Nearly two years ago, a panel that included '60s rock star Felix Cavalieri of the Rascals and editors from Musician Magazine announced that of all the rock bands in America that had yet to be signed to record contracts, Dexter, a group from Orange County, was the best.
Dexter was thrust into the spotlight, showered with free equipment, showcased before industry honchos and now . . .
. . . It still doesn't have a record contract.
It "doesn't really bother me," insists Mark Mancina, the quartet's singer and songwriter.
Still, he's got some stories to tell.
"Right after we won the contest," he recalls, "I got a phone call at my home from Atlantic Records. At my HOME! (The caller, a talent scout) said he wanted to have a meeting the next week.
"Well, then he got sick, and the meeting got canceled and rescheduled a million times . . . and three weeks later no one at the office had even heard of us anymore. They weren't interested.
"That's when I realized that we couldn't be on the edge of our seats the whole time. We had to work on the band, not the deal.
"But if I'm still unsigned and you have to ask me this question this time next year, then I'll be frustrated."
Frustrated he well may be. Atlantic isn't the only outfit to have lost interest in Dexter. Even a spokesman for the contest, reached on the phone recently, tried to put as much distance between himself and the band as possible.
Mancina was sitting with Dexter's manager, Steve McClintock, at an outdoor cafe table in Big Bear. He had been holed up there, in the den of his parents' vacation home, with keyboards, rhythm machines and an electric guitar, writing new material for yet another tape to send out to yet more record companies.
His shoulder-length, bleached-blond hair had caught the eye of the cafe waitress, who had stopped by his table three times to ask if he was in a band. He kept shaking his head no but she kept coming back. "Come on, I know you're in a band!" she coaxed. But Mancina kept refusing to admit it.
"She won't have heard of us," he finally explained with a shrug.
Not that life doesn't have its brighter moments.
A few months back, Dexter played at the Coach House, a 380-seat club in San Juan Capistrano, and sold the place out. "At $10 per ticket," says manager McClintock, "that's not bad. I mean, there aren't any other Orange County bands playing original material that can sell out that venue at $10 a crack." The band will be back at the Coach House Thursday night (albeit at $9 a ticket).
It was McClintock who entered Dexter in that "Best Unsigned Band" contest, which was sponsored by Musician, JBL Speakers and the National Assn. of Music Merchandisers (NAMM) in June of '86. McClintock submitted a tape of Dexter's tune "Safety in Numbers" without the band's knowledge. The first Mancina heard of the contest was when Dexter made the Top 5 cut and was invited to play before the judges at the NAMM convention in Chicago.
McClintock "called me up and said, 'You've just won $7,000 worth of equipment,' " Mancina recalls. "And I said, 'What are you talking about?' He goes, 'You made the Top 5 cut in this contest I entered you in, and I can guarantee you, you're going to win.' "
Actually, Mancina says, equipment was the last thing Dexter needed then. Playing other people's hits, the band was pulling in $2,800 a week at a club in Newport Beach. (It was a three-man band back then, with a drum machine instead of a real drummer. The machine was a DXX; a girlfriend of one of the band members nicknamed it Dexter, and the band's moniker was born).
"$2,800 a week is, like, enough to get married and buy a house on," notes Mancina. But playing other people's hits "wasn't very fulfilling. I'd started writing original material about a year prior to that. And Steve had been encouraging me to quit being in a copy band. . . . "
The performances in Chicago provided further encouragement. "Now," Mancina says, "I'm a lot poorer, but a lot happier."
McClintock has been involving himself with record deals ever since he moved to Los Angeles from Texas in 1976. For one thing, he owns and runs a recording studio/management/songwriting/ publishing company in Westminster. For another thing, he's a songwriter himself (one of his tunes is on the current Tiffany album).
He says Dexter has been offered some low-rent record deals, on independent labels. But he is holding out for a major label, one that will come up with "a real long-term commitment to the band.
"I think (Dexter has) a long-term type of career," he says. "Not just one hit and then forgotten."
Are these expectations reasonable, especially for a band whose career seems to have been frozen for 20 months? Some record company executives who have seen and heard Dexter think so. Others, though, say they doubt that Dexter shows the kind of long-term promise McClintock is talking about.