Born Lyle Russell Cedric Henderson on January 27, 1918, in Birmingham, England; died on November 1, 2005, in New Milford, CT; came to U.S. after mother's death, became U.S. citizen during World War II; married Faye Emerson (an actress), 1950 (divorced 1957); married Ruth Einsiedel, 1958; children: Hans, Heidi. Education: Studied at London Conservatory of Music; studied music theory with composer Arnold Schoenberg in California.

As musical director for the Tonight show during its first decade of existence, bandleader and conductor Skitch Henderson became a familiar figure in American living rooms. His career blossomed as he worked as the music director for some of the top pop vocalists of the middle twentieth century, including Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, who gave him his catchy nickname. Henderson moved easily between the pop and classical music genres. He remained active in the classical field, especially its lighter "pops" branch, for many years after leaving NBC, working well into old age. "I've never had goals," he said in an interview quoted in the New York Times. "I have worked and been lucky enough, if one trolley broke down, I was able to get on another that was running. Goals are dreams but they are seldom realistic."

Lyle Russell Cedric Henderson was born in Birmingham, England, on January 27, 1918, to parents of Scandinavian background. His mother taught him to play the piano and he took lessons at the London Conservatory of Music. By his early teens he had resolved to make a living as a musician. After his mother's death, Henderson was sent to live with an aunt in the United States. But he ran away from home at age 14 and eked out a living playing the piano in roadhouses across the upper Midwest. He got a break when the pianist accompanying touring stars Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland fell ill in Denver, Colorado, and he was asked to fill in. When the tour wrapped up, Henderson accompanied the crew to Hollywood.

Henderson backed a young singer named Dolores Reed and quickly found work with her fiancé, English-born comedian Bob Hope, who was then starring on The Pepsodent Show on radio. He sought out lessons in music theory from Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg, who had arrived in Los Angeles after fleeing the fascist takeover of his homeland, and he studied conducting with another emigré, Fritz Reiner. By the time he signed on with another leading 1930s vocal star, Bing Crosby, Henderson had gained the ability to sketch out parts for band musicians rapidly, in whatever key was needed. Bandmates dubbed him "the Sketch Kid," and Crosby, reflecting on the effectiveness of his own nickname, suggested amending that to "Skitch." In later years Henderson would name the incongruous duo of Schoenberg and Crosby as his main musical influences.

By 1942 Henderson had caught the attention of the hottest member of the next generation of vocalists: he was recruited by Frank Sinatra to join a band the singer was putting together as he departed from his featured-vocalist post with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. Henderson, on piano, also backed Sinatra on solo dates. His musical career was interrupted by World War II. He returned to Britain to fly missions for the Royal Air Force and then, becoming an American citizen, joined the U.S. Army Air Corps.

After the war ended, Henderson rejoined Crosby on radio's The Philco Hour, and Sinatra on Light Up Time. After Light Up Time was renamed the Lucky Strike Show and moved its headquarters from Hollywood to New York, Henderson followed Sinatra to the East Coast. He backed Sinatra at several high-profile nightclub dates, including one at the Copacabana in New York in 1950. That year he married actress Faye Emerson, but he was quoted as saying by the Newark, New Jersey, Star-Ledger that the marriage was "a major train wreck." It dissolved in 1957, and the following year Henderson married German-born Ruth Einsiedel. The pair raised two children, Hans and Heidi.

In the early 1950s Henderson was appointed music director for the new NBC television network, and in 1954, when NBC launched its long-running late-night talk and variety show, Tonight, he became its bandleader. With his friendly manner and trademark Vandyke pointed beard, he was a distinctive figure ideally suited to television. Henderson and host Steve Allen worked out a relationship between host and music director that lasted through years of Tonight: Henderson joined Allen in sketches and served as sideman in Allen's comic routines. As Allen was replaced by Jack Paar and Paar by Johnny Carson, Henderson remained as bandleader. Talented younger musicians passed through the Tonight show orchestra, and one of them, trumpeter Doc Severinsen, replaced Henderson in 1966.

Despite his orientation toward pop music, Henderson maintained his contacts in the classical world. He filled in occasionally for conductor Arturo Toscanini with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, and in 1953 he began conducting a Carnegie Hall pops series--pops concerts are symphony orchestra concerts that mix popular tunes with light classics, such as waltzes--with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. One of Henderson's major achievements in classical music was a 1963 LP of highlights from George Gershwin's opera Porgy and Bess, featuring soprano Leontyne Price. Henderson took home a Grammy Award for Best Classical Performance. He also conducted the Kurt Weill opera Street Scene at New York's Lincoln Center that year. A rare blemish on Henderson's record of accomplishment came in the early 1970s, when he was convicted of tax evasion after allegations that he had overvalued some scores that he donated to the University of Wisconsin. Henderson maintained that he was the victim of bad advice from bookkeepers.

In 1983 Henderson founded the New York Pops, an orchestra of his own. He recorded several CDs as conductor with the orchestra and also continued to record as a pianist, making a jazz recording with guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli shortly before Pizzarelli's death. Henderson served as pops director for orchestras in Florida, Virginia, and Kentucky. He kept up a busy conducting schedule into his late eighties, appearing on both sides of the Atlantic and leading the New York Pops on national television in the Macy's Fourth of July Spectacular in 2005.

Henderson and his wife Ruth lived in New Milford, Connecticut, during his later years. They operated a cooking store and gallery, the Silo, and in