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Note by Note, Dawson’s Brought Music to Phoenix

by Douglas C. Towne
Community Voices Featured History Music & Events Douglas C. Towne May 22, 2024

In 1912, when radio and vinyl records were in their infancy, and live performances were the norm, Joshua W. Dawson established the Dawson Music Company in Phoenix. A winter visitor who fell in love with the city’s climate, this 46-year-old Ohio native had already made a name for himself in the music business, having started the Dawson Piano Co. in Pittsburgh, PA.

Bill Baker, a 91-year-old Phoenix native, fondly recalls the unique atmosphere of Dawson Music during the 1930s. The store, with its slogan “Everything Musical,” was located at 132 West Adams Street. “At the double-door entrance was a full-size metal sculpture of a friendly dog with long, floppy ears, sitting to greet everyone. It was ‘His Master’s Voice,’ the trademark for RCA Victor. His head was lighter in color than the rest of him because people would pat it as they came in.”

Charles “Buck” Harris next to the Dawson’s Music Truck, 1937. (Photo: Bill Baker)

Dawson Music was a hub for music enthusiasts. It featured Chickering pianos, but the large store also carried other brands and musical instruments, including saxophones, violins, and guitars. In addition, the shop sold Victor records, RCA, Victor, and Philco radios, as well as sheet music. Baker says that his uncle, Charles “Buck” Harris, worked at the store with the challenging task of delivering pianos during the Great Depression.

“Dawson’s also had a large sheet music section with a musician sitting at a large grand piano on a small stage at the back of the store,” Baker recalls. “My dad, William H. ‘Jerry’ Baker Sr., was an accomplished musician who played the guitar, banjo, and ukulele. He would take a piece of sheet music to the piano player to play to see if he liked it.”

Roberta Bragdon was one of the piano players at Dawson Music for many years. Having performed in theaters during the silent film era, this Indiana native moved to Phoenix in 1938. She taught piano at Phoenix College and gave private lessons. Bragdon was the staff pianist for Arizona’s first radio station, KOY, for 33 years. The station went on the air in 1921 and first used the call signal KOY in 1929.

Dawson’s Music ad featuring “Ziggie” Zardus, 1940. (Photo: The Arizona Republic)

“Dad and Roberta worked together some, and he took me to her house three or four times when they needed to rehearse,” Baker says. “She lived in a nice home in the Coronado neighborhood, north of McDowell Road between 12th and 16th streets. She was a very nice, genteel lady.”

Baker says his dad tried to get him interested in learning to play the guitar, but he enjoyed wind instruments more. “So, my dad bought me a lot of small instruments from Dawson’s, like the Sweet Potato [ocarina], a folk instrument made of clay,” Baker says. “He also bought me several Hohner Marine Band harmonicas, and I liked them and learned to play pretty well.”

Ziggie’s iconic sign on 3rd St., 2012. (Photo: Douglas Towne)

Although Dawson’s Music closed its doors in 1962, its legacy lives on. Ziggie Zardus, the store’s accordion teacher since 1927, opened his namesake music store at 429 West Washington Street in 1943. “My dad bought guitar supplies at Ziggie’s,” Baker says. Ziggie later moved his store in 1956 to Third Street near Osborn Road, outside city limits at the time. His granddaughter, Dionne Hauke, still owns and operates it.