Dave Dexter, Jr.

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Dave Dexter, Jr. is a name that was ubiquitous on the Beatles' Capitol Records albums of the 1960s, for his highly visible -- some would say notorious -- role, in resequencing, reconfiguring, remastering,…
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Dave Dexter, Jr. is a name that was ubiquitous on the Beatles' Capitol Records albums of the 1960s, for his highly visible -- some would say notorious -- role, in resequencing, reconfiguring, remastering, and re-compiling the group's recordings for the American market. Additionally, Dexter was the man responsible for Capitol passing on the original single releases of "Love Me Do," "Please Please Me," "From Me to You," and "She Loves You," as well as transforming With the Beatles into Meet the Beatles, Beatles for Sale into a source for Beatles '65 and Beatles VI, and the British Help album into the abominable American Help! soundtrack LP. Those records sold in the millions -- collectively in the tens of millions over decades -- and, as a result, his is a name that was as closely associated with the music of the Beatles for American audiences as that of George Martin or Brian Epstein.

Dave Dexter, Jr. was born in Kansas City, MO, in 1915, the son of a sportswriter for the Kansas City Star. By the time he was in his teens, the younger Dexter had been swept up by the boom in jazz, which became his first love in music for the rest of his life. He joined the Kansas City Journal-Post as a fledgling reporter, and kept his hand in the city's jazz scene, as both a fan and a stringer for Down Beat magazine, which led to his becoming an associate editor. He was among the very first jazz reporters in the country, and he wrote his first book about music, Jazz Cavalcade, in 1946, about the nation's jazz scene, by which time he had also collaborated with John Hammond, Sr. in editing a magazine, and had taken a job with the newly founded Capitol Records, where he was a staff writer, generating press releases, label copy etc. His career goal was, reportedly, to become a producer, finding, auditioning, and recording new talent in jazz. Alas, for all of his enthusiasm as a jazz fan, he didn't quite have what it took to become, say, another John Hammond, or George Avakian -- perhaps the talent was lacking, or the sensibilities formed by his years as what amounted to a columnist (in the worst tabloid sense) corrupted him intellectually or emotionally, but Dexter was never more than a secondary figure in making records. Not that he lacked for taste -- he admired Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, and Stan Kenton, among other figures out of the big-band era, and worked with artists like Nat King Cole, Kay Starr, June Christy and George Van Eps. Mostly, it was timing that got him -- that, plus a blind spot that put Dexter on the wrong side of the growth of the postwar boom in bebop (doubly so where Charlie Parker, for whom he carried a special animus, was concerned).

And then along came rock & roll, made by artists who were 10 and 20 years younger than he was, and listened to by kids who were 25 years younger. He couldn't abide the music (in which Capitol had little more than a modest stake at first -- nothing compared to what Decca or companies like Chess and Sun did in the field) -- or the people who listened to it, and seemed to loathe the kids even more for their ability to appreciate it. He reacted like a lot of guys who were old enough to have been adults during the Second World War, and increasingly resented this intrusion on the world they knew by this new music. With jazz on the decline commercially, and music moving in a direction that made him less-than-effective, Dexter was pulled completely out of the front lines of A&R work and, instead, was put in charge of international A&R for Capitol. This meant that he evaluated the hundreds of releases generated by parent company EMI's various divisions scattered across the world. Those were mostly from England, France, Italy, Germany, and anywhere else that EMI had a major operation -- in the case of the British stuff, these consisted of everything from Cliff Richard rock & roll sides to Norrie Paramor instrumental albums and the collected works of various Scottish pipe bands, and anything in between (which would have included Peter Sellers and the Temperance Seven, among numerous novelty, comedy, and trad-jazz acts). The rock & roll sides were among the least often drawn upon, as they never found serious listenerships in the U.S. (The one example of a U.S. hit from a U.K. rock & roll side during this era was "Telstar" by the Tornados, who were signed to EMI's rival Decca).

It was in this capacity that Dexter became one of the earliest, if not the first American record label executive who got to hear "Love Me Do," the Beatles' debut single, and "Please Please Me," their second single -- and their breakthrough record -- or "From Me to You," their third. And he passed on all of them, as well as "She Loves You," all of which, along with the content of the Please Please Me album, ended up in the hands of other U.S. companies, most notably VeeJay Records and Swan Records. It was a decision that Dexter subsequently became extremely defensive about, especially as Capitol became desperate for more Beatles material and found themselves legally blocked from more than a dozen of their 1962-1963 sides. But the real controversy about Dexter's career came in 1964, after Dexter -- being overruled, according to some accounts, by Capitol president Alan Livingston, who ordered the label to issue the group's newest single, "I Want to Hold Your Hand" -- was put in charge of preparing the Beatles' U.K. releases for the U.S. market.

