn’t want any part of the Beatles.”
Today those watching “The Beatles: Get Back” documentary are marveling at the inside glimpse afforded of the band whose story is so familiar, so entrenched in our collective cultural memory, as to seem inevitable.
That story, however, never would have happened in America just as it did without a crucial Kansas City connection.
That connection is Dexter.
His recollections detailing how he first rejected the Beatles, came to rethink that decision and then work – “somewhat hysterically,” as he would write in a 1964 memo – to secure domestic distribution rights of the Beatles for his bosses at Capitol Records today is documented by the corporate papers held in the Dave E. Dexter Jr. Collection at the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Marr Sound Archives.
Today those memos drive the dialogue of bloggers and historians who often mine the collection’s rich deposits of internal debate over the Beatles, and sometimes criticize Dexter for his decisions regarding the band’s sound and marketing.
But such second guessing comes with about 60 years of hindsight, said Chuck Haddix, Marr Sound Archives curator who helped acquire the Dexter collection in the late 1980s.
As a record company executive who had worked for decades in jazz and popular music, Dexter “wasn’t necessarily qualified to judge the quality of the Beatles records,” Haddix said.
But such easy criticism overlooks the reality of the American record industry before the Beatles, he added.
“There were no young people in the record industry at that time,” Haddix said. “There was no youth market.”
Dexter’s son, also named Dave, feels his father has been judged unfairly.
“If my dad’s legacy is tarnished, it’s because people didn’t understand the industry at that point,” said the younger Dexter, a landscape contractor in California’s Napa Valley.
“He put reverb on the Beatles’ recordings but that was standard practice,” he said. “That was Capitol’s call. That was not my dad’s call.”
By the mid-1950s the elder Dexter was serving as a cultural gatekeeper at Capitol.
Through the label’s “Capitol of the World” division, his job was to listen to recordings submitted from affiliated companies in Buenos Aires, Paris, Milan, Cologne and London. He would then recommend which of those songs Capitol should release in America.
Each decision represented an educated guess, with some hits – and misses.
“Dexter was an old jazz and pop guy, but also he was a hit man and you can see that in his memos,” Haddix said. “The numbers were what he was interested in. Was this song going to sell?
“It was a business, and that was the bottom line.”
To this task Dexter brought decades of music industry expertise. But he wasn’t a musician.
He had started out as a newspaper reporter.
After graduating from Kansas City’s Northeast High School, Dexter had enrolled at Missouri Valley College in Marshall, Missouri.
A week after his arrival in 1933 he borrowed a typewriter and wrote a story about Kansas City students playing for the Marshall football squad.
“I mailed it into the (Kansas City) Star and they ran it the next day,” he told Haddix in a 1989 interview.
“I couldn’t get over it … they printed everything I sent them. It was just astonishing to me.”
Dexter continued to submit stories to the Star, for which he received checks every month for $10 or $12.
In 1935 he transferred to the University of Missouri School of Journalism. At the end of his junior year he had obtained a summer Kansas City newspaper job – not at the Star but at the rival Journal-Post.
Upon arrival he described to his editor his interest in writing entertainment news.
The editor responded by assigning him obituaries.
But Dexter soon earned his trust. Three weeks later, when singer Rudy Vallee arrived in Kansas City, Dexter got the assignment.
At the Journal-Post, he would make entertainment his personal beat. Dexter interviewed bandleaders Fred Waring and Cab Calloway, as well as Hollywood cowboy Tom Mix, opera singer Lawrence Tibbett, and Olympic champion ice skater and film star Sonja Henie.
The thrill he experienced when he first saw his sports copy printed in the Star in 1933 only grew more so at the Journal-Post.
“I was a cub reporter and rewrite man and that, of course, is where I really learned the craft,” he told Haddix.
“The only thing you could do, really, is peck out your copy, hand it to the city ed(itor), watch him make some editing changes, and then watch the copy desk put the headlines on it and then an hour later, why, see it in print,” he said.
When the summer ended, Dexter didn’t return to college.
He started a weekly records column by going down to Kansas City’s Jenkins Music store, bringing nine new records into a listening booth and taking notes. The column, published in the Sunday edition, soon attracted a readership, and record companies began sending him new releases.
