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People Archive Photo
© Joel Grimes

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Guitar Hero
For the past five decades, at least two things in Tucson have remained the same: the steak at Li'l Abner's and the restaurant's resident guitar player.

By Lauren Proper

Tucson A lot has changed since 1959, especially in Tucson, but at least one thing's stayed the same — almost every Friday and Saturday night for the past 50 years, Dean Armstrong and his guitar have entertained diners at Li'l Abner's Steakhouse. On this night, his sapphire eyes shine brightly in the lights as he sings Folsom Prison Blues, one of the many classic country and folk songs that he and his group, the Arizona Dance Hands, play during their two-hour set. As he has on thousands of weekends before, Armstrong is wearing a white cowboy hat and a bola tie.

His music career began long before his days at Li'l Abner's. It started with a trade between his father and a neighbor: one cow for one old guitar. That moment shaped his life for the next 75 years, beginning with his studies at the Joliet Conservatory of Music, teaching guitar lessons, and eventually playing for troops around the world during his military service in World War II. Each place he visited — from Japan and Italy to Panama and New Guinea — inspired him to move to Arizona after returning to the U.S.

"I was lonesome for the mountains," he recalls dreamily.

Born in 1923 on a small farm in Illinois, Armstrong became another Midwest transplant in Arizona when he moved to Tucson after visiting an aunt who lived here. Armstrong and his high-school sweetheart, Ardith, instantly became an inextricable part of Southern Arizona's music history — the couple recently celebrated their 66th wedding anniversary.

The Arizona Dance Hands, formed by Armstrong in 1948, caught Gene Autry's attention while playing a radio show, and he decided to make them the staff musicians for his new TV station — in 1953, they became the first band to do a live television broadcast in Tucson.

Back then, Tucson was a hot spot for celebrities on their way out West, and many of them stopped at Li'l Abner's during their visits. Most came and went without leaving an impression, but one guest playing the spoons at Armstrong's table stands out in his memory. It was no ordinary cowboy jam session, to be sure. The Godfather himself, Marlon Brando, picked up his utensils that night to make music with Armstrong.

Armstrong's success as a musician never went to his head, and he's been performing community service throughout his career for everyone from hospitalized veterans to handicapped children. The Arizona Dance Hands have been inducted into several music halls of fame around the country, and recently, were inducted into the Tucson Musicians Museum.

"There's a lot of water under the bridge," Armstrong says.

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