Utilitarian Arlington may not look like a hothouse for musical talent. But over the decades, we’ve spawned our share of tunesmiths and instrumental notables. I’ve assembled a rough list with a little help from my friends.
Perhaps most legendary is Virginia-born Kate Smith, the alto who belted out Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” and other standards on 1950s TV variety shows. She kept a second home for years at North 37th and Abingdon streets.
A close second in cross-genre name recognition is country music star Jimmy Dean, whose 1961 smash hit “Big Bad John” won him his own TV show. Dean got his broadcasting start in the 1950s at WARL radio across from what is now Virginia Hospital Center, and owned a home on North Roosevelt Street.
On the arena rock stage, when the Eagles play, they often include guitarist Steuart Smith, an Arlington guy who played locally with Root Boy Slim and in Nashville with Rodney Crowell and Roseanne Cash.
Plugged into the Los Angeles studio scene is Arlington native Corky James, who was with me at Yorktown High School in the early ‘70s under real name Jimmy McCorkle. An accomplished session guitarist, he played on Avril LaVigne’s 2002 hit “Complicated” and has backed LeAnn Rimes, Meat Loaf and Kelly Clarkson. Recently, Corky did the film soundtrack to “X-Men: First Class.”
Another Yorktown music alum is Chris O’Connell, on-and-off singer for the 1970s-vintage country-swing band Asleep at the Wheel. Her contemporary in the bluegrass industry is Robin Dale Ford, an admired banjo player who attended Tuckahoe Elementary.
Arlington’s black high school Hoffman-Boston, which closed in 1964 with desegregation, produced two talents recorded on wax. Roberta “Killing Me Softly” Flack had huge hits in the early 1970s and still performs, while Buddy Owens, a baritone in the late ‘60s and ‘70s doo-wop group the Velons, died last month. Another African-American artist who lived in Arlington is Stephanie Clark, who in 1970 became the first Miss Black America and released a song called “Liberate Yourself.”
The psychedelic ‘60s spawned a bevy of local groups, among them the Cherry People, featuring Washington-Lee High alumnus Doug Grimes. Their hit record “And Suddenly” won them a chance to record with Jimi Hendrix. In 1969, a local combo called “Magic Reign” lived in Arlington and made the charts with song named for our own Jefferson Street. In the ‘70s, local guitarist Jimmy Nalls made a splash playing with the Allman Brothers, Paul Stookey and an Allmans offshoot band called Sea Level.
The ‘90s brought the indie band Weezer, co-founded by Arlington bassist Matt Sharp. A few years later, young hearts nationally were broken by the teenybopper band Hanson, whose 12-year-old percussionist Zac Hanson had an Arlington youth.
I shouldn’t neglect stage music and classical. Nancy Dussault, a W-L alum, hit Broadway in 1962 performing the lead in “The Sound of Music.” (She later moved on to TV sitcoms). More recently, W-L graduated recording artist Carl Tanner, a professional operatic tenor since the 1990s who sings with the Washington National Opera.
Also still recording and performing globally is classical pianist Daniel Blumenthal, a member of Yorktown’s Hall of Fame and Inspiration.
More than a few of these artists have had their music played over the decades by a locally raised deejay on WASH and WLTT. His on-air name? Dave Arlington.