News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett B-Sides

July 29, 2009

MARK BENNETT: Event to honor musical legend from Terre Haute

TERRE HAUTE — The rock ’n’ roll generation — my generation — knows little, if anything, about Claude Thornhill.

His musical heyday unfolded before most of us were born.

But as the 100th anniversary of Thornhill’s birth approaches, those of us of younger vintages should peek at his legacy. To put it in a baby boomer’s perspective, imagine if John Fogerty grew up in Terre Haute, as Thornhill did. Fogerty, of course, is a master musician, songwriter and arranger, and the creative genius behind Creedence Clearwater Revival, labeled by Rolling Stone as the best band in America in 1969.

That was Claude Thornhill in the 1940s. (Minus Fogerty’s plaid shirts, moppy hair, amplification and Cajun growl.) He created brilliant, edgy, hip sounds as a pianist and big band leader. Down Beat magazine branded his Claude Thornhill Orchestra the “best big band of 1941.”

And he was a Hautean.

I phoned his former trumpeter Tuesday, and asked him to describe Thornhill’s talent. Lyle “Rusty” Dedrick joined his band in ’41 and then rejoined it in 1946 after both he and Thornhill served in the military during World War II. Now 91 and living in Summitville, N.Y., Dedrick responded by dropping a name even us fortysomethings would recognize.

“I’ll quote Duke Ellington, and what he said way back then was that Claude’s band was the only one that was doing something different from the norm,” Dedrick said.

How cool is that? Sir Duke saw Claude Thornhill — born on Aug. 10, 1909, in Terre Haute, the son of a coal miner and a church organist — as an innovator.

That’s why folks in Thornhill’s home neighborhood of 12 Points have orchestrated a celebration on his centennial birthday. Claude Thornhill Day on Monday, Aug. 10, will feature a declaration by Mayor Duke Bennett, and an evening performance of his songs by The Fabulous Forties Big Band at 7 o’clock in Harmony Hall at 1257 Lafayette Ave. With tickets priced at an affordable $10 each, the event will serve as a fundraiser for the 12 Points Greater Northside Association, a nonprofit neighborhood group supporting that historic Terre Haute district.

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