The Washington Evening Star's Ron Oberman holds an electric dulcimer belonging to the Rolling Stones' Brian Jones. Stolen in D.C. in 1966, the instrument was returned to Jones with Oberman's help. (Reprinted with permission of the DC Public Library)
5 min

Debbie Clark’s letter in the Washington Evening Star on July 9, 1966, burned with the righteous indignation that only a teenager can muster. And who was the aim of her ire? An idiot teenage boy, if that’s not being redundant.

The letter set in motion one of the oddest episodes in Washington rock-and-roll history. Call it “Brian Jones and the Case of the Purloined Dulcimer.”

You may have heard of Brian Jones. In the summer of 1966, his band, the Rolling Stones, were on a North American tour. They had two shows on June 26: an afternoon show in Washington and an evening show in Baltimore.

I’ll let Debbie take it from there: “This letter is directed to the boy who took Brian Jones’ dulcimer at the June 26th Rolling Stones concert at Washington Coliseum,” she wrote. “Because of this incident, the Stones may never play D.C. again.”

Debbie explained that she had spoken with the band’s tour manager at Friendship International Airport (today’s BWI-Marshall) and learned that after the D.C. gig, an electric dulcimer built especially for Jones had been nicked. The band wanted the instrument back, not least because it was essential to the song “Lady Jane.”

Wrote Debbie: “You were being very foolish and selfish when you took the instrument. No one is benefiting by your unwise prank. The real Stones’ fans don’t want the Stones to remember Washington as a thieves’ den.”

Shortly after the letter ran in the Star’s Teen section, a 15-year-old boy walked into Empire Music, a record store on Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda. Mike Burke was behind the counter.

“Most of the employees were in bands,” said Mike, who played in two: the Addicts and the Resumes.

There was a room at the back of the store with a pinball machine and jukebox where teens could hang out. The Empire staff would read music trade magazines, scrutinizing the charts to see what songs they’d have to learn.

“This kid came in,” Mike said. “He said, ‘I’ve got something to show you.’”

The boy said it was a cool instrument he wanted to learn to play. It was an electric dulcimer, the electric dulcimer, supposedly the only one in existence.

By now, this was the most famous dulcimer in Washington, its theft mentioned not only in the Star but, in Mike’s recollection, on local TV, too.

The boy did not hide its provenance. He told Mike he’d been kicked out of the Stones show. Angered, he later lifted the dulcimer through the open window of an equipment van parked behind the coliseum. (Another account said the boy was mad after a roadie smacked one of his friends with a pair of pliers.)

Mike strummed the dulcimer a few times then said, “Well, I know how to play keyboard and guitar. Maybe I can figure it out and teach you.”

Mike sensed the teenager was nervous, looking for a way to get out from under the weight of his thievery. Mike told the boy to leave it with him. And then he called Ron Oberman.

Oberman was the Star’s 22-year-old teen and pop music columnist. He would later go on to a career in the record industry, doing PR for David Bowie and Bruce Springsteen and signing such acts as the Bangles. On this day, he called the British Embassy.

“The next thing I know there’s a Bentley double parked on Wisconsin Avenue out in front of the record store,” Mike said. “A chauffeur in full livery comes into the store and presents a letter from the British ambassador and says, ‘I understand you have something that belongs to the Rolling Stones.’”

Mike handed over the dulcimer.

A story by Oberman ran on July 13 recounting the events. It quoted Mike Burke and, as was the custom back then, included the address of the Bethesda house he lived in with his parents. Soon, they started getting crank calls from strangers.

“It was the greasers versus the hippies back then,” he said. “The phone calls weren’t from hippies.”

They were from greasers who detested the freaky, floppy-haired Rolling Stones and anyone connected to them.

“They were calling and cursing at my mom,” said Mike. “When my father picked up the phone, he’d curse back at them.

The Evening Star later ran an editorial complimenting itself on its involvement in the affair, noting: “Over the years it has often fallen to newsmen to act as discreet intermediaries between lawbreakers and the public.”

The Star compared the episode to how New York mobster Louis “Lepke” Buchalter had used columnist Walter Winchell to turn himself in to the FBI.

“The teenager has a clear conscience, and the Stones have all their noise makers in tow,” the Star editorialized. “Perhaps on their way back through Washington, they might turn down their volume knobs in silent appreciation.”

Typical squares.

Brian Jones died in 1969 at age 27. Ron Oberman died in 2019 at age 76.

Mike is 73 now and lives in Wheaton. As it happens, he was at that 1966 Stones show. How was it, I asked.

“I don’t remember,” he said. “It was great? I don’t remember Woodstock and I was there for three days.”

Are you the boy who stole the dulcimer? Are you the Debbie Clark who wrote the letter? Drop me a line: