Snowfall : Claude Thornhill©2008JCMarion


Claude Thornhill was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, in August of 1909. As a high school student he was already attracting attention as a superior piano talent. He soon demonstrated his talent with a number of band leaders in the nineteen thirties such as Paul Whiteman, Ray Noble, and in a small combo with Louis Prima. He also came to be known as a talented arranger and composer. His first national success was arranging a modern version of "Loch Lomond" for vocalist Maxine Sullivan . By 1940 he had organized his own band which featured modern sounds and instrumentation. In 1942 Thornhill entered military service. In 1946 he reorganized his band with many of the same members as his previous group and added arranger and composer Gil Evans and some modern jazz influenced players such as Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, and Red Rodney. The sound of the post war band had a great influence on the landmark "Birth Of The Cool" Miles Davis group in trhe late forties. However, even with these modern jazz elements in his orchestra, Claude Thornhill had an impact on the world of post war popular music in the country.

Thornhill's post war band was signed by Columbia Records in 1946 and began sessions soon after. The first releases for the label were "Night And Day" and "Smile" on Columbia # 37055. This was soon followed by "Twilight Song" and "Under The Willow Tree" on # 37065, "It's A Pity To Say Goodnight" and "If You Were The Only Girl In The World" on # 37092, "Gotta Get Me Somebody To Love" and "Yours Is My Heart Alone", and "So Would I" and "This Time" on # 37169. Many of the band's songs featured vocals by Fran Warren, and this combination with Warren in early 1947 hit paydirt with "Sunday Kind Of Love" on # 37219 (with "Sonata" on the other side). The record hit the hit charts in May of the year and was a top fifteen seller in the country and was the top seller ever for Thornhill. Further sides for Columbia in 1947 were "Did I Have To Fall In Love With You?" and "Far Away Island" with vocal by Buddy Hughes, two great instrumentals - "Harlem Nocturne" and Thornhill's theme song "Snowfall" on # 37271, "Would You Believe Me?" and "We Knew It All The Time" both with Fran Warren vocals on # 37325, Warren again on "I Get The Blues When It Rains" and "There's A Small Hotel" on # 37498, and an interesting pairing on Columbia # 37540 - a reissue of Thornhill's own "Snowfall" and Les Brown's big hit tune "Leapfrog" on the flip side.

Claude Thornhill closed out a prolific year of 1947 with the following recordings - Fran Warren on vocal with "You're Not That Easy To Forget" ( a top twenty five best seller) and "Just Plain Love" on # 37558, "Oh You Beautiful Doll" with a vocal by Gene Williams, and the Thornhill version of Woody Herman's "Early Autumn" with Fran Warren on # 37593 which was another top twenty seller in the country, another cover with "Warsaw Concerto" from Freddy Martin (featuring Lee Konitz on alto sax) and "Love For Love" with Warren on vocal on # 37940 where both sides made the national best seller charts in the top thirty, "I Never Loved Anybody Else" and "Don't Call It Love" (Warren vocals) on # 37979 and "Tell Me Why" and "I Remember Mama" on # 38075 with Fran Warren, and in December of the year "Robbin's Nest" and "Just About This Time Last Year" with a Fran Warren vocal on # 38136. In 1948 the Thornhill orchestra kept its sound on the modern side with "Anthropology" and a Fran Warren vocal on "For Heaven's Sake" on # 38224, followed by "Polka Dots And Moonbeams" and "I Knew You When" on # 38347, and "Someday I'll Find You" and "Lady Of The Evening" on # 38357 recorded with The Rhythm Section. The next three Columbia record releases were a specialty-all six songs were piano solos by Thornhill. "Love Tales" and "Memory Of An Island" on # 038358, "That Old Feeling" and "How Am I To Know?" on # 38359, and "Coquette" and "When You Wore A Tulip" on # 38360. The next Columbia recording by Thornhill was "Look For The Silver Lining" and "Frasquite Serenade" on # 38494, and "Do I Worry?" with the flip side offering Eddy Howard's version of the same song with Lou Adrian's orchestra on # 38933.

By 1949 Fran Warren had left the band and a revamped version of The Snowflakes vocal group appeared. This group had Joe Derise, Nancy Clayton, Jim Preston, and for a time, future solo vocalist Chris Connor (who also sporadically appeared with the band as a solo singer in the early fifties). The last group of recordings for Columbia were released - "Twilight On The Trail" and "Sleepy Serenade" on # 39131, "Let's Call It A Day" and "Sorta Kinda" with a great vocal by Gene Williams on # 39132, "Lover Man" and the modernistic "Yardbird Suite" on # 39133, and "Happy Stranger" and "Whiporwill" on # 39134. That seemed to spell the end of the association between Columbia Records and Claude Thornhill, and in mid 1949 he and his band moved to RCA Records. One of his first efforts for the new label was a 78 rpm album called "Claude Thornhill Plays George Gershwin For Dancing". The first single for RCA was "My Dream Is Yours" with an Art Brown vocal, and The Snowflakes on "The Wind In My Sails" on # 20-3337. A later session produced "Autumn Nocturne" and "Where Or When" on # 20-3390, "Sleepy Serenade" and "There's A Small Hotel" on 20-3391, and "Lullabye Of The Rain" and "I Don't Know Why" on # 20-3392.

Continuing on into 1950, vocalist Gene Williams had left to try his own hand at forming a band, and some members of the Thornhill group, specifically Gerry Mulligan, John Carisi, and arranger Gil Evans, had a part and great influence on the "Birth Of The Cool" group with Miles Davis. The Thornhill band continued on with modern influences and highly listenable songs. They moved ahead with RCA on "Maybe It's Because" and "Life Begins When You're In Love" on # 20-3456, "Who Do You Know In Heaven" and "On The 5:45" on # 20-3506, "Moonlight And Roses" with a vocal by The Snowflakes, and "Through A Long And Sleepless Night" on # 20-3552, "Johnson Rag" with a vocal by The Snowflakes which was a top twenty five chart hit, and "Iowa Indian Fight Song" on # 20-3604, and "Sitting By The Window" and "720 In The Books" (as by "Claude Toenail" on some labels) on # 20-3629. In another extended recording session "Biding My Time" is paired with "Oh Lady Be Good" on # 20-3654, "The Man I Love" and "Summertime" on # 20-3655, and "Embraceable You" and "Fascinating Rhythm" on #20-3656. "Sugar Foot Rag" and "Down The Lane" was released by RCA on #20-3744, "Raindrop Serenade" and "Say Yes My Love" on # 20-3758, and "Honolulu" and "Sweet And Lovely" on # 20-3842. This was the output from the band for RCA in the early nineteen fifties. During the summer of 1953 Thornhill and his band with the help of some modern jazz arrangements recorded some for the small independent label Trend Records. A couple of singles for the label were "Adios" and "Pussy Footin'" and "Summer Is Gone" with a vocal by Tony Becker on Trend # 60 which found its way on to the hit charts as a top thirty best seller. LPs by the band for the label include "Thornhill Plays Jazz Arrangements by Gerry Mulligan and Ralph Aldrich" and "Dream Stuff".

By 1956 Claude Thornhill disbanded the orchestra and would concentrate on small groups playing his music. He passed away one day before he was to start an engagement in Atlantic City, New Jersey, on July 1, 1965.

The modernistic sound of the post war Claude Thornhill orchestra lives on in a number of cd recordings that document the time and the music that was produced during those years. Britains Hep label has "1946-47 Performances, vol 1 and 2" with 24 tracks each from 2007, followed by "1949-53 Performances" from 2004. Also from Hep is "1948 Transcriptions" from 1994. Swing Factory has released "Original Studio Transcriptions" with 23 tracks from 2004. "Claude Thornhill & His Orchestra : 1947" is a title from Hindsight in 1994 with 16 tracks. "The Complete Fran Warren with Claude Thornhill" has 14 tracks of great vocals from Collectors Choice in 2000. And finally where the playing really broke new ground is on "Claude Thornhill Plays Gil Evans" from Independent in 2004. This is a wide selection of the Thornhill band in the late forties-early fifties that was really, well, "miles ahead".

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