That someone had to do this at all may puzzle those who don't know the circumstances. The basic problem was that the U.K. and U.S. markets were completely different -- in England, the recording industry generally didn't mix single tracks with LP tracks on the same platter, with the result that an artist's hits were usually reserved for "greatest-hit" and "best-of" compilations, while albums consisted of material specifically recorded (or, at least, intended) for that format. In America, by contrast, the business generally tried to place singles on albums as a way of boosting sales of the latter. (The one exception had been Elvis Presley, whose early RCA Victor releases separated the single and album tracks -- but Elvis was in a class by himself, in terms of sales and popularity; as a reflection of which, by the time the Beatles broke in the U.S., even with an 18-month interruption for military service, Elvis was already on his third greatest-hits collection). Additionally, the structure of recording royalties in America and Europe were different, with U.S. releases intended for a standard 12-song LP, whilst Europe was built on a 14-song standard.

Dexter might have initially blown Capitol's claim on the Beatles, and might not have liked their music, but he seemed determined to do his best in sculpting their albums for the U.S. market. His first effort, Meet the Beatles, was good enough, a slightly reconfigured version of With the Beatles that didn't require a lot of thought or changes. And his second effort, The Beatles Second Album, assembled from singles, B-sides, and EP sides, plus a few leftover tracks from With the Beatles, was not only successful in its own time, but has been hailed across the decades as the single finest non-hit compilation long-player ever issued of the band's music. And the albums that followed in that first 18 months of frenetic sales were all, at least based on their song content -- and the resulting sales -- good enough, given the constraints under which Capitol and Dexter were operating. (Of course, on the other side of the ledger, Dexter was working with songs being generated by the Beatles when the group was in its prime -- only a complete fool could have screwed it up, no matter what they did with it).

But then, as the group's music became more complex and the nature of their releases changed to encompass such categories as soundtracks (Capitol didn't have the Hard Day's Night soundtrack, but it did have the Help! soundtrack), Dexter's judgment seemed to fail him. The U.S. Help! album marked the nadir of his work revising the Beatles output for the United States, a miserable agglomeration of new songs and background music that offended fans and the group itself, even as it sold in the millions. The record was enough of a problem for Capitol and the Beatles, that a new process for adapting their work for the U.S. was worked out and put into place starting in 1966.

Following the U.S. release of Rubber Soul, Capitol removed Dexter from the task of working with the Beatles' music -- he'd been on the job for a little over two years, and had blown it, probably over the Help! album more than anything else. There would be occasional U.S.-only and U.S.-revised Beatles albums -- the Magical Mystery Tour album was the most prominent example of this -- in the years that followed, but these would be done on a wholly different level from Dexter's work. Additionally, aside from the Help! album deficiencies as a U.S. release, the biggest criticism of Dexter's work derived from his constant remastering of the original British recordings -- his sculpting of the Beatles' albums had some basis in raw economics and practicality, but his re-sculpting of the sound of the actual songs seems to have been an active, aesthetic choice that he later had to defend many times. Dexter and other executives at Capitol apparently believed that American listeners preferred their rock & roll music drenched in reverb, and added layers of it to many of the group's recordings when they hit these shores. It made the British originals, when they started coming over as direct imports, all the more impressive to U.S. ears. The one defense of Dexter is that neither he (nor anyone else) could ever have envisioned that listeners would ever be evaluating every nuance of the Beatles history, either then or four decades later, or putting their work (and, by extension, his) under a microscope.

Dexter was let go from Capitol in 1974, after 30 years with the company, and eventually wrote a book about his experiences in the business, entitled Playback. It was received negatively, as a self-serving, ill-tempered piece of personal payback against everyone whom he felt had slighted or wronged him across his career, and people he simply didn't like personally. It fit with his own status within the business -- he was, by then, perceived as little more than an unhappy sore loser in the generational "culture wars" of the 1950s and 1960s, who had blown his one major opportunity to contribute to American popular culture, between his own prejudices and short-sightedness. He passed away in 1990.