Every night between sets, Dean Armstrong strolled the dining room at Li'l Abner's Steak House. He would shake hands with longtime fans and introduce himself to strangers, who quickly became friends. "He was the nicest man that ever was," said waitress Connie Gilbert. "He was, for me, Li'l Abner's." Armstrong died Sunday of pneumonia. He was 87 and had been in failing health since he fell and broke his leg in late November. When Gilbert last spoke with Armstrong two weeks ago, he told her he was feeling better and was eager to return to his Arizona Ranch Hands band. They had played nearly every weekend at the...
Every night between sets, Dean Armstrong strolled the dining room at Li'l Abner's Steak House.
He would shake hands with longtime fans and introduce himself to strangers, who quickly became friends.
"He was the nicest man that ever was," said waitress Connie Gilbert. "He was, for me, Li'l Abner's."
Armstrong died Sunday of pneumonia. He was 87 and had been in failing health since he fell and broke his leg in late November.
When Gilbert last spoke with Armstrong two weeks ago, he told her he was feeling better and was eager to return to his Arizona Ranch Hands band.
They had played nearly every weekend at the Marana steakhouse for more than 50 years, and Armstrong's son, Larry, said his father had been focused since his accident on getting well enough to return.
"He was bound and determined to get back there," said the younger Armstrong, who followed his father into music and has been sitting in with his dad's band for the past few months. "That's where he looked like he was home. That's where he enjoyed being and loved to be, and you could see it in his face. Every time he'd get up on stage, it took 20 years off his appearance."
Dean Armstrong was born on July 2, 1923, in Illinois and began playing an old beater guitar his father bought him when he was 8. He kept the guitar through high school, where he met his future wife, Ardith. The couple married not long out of high school. He was 18 or so; she was 20.
"He was the greatest person that ever lived. He loved everybody," Ardith Armstrong said. "He never said a bad word about anybody."
A few years into their marriage, when their son was 2 years old, they set out from Illinois to Tucson to visit Armstrong's aunt.
"Dean fell in love with the mountains, and we just never went home," his wife recalled.
The couple had just begun settling in when Armstrong landed a singing gig at the old Chanticleer Night Club on the south side in 1946.
He made a good living, he said in a 2005 Star interview, moving on to the Open Door Night Club at South Park Avenue and Benson Highway when the Chanticleer closed in 1948. It was there that Armstrong formed his Western swing band, the Arizona Dance Hands.
"His band was one of the first bands I ever danced to when I was in college at the university in the '50s," said longtime fan and friend John Payne, who heads the Arizona Cowboy Symposium Association.
By the early 1950s, Armstrong and his band were making Tucson history when they performed on the old KOPO, which is now KOLD. It was the first local TV program.
The band was featured regularly on the station, filling in dead airtime when the TV shows did not arrive by bus from Phoenix on time.
The exposure gave Armstrong a chance to perform with some of his heroes - Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and Rex Allen.
It also landed him at Li'l Abner's, which was a hot spot for cowboys in the rural setting between Marana and Tucson. The clientele also included tourists from neighboring guest ranches.
"(Armstrong and the Arizona Ranch Hands) epitomized what Tucson was known for, and they were extremely talented," said David Hoffman, who has owned Li'l Abner's since 1981.
"I can remember big-time movie stars like Kris Kristofferson and Treat Williams coming in and singing along with him. ... When people talk about Li'l Abner's, they're constantly asking, 'You still got that same band there?' People loved them."
"I used to go out there and listen to the band every Saturday night," said Opha Probasco, 91. "I would watch him sit at the side by himself before they'd start playing, and he'd sit there and he'd be singing to himself. That's what I remember. He had music on his mind all the time."
In the 2005 Star interview, Armstrong said retirement was the furthest thing from his mind. "I wouldn't know how to handle it," he said, adding that he hoped to be remembered one day as "one who kept on keeping on."
Hoffman said Armstrong's legacy will continue with his son, the 67-year-old lead singer of the country group Copper Moon, who will continue fronting the Arizona Ranch Hands at Li'l Abner's.
"Dean was the face of Li'l Abner's. He was a wonderful, wonderful man and a talented musician, and we're all going to miss him," Hoffman said.
"He was a very dear friend. It's a tremendous loss to the city of Tucson," added Payne.
Bandmate Toni Clark, who has played upright bass with Armstrong since 1970, said that in their recent phone calls, Armstrong insisted he was coming back to work.
"I would tell him that he had to, because he was the only one who knew all the words to all those songs," she recalled. "And he said, 'Yeah, that's the plan.' "
In addition to his wife of 68 years and his son, Armstrong is survived by his daughter-in-law, Kathy Armstrong; two grandsons, Michael and Ryan, both of Tucson; two great-great-grandsons, Jeremy Michael and James Dean, both of Tucson; a brother, Duane Armstrong of Tucson; and a sister, Lois Flori of Illinois.
Arrangements under the direction of East Lawn Palms Mortuary, Tucson, AZ.