By Nick Nicholas
What more can be said which has already been said many times over for 10 these many years about a well-known and loved Tucson performer with a warm and generous personality as well as a graceful magnificent voice?
Well, for starters, just ask the countless thousands whom Dean Armstrong and his now legendary Arizona Dance Hands have entertained with their brand of Country/Western and good time music for well over forty years now and which many think has been just short of forever.
Born in Illinois and after having served in the army during World War II, Armstrong came to Tucson for a brief visit in 1946 and immediately fell in love with the area’s Western mystique, its people and, most of all, the beautiful music of the West and the cowboy. In 1948 he formed his first group, a house band for a popular dance hall and nightclub on the Benson Highway and soon after began a radio show from the club.
This led to Dean’s own weekly show on KOLD-TV Channel 13 that continued for more than twenty years. Armstrong also worked for Channel 13 as an advertising executive for many years and continues in that capacity, having switched in recent years to KGVY-AM radio where he sells radio advertising in addition to his musical appearances.
In 1963, Dean and his Arizona Dance Hands, by now sounding as polished and professional as any of the day’s best Western bands, were hired as the house band for the world famous Li’l Abner’s Steak House where they perform to this day every Friday and Saturday night at 8501 N. Silverbell Road.
However, much of Dean Armstrong’s unselfish efforts these days are devoted to singing and playing for residents of Tucson’s health care centers, crippled children’s homes and patients at the Veterans’ Memorial Hospital. These combined appearances exceed 150 in number yearly as Dean continues to dedicate himself to bringing his brand of good-time music into the lives of the reclusive and disabled residents.
The Arizona Dance Hands are still primarily made up of its original members– Armstrong on guitar and vocals, Edsel Smith on fiddle, a member of the Cowboy Fiddlers Hall of Fame, Bob O’Haire on string bass, Toni Clark vocals and Fender bass, Rosemary Koshmideron vocals and accordion, Earl Mock vocals and lead guitar and Paul Humphrey on drums. Also, original member Lavernne Davis, who now resides in the Phoenix area, returns to perform with the group for special occasions such as the Pioneer Days Celebration and the annual Western Music Festival.
Billy Burkes, the beloved steel guitarist joined Armstrong’s outfit in 1955 and along with fiddler Ed Smith formed both a professional and personal friendship among the three of them that lasted until Burkes’ death two years ago.
Burkes made a name for himself a good twenty years prior to joining up with Armstrong recording with the legendary Jimmie Rodgers where he made more records with “The Father of Country Music” than anyone else. Billy Burkes’ beautiful steel guitar sounds coupled with his joyful glance and happy grin brought much musical happiness into the lives of those who listened and danced to his sounds.
Some of Dean Armstrong’s “personally rewarding” credits over the years include performing for 31 years at the Tucson Rodeo Breakfast, 32 years at the Old Time Fiddler’s Contest, playing for the Grand Opening of the Tucson Community Center in 1973 and its expansion in 1989 and benefits for worthy organizations such as the Arizona Kidney Foundation and the Tucson Girls Ranch.
He has been recently honored with a listing in the 1989-90 22nd edition of “Who’s Who in the West,” which limits honors to individuals who have demonstrated outstanding achievement in their own fields of endeavor and who have contributed significantly to the betterment of contemporary society. Dean Armstrong and The Arizona Dance Hands are professional members of the Western Music Association. They have performed on the “Today Show” on NBC, “Nashville Now” on the Nashville Network and will appear in the soon-to-be-released movie, “Kid.”
In talking to this classy Western gentleman whose voice remains undiminished by time, it’s easy to see how his satisfying smile and charming Western personality brings an immediate happy response from audiences everywhere who enjoy his brand of goodtime music. It is these and other great qualities which account for the fact that Armstrong has built one of Tucson’s longest-running and most popular entertainment careers which continues to endure be it on radio or television, at a dance, fair, barbecue, hayride or festival. His brand of Western music blends into the Tucson scene like mesquite, adobe, a silver and turquoise belt, or faded jeans.
It’s been a great forty years of so for both Tucson and Dean Armstrong and the Arizona Dance Hands. It’s been a happy trail for the legion of fans that have hummed, sung, whistled and danced to their music for all those years.
It was wonderful then...and by cracky...it still is.
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