“He thought ‘Well, you can’t beat this,’ ’’ his son said.
His father continued reporting on jazz, not only for the Journal-Post but also for national entertainment publications such as DownBeat and Billboard, as a freelancer.
He was focused. When Dexter went to hear national touring bands in Kansas City’s Pla-Mor ballroom or Fairyland Park, he didn’t bring dates along, Dexter told Haddix.
”I never danced, never once,” he said.
“I always just stood in front of the band.”
His coverage of Kansas City area musicians, meanwhile, helped circulate their names among tastemakers. Dexter’s articles about pianist Jay McShann helped raise the musician’s local profile, allowing him to assemble a small band and, later, obtain a recording contract.
Dexter’s coverage of Bill “Count” Basie helped bring that bandleader to a national audience.
Many accounts of Basie’s discovery, Haddix said, detail how New York record producer and promoter John Hammond sought Basie out after hearing a broadcast from a Kansas City nightclub.
“John Hammond commonly gets credit for that, but it was Dexter who goaded Hammond to come to Kansas City, and who took him around and showed him where all the clubs were,” Haddix said.
Dexter was still a newspaper reporter and, accordingly, scrambled to respond to breaking news, such as fires. In 1938 a colleague at radio station KCMO called and offered Dexter a job at $12 a week, which was still what he was earning at the Journal-Post after two years.
He thanked the colleague – Walter Cronkite – but turned him down.
“See you at the next fire,” Dexter said.
The next job offer he couldn’t refuse. That same year, as the struggling Journal-Post was laying off staff, Dexter received a telegram offering him the post of associate editor at DownBeat in Chicago.
The pay: $27.50 a week.
He served at DownBeat for four years, first in Chicago and then in New York. He also ventured outside the newsroom and produced recordings, such as an early album of Kansas City jazz for Decca records, Haddix said.
In 1943 Dexter joined the recently-formed Capitol Records in Los Angeles. Capitol hired Dexter, Haddix added, in part because of his large circle of music industry acquaintances.
“Dexter was connected, and helped build the roster at Capitol,” Haddix said. Artists coming to the label during Dexter’s time included Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee and Nat King Cole.
“My dad was the seventh employee hired at Capitol,” Dexter’s son said from California.
“They had a little outbuilding, a garage with a piano,” he added. “On Thursdays songwriters would get in line to come in.”
His father and his colleagues, he added, would listen to the songs as they were pitched.
“They would say, ‘Maybe Nat King Cole could do something with that.’ That was how ‘artists & repertoire’ worked.”
The term “artists and repertoire” describes a record company’s development of singers and songwriters. In 1955, Dexter took on a new assignment with Capitol’s international division. In this role, Dexter considered recordings of music submitted for possible release from around the world.
Years later – Dexter would remember it as 1962 – a particular box of records arrived from London.
By Dexter’s telling, the box contained perhaps 20 records.
One of them was a 45 rpm recording featuring “Love Me Do” and “P.S. I Love You” by a band whose name he didn’t recognize.
“I auditioned every platter in the carton and heard nothing that might smell hitty for Capitol,” he wrote in “Playback,” his 1976 autobiography
So, Dexter passed on “Love Me Do.”
His refusal, Dexter said, meant that Capitol parent company EMI Records Ltd. of England – for which the Beatles recorded on the Parlophone label – had the right to place subsequent Beatles recordings with whatever American label they could.
Vee-Jay of Chicago picked up “Love Me Do” as well as a second disc featuring “Please Please Me,” Dexter wrote. While the songs received airplay, sales were “negligible,” he wrote. A separate label, Swan, in Philadelphia, issued “She Loves You.” The song, Dexter wrote, sold about 800 copies.
His judgment, Dexter believed, had been vindicated.
A fortuitous event soon followed.
For four years, according to Dexter, he had not visited England, in part because of the indifferent reception given British recordings by American consumers. In the summer of 1963, however, Dexter took one of his occasional international trips, traveling to Europe and arriving at the London offices of EMI one day in August.
In 1989, Dexter told Haddix what happened.
