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John Kelly: Dance to the D.C. music


What song should every band in Washington’s know how to play? Is it “Hail to the Chief” or “Hail to the Redskins”? Is it a march by John Philip Sousa or a jazz standard by Duke Ellington?

This is an open-ended — perhaps even unanswerable — question, for even though Washington may not rank with New York or Nashville when it comes to the pop pantheon, plenty of great music has come from here.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

In a recent column, I wrote about a current band, the Hall Monitors, covering a 1964 song called “Opportunity” that originally was recorded by local girl group the Jewels. Then I invited readers to help me assemble a mythical D.C. set list.

Imagine an evening that goes like this:

The band kicks off with an instrumental by guitar slinger Link Wray, who was born in North Carolina but perfected his signature style while living in the Washington area. “The music critics rhapsodize over ‘Rumble,’ which was a good number, but among Catholic school kids in this area, ‘Jack the Ripper’ [1961] was much more popular,” wrote Joe Voith of Chevy Chase. “It also had a dance associated with it involving a girl wriggling around the stage while being suggestively menaced by Link, which got his band disinvited to a lot of school dances.”

Link Wray in 2002. (CHERYL GERBER/AP)

David Blakey wrote all the way from Yorkshire to suggest the Bo Diddley song “Pills.” “Written and recorded in 1961 at Bo Diddley’s home studio in the basement of his house on Rhode Island Avenue NE, the song found fame a decade later when the New York Dolls recorded it for their 1973 debut album.”

No essential D.C. set list is complete without “What a Girl Can’t Do,” recorded by a garage rock band from Walter Johnson High School called the Reekers but released in 1965 under the name the Hangmen. The song had the distinction of keeping the Beatles’ “Day Tripper” from the No. 1 spot on local music charts.

The Slickee Boys did a great version of “What a Girl Can’t Do,” but I’d have to put 1983’s “When I Go to the Beach” on this mythical set list, if only for the line, “I’m having beer for breakfast, I party all afternoon/ chasing wild bikinis, by the light of the moon.”

The word “moon” is enough to segue into “Moon Tears,” by Nils Lofgren’s band Grin. “In a fair world Grin would be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” wrote Brian J. Coyle of Gaithersburg. “Of course Nils Lofgren has managed to do fairly well for himself.”

I’d only ever heard the Steppenwolf version of “Sookie Sookie” till the District’s Dennis Lewis recommended that I check out the 1966 original, by R&B great Don Covay. It’s on our list, along with the in­cred­ibly funky “(I Got) So Much Trouble in My Mind” by Sir Joe Quarterman.

“It was a Top 30 hit on the R&B charts, circa 1973,” wrote Pete Papageorge of Bethesda.

Tom Carrico sent a list of two dozen songs by local bands. He’s in the music biz, having managed such acts as Mary Chapin Carpenter. Even if he hadn’t suggested it, I would have included “Down at the Twist and Shout,” Carpenter’s 1991 country hit about a club in the American Legion Hall in Bethesda.

I also have to thank Tom for the slyly funny and inspiring “Ode to a Gym Teacher” by feminist/lesbian folk singer Meg Christian.

We can’t leave out the Starland Vocal Band’s 1976 “Afternoon Delight,” a classic slice of harmony-rich Seventiesiana. While we’re in that benighted decade, let’s add 1978’s “You Broke My Mood Ring” (1978), by Root Boy Slim & the Sex Change Band.

And we mustn’t forget disco. How about 1975’s “Let’s Do the Latin Hustle,” by Eddie Drennon and B.B.S. Unlimited. “Eddie still lives in the D.C. area and members of B.B.S. Unlimited still perform around town as well,” wrote Mitchellville’s Rudy Spruill, a bass player — and the “S” of B.B.S. Unlimited.

Any band that can play rock, R&B, funk, country, folk and disco, can also do bluegrass, so our imaginary group now launches into “Wait a Minute” by the Seldom Scene. Follow that with 1964’s “She’s the One,” some faux British Invasion by the Chartbusters, a band that once held court at the Crazy Horse in Georgetown.

And of course, we have to end the set with “Bustin’ Loose (Part 1),” the 1979 hit by Chuck Brown & the Soul Searchers.

I know I’ve left out tons of songs. What would you include? Visit my column online, at, and add your thoughts to the Comments. I also have links to most of these songs there so you can hear them for yourself.

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