RIP Dale Coleman: Rock Guitarist Would Set His Arms On Fire

Tommy Carson (left) singing with Dale Coleman (right)

Dale Coleman Sr., Age 62
The 1960s and 1970s rock guitarist devised a concert finale in which he would set his arms on fire.

By Jacques Kelly (Baltimore Sun, 2/14/2007)

Dale Coleman Sr., a 1960s and 1970s rock guitarist who created an act where he set his arms on fire, died Friday of Crohn’s disease at Bon Secours Hospital. The Loch Raven Village resident was 62.

“He was one of the greatest guitar players I was ever associated with,” said band leader Tom Stauch of Abingdon, better known as Tommy Vann. “He patterned himself after Jimi Hendrix, but Dale was always distinct and unique. Long before Hendrix, he was doing wild things with the guitar.”

Born in Baltimore and raised in Timonium, Mr. Coleman began playing music while attending Dulaney High School. He also studied music composition for two years at the Peabody Conservatory.

Mr. Coleman began appearing at high school fraternity dances at the old Gwynn Oak’s Park Dixie Ballroom.

“Every night seemed to end in a fight, and the mirrors at one side of the building got broken,” said a brother, Chris Coleman of Sparks.

The rock bands Mr. Coleman joined performed at Baltimore County nightspots, including Christopher’s in Timonium, Satyr House and Club Venus, both on Joppa Road, and Latin Casino in Essex. Friends said he established a following as he played.

“He had a bigger-than-life personality. He was a Hollywood kind of person who never made it to Hollywood,” said Joe Baranoski, who heard him play nearly 35 years ago. “His music was incredible — he played the music of the times — Led Zeppelin, Hendrix and Grand Funk Railroad — and he added his own flair to it.”

Mr. Coleman bought a Gibson Firebird guitar and could play it with his teeth — or behind his back.

“I saw him sleep with that guitar,” said Tom Carson, a friend who sang with The Fugitives. “He was a wild man, an innovator, who played with long, bony fingers. He was one of a kind, a master of the guitar.”

Mr. Coleman played with The Fugitives, Charades, Tommy Vann and the Professionals, and Expressway, which traveled with the Edgar Winter Group and was a warm-up act for Aerosmith concerts. His guitar playing is heard on the 1968 Tommy Vann recording of Soul Sister Annie on Capital Records.

“I’m just one of those people that has to move around when I’m playing,” he told an Evening Sun reporter in 1974 when describing his stage personality.

As music changed in the 1970s, Mr. Coleman added electronic instrumentation to his performances, including the wah-wah pedal. He also sang and played harmonica in a style reminiscent of Bob Dylan.

Mr. Coleman added pyrotechnics, consulting with a chemist and a friend who taught high school science. They created a combustible mixture of mutton tallow and petroleum distillate.

“When I’m going that route, I soak my arms in alum and cold cream for a couple hours,” Mr. Coleman said in the 1974 interview, adding that he had had only a minor burn in 50 finales to his act — when he would set his arms on fire as he played.

Mr. Coleman was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 1979. He later became disabled and retired from music.

He worked in the Charles Street jewelry shop owned by his father, Nelson Coleman Sr., in the basement of the Woman’s Industrial Exchange building. He became a salesman and estate jewelry buyer before moving into a nursing home because of the illness. He entertained fellow patients on his guitar for the past two years.

Mr. Coleman’s only child, Dale Coleman Jr. of Parkville, is also a rock guitarist and appears with Pure Gold, Unveiled and the Dale Coleman Duo.

A memorial services will be held at 1 p.m. tomorrow at the Ruck Towson Funeral Home, 1050 York Road.

In addition to his brother and son, survivors include his mother, Virginia Doederlein Coleman of Towson, and three other brothers, Mark Coleman of Bel Air, Randy Coleman of Alexandria, Va., and Jeffrey Coleman of Baltimore. His marriage to the former Georgia Blevins ended in divorce.

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