Boone Dunbar playing his trademark Boonaphone. Dunbar passed away Thursday morning.
By LINDA MESSMER
A local legend has passed away. Boone Dunbar, popular jazz and blues singer and musician, died at the age of 83, Thursday, July 1, after a two year battle with esophageal cancer.
Since he was a little kid, Boone always wanted to sing and play. He taught himself to read music and to play trumpet and drums. He joined his first band, the Brazil Jug Band with Shag Oliver and his Rhythm Swingers in 1935 when he was about 13 years old. They played at the Forest Park bandshell wearing white suits and red bowties. Once they performed at the Indiana State Fair.
A few years later, Boone created his trademark Boonaphone. He sawed off part of a plain brass horn and jammed a kazoo into the thin end of the mouthpiece. It made a captivating, distinct muted trumpet sound for which Boone became well known.
In 1938 the Dukes of Rhythm, a popular band that played at various locations in the Wabash Valley, was attracted to Boone's drumming skills. Because their drummer kept kicking a hole in his drum, they asked Boone to join the band.
He didn't have a drum set of his own so he improvised with a piece of cardboard and two twigs from a tree. Even with this crude homemade instrument, Boone could beat out a snappy rhythm for the jazz pieces and provide a mellow snare sound for the blues.
Boone attended Brazil High School. One evening he was on his way to a football game between the Brazil Red Devils and Sullivan. Instead, he sold his ticket for 20 cents and went to the Sourwine movie theater where they had a Bank Night. He won $175 and later bought himself his first full set of drums for $50.
Marriage and family life
The innovative blues singer married Erma Spencer in 1941. They raised four children: Ronald Boone Dunbar, Linda Kay Utley, Connie Joan Rowan and Joyce Louise Vinson. A fifth child, Debra Sue, was stillborn.
Music didn't pay the bills, however, so Boone worked at various other jobs to support his growing family. He made brick at the Hydraulic Bricks factory and Arketex. He worked for Twiggs on E. National Ave., for the County Highway Department, as a Brazil City Police dispatcher and at J.D. Pollom and Son Auto Sales. Boone always remembered his very first paying job at Moore's Funeral Home.
Lionel Hampton recruits Dunbar
But music was his love. As he raised his family, Boone continued to play with various bands in the area.
After four years in the U.S. Army Air Corps during the war years, Boone returned home and resumed his musical career. In 1949, he was singing at the National Guard Army in Terre Haute. Jazz great Lionel Hampton happened to be there. He liked what he heard and asked Boone to join his band.
Thrilled, Boone accepted and went on the road with Hampton. On his first trip back, two months later, his wife quickly informed him that if he left again, when he came home, she and the kids would be gone.
So Boone spent most of his musical career playing in the Wabash Valley area. He considered his first big official gig to be playing at the Flamingo Club. Located on Wabash Ave. next to the bus terminal, The Flamingo was one of the hottest Terre Haute night clubs in the 50s.
In the 60s he played at The Spot, another Terre Haute night club, with Brazil High School teacher Al Barcus. Boone played at most night spots in or around Terre Haute at one time or another. They included Club Idaho, Megs Beachcomer, Tucker Steakhouse, Papa Joe's, Moggers, and the Imperial House Club Lamplighter in Illinois. He also played at private parties and social functions.
Music leads to kidnapping
Even though Boone loved the music, it occasionally had some drawbacks. In 1967, he was working at the Club Lamplighter in Ill. He'd driven to work in his first ever, brand new, Ford LTD. It was after hours but Boone had stayed behind to clean up his equipment. He was the only one left in the bar.
Earlier, two inmates had broken out of the prison in Michigan City. One of the escapees, Robert Nagy, came to the Club Lamplighter that night and knocked on the door. The man said he was hungry. Boone felt sorry for him so let him in and fed him. After he'd eaten, Nagy kidnapped the musician at gunpoint.
He made Boone drive him outside the city limits of Danville where he'd have no immediate access to a phone. Nagy told Boone to take all of his personal belongings and get out of the car. He said he didn't want to hurt Boone. He just wanted his car.
The car was later found in Mexico but was not allowed to be returned to the U.S. Even though Nagy was eventually captured, Boone never got his car back.
The popular Brazil singer played at many establishments during his prime years and the crowds loved his music. But in a lot of the places, after he played, he wasn't allowed to come back in and eat a sandwich because of his race.
"He didn't let it bother him," his daughter Linda said, remembering her father's friendly, laid back personality. He was an outgoing, fun loving, gregarious man. He had a great sense of humor. He was a total extrovert. Mom always said you could never embarrass him. He just never let things bother him. Even his cancer didn't bother him.
Dunbar remembered by his children
"He seldom got mad or lost his temper. Daddy never whipped us. Mother did all the disciplining. Except once," Linda said, laughing at the memory.
"He tore up my behind," Ronnie interjected as he told the story.
When Ronnie was about 13, he went bike riding with three of his cousins. Johnnie Grissom, who was 12, rode his younger brother Lester on his bike. Ronnie had 5-year-old cousin, Keith, on the cross bar of his two wheeler.
They rode around town most of the day. In the late afternoon the older boys decided to ride to Terre Haute. Ronnie had been wearing sunglasses, but when the sun began to go down, he put them in his back pocket.
They got as far as the Rose-Hulman baseball field when Ronnie's grandma and grandpa happened to drive by and saw them and told them to get home. It was dark, nearly 10 o'clock, when they got back.
"Daddy tore my behind up," Ronnie said, with a smile. "Those sunglasses were smashed to smithereens."
Strangely, Boone seldom sang around the house. The kids remember their mother was the one who was always singing gospel songs when they were growing up. She took her children to the African Methodist Church on S. Walnut Street.
"Daddy didn't attend church regularly," Linda said. "But he became a Christian. He was baptized June 23, 2002. He spent a lifetime entertaining the public, but he said he was always proud of his family."
Now Boone is gone. For a while, he'll leave both his family and audience behind. But the next time you think you hear an unexplained harmonious, terrestrial sound, it may be Boone Dunbar singing to the angels.