“The A&R man over there said ‘Oh, I’ve got a record that I know you will want to issue.
“And I said ‘Oh, fine, that’s why I’m here, you know, let me hear it.’
“So he puts on this 45 rpm single on and I said, ‘Who is it?’ And he said ‘Never mind, just listen.’
“I said ‘No, tell me, I want to know who I’m listening to.’ He said, ‘No, let me surprise you.’ So he put the needle down and it was ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand.’
“And, boy, I heard about four bars of that and grabbed it. I knew it was the Beatles – so Capitol recovered the mighty Beatles quartet.”
The record company issued the song in America on Dec. 26, 1963.
By New Year’s Day the recording was on pace to sell more than 1 million copies, becoming, Dexter later wrote, “the most gigantic hit in all the decades of the record business…”
Dexter helped supervise the release of “Meet the Beatles!” the first Capitol Beatles album, issued the following January.
The Beatles’ seismic impact had pleased Capitol records execs, but also had rattled them.
In February Dexter responded to a written request from Capitol Records President Alan Livingston. He had asked Dexter for an update on several British rock acts then being touted by Sir Joseph Lockwood, EMI chairman.
Dexter replied that he had approved Freddie and the Dreamers but passed on Gerry and the Pacemakers and Manfred Mann.
“Alan, I make errors in judgment as does everyone else,” Dexter wrote, “but when you consider the enormous amount of singles and albums sent to my desk every month from not only English Parlophone … but France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Austria, Australia, Australia, the Scandinavian countries and several other places, I am frankly amazed that we do not miss out on more hits as the months and years go by.”
In May Livingston sent Dexter a memo saying that a committee would be formed to consider artists submitted “in a general pop vein.”
The change would not affect Dexter’s responsibilities on international music, Livingston said. But, he added, “I do not think it is fair or proper to leave you without the benefit of help on the pop artists.”
Capitol issued a third Beatles album, “Something New,” in July. But more corporate angst came Dexter’s way in September.
On Sept. 21, 1964 – four days after the Beatles played Kansas City’s Municipal Stadium – Dexter received a request to prepare a memo explaining just how the company initially had passed on the band.
Dexter’s 13-page Oct. 1, 1964 response – available today at a curated online Marr Sound Archives exhibit -– explained the near-miss in detail.
Dexter explained how, since 1956, Capitol’s experience on British recordings often had proved disappointing even though many of the same songs had been well received by the British buying public.
Dexter offered plenty of examples, listing the songs and the meager amounts of copies American customers had bought.
In 1956, for instance, Capitol had released 14 songs by British artists, all popular in England, and some of them reaching the top of the charts.
But something was being lost in translation.
A 1956 song by the Big Ben Banjo Band had sold 1,563 copies, another only 1,019.
A song by orchestra leader Ray Martin had sold 1,765 copies.
“Of the above 14 records, only one was profitable to Capitol,” Dexter wrote. “Two earned a few dollars, and 11 were losers.”
The bad luck had continued. In 1958 a song by Cliff Richard, an established star in England, sold only 1,104 copies. A record by British actor and comedian Peter Sellers sold 138 copies.
Dexter took his memo up through 1963, including sales figures for Freddie and the Dreamers (105), Johnny Kidd (96) and the Beatles (2,967,422).
Those were the sales that “I Want to Hold Your Hand” had generated just in the last week of December.
“By the time I returned from England in August of 1963,” Dexter wrote, “it was apparent that the Beatles were the hottest thing England had ever encountered … I then somewhat hysterically started urging (Capitol president Alan) Livingston … to exert every possible pressure on EMI and (Beatles manager Brian) Epstein.”
In the memo, he admitted to passing on other examples of the British Invasion, such as Gerry and the Pacemakers.
“I have no excuses here,” Dexter wrote.
“I did not think the sound of the group was extraordinary and I still believe that out of the hundreds and hundreds of samples submitted featuring various combos, that Gerry is nothing special. I missed!”
But, Dexter added, he had saved Capitol many misfires, and so included a long list of British acts that had been offered to Capitol just in 1964 on which he had passed. They included Margo & the Marvettes, the College Boys, the Wranglers, the Jynx, the U.K.’s, the Druids, the Valkyries and Ricky Livid & the Tone Deafs.
Dexter ended the memo with this understatement: “The record business is a hell of a lot different than it was even a short year ago.”
Dexter stayed with Capitol Records for more than a decade after that, serving many different duties.
He worked as editor of the Capitol News, a monthly corporate magazine. He left the company in 1975 and soon returned to his newsroom roots, serving as chief copy editor for Billboard.
In 1976 he published his autobiography, which detailed his long career, including his comparatively short involvement with the Beatles.
An incident in 1980 didn’t help his standing with some fans.
After John Lennon’s murder that December, Dexter wrote a column for Billboard, detailing how Lennon had been rude during a 1965 charity benefit party in Los Angeles organized by Capitol president Alan Livingston. Lennon had refused, Dexter wrote, to go out and mingle with the crowds of children waiting outside.
“It was terrible timing,” Haddix said. “But Dexter was of a generation that didn’t pull its punches.”
Haddix initiated his relationship with Dexter over the subsequent decade.
Having arrived at the Marr Sound Archives in 1987, Haddix conducted many telephone conservations with Dexter, who later agreed to donate his archives to the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
It was in 1989, working with a fine arts moving company, that Haddix traveled to Sherman Oaks, California, to pack up Dexter’s books, photographs and other materials. While packing, Haddix recorded Dexter detailing his career.
“He just told the story like he was giving his last will and testament, and he was very intent on telling the history,” Haddix said.
At one point Dexter sent him out to a garage, where Haddix found a filing cabinet full of photographs. Nearby he noticed a stack of documents.
“It was his memos from Capitol,” he said. “Being a completist, I took everything.”
Dexter died in 1990. His papers, including the Capitol memos, became available to researchers by the early 1990s.
In part because of the availability of those internal documents, Dexter’s actions regarding the Beatles have been weighed in the balance and sometimes found wanting. Dexter, for instance, has been criticized for adding reverb to the Beatles recordings. Dexter explained why, in the case of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” Capitol did so in his 1976 autobiography.
“In running the original Beatles tape through our system as an American master was dubbed,” Dexter wrote, “we had extended the high frequencies and added slight reverberation to give the single a ‘hotter’ sound.”
He also was dinged for his decisions impacting the marketing of Beatles albums for American distribution. Those albums featured different artwork, as well as different songs from their British counterparts.
In those cases his father was only adhering to Capitol policies and practices, Dexter’s son recently said from California. Further, Paul McCartney and John Lennon initially complimented his father as to how their records sounded, he added.
“My dad’s relationship with the Beatles has become extremely controversial,” he said.
But, he said, nobody can change the central fact of how, at a crucial moment, his father had gotten it right.
“He was the person who got the Beatles signed to Capitol,” Dexter said.
Sometimes overlooked, the younger Dexter added, was how for more than 10 years his father had contributed to the emergence of international music, today sometimes called “world music.”
Through his father’s work in the company’s “Capitol of the World” division, he helped market hundreds of albums from many countries. The impact of those recordings, some scholars have written, not only broadened the tastes of an unknown number of listeners, it also proved crucial to Capitol’s fiscal well being.
The song “Sukiyaki,” recorded by Japanese singer Kyu Sakamoto, topped charts around the world, including the United States, in 1963.
“My father just created that, right?” the younger Dexter said. “Then came the British Invasion.”
But the record industry’s subsequent transformation in catering to an emerging youth market, which brought with it a more pronounced emphasis on the bottom line, Dexter said, soured his father’s view of the business.
“That is where my dad sort of lost his excitement about his life-long career,” he said.
It’s ironic, the younger Dexter said, how so much attention has been paid to what his father considered a footnote in his 40-year music industry career.
Dexter, in his 1976 autobiography, shared that sentiment.
“But it’s the wildest, most incredible music story of all time and I’m at least mildly flattered that I played a miniscule part in it,” he wrote.
“I’m even more pleased that is all behind me.”
Flatland contributor Brian Burnes is a Kansas City area writer and author. He is serving as president of the Jackson County Historical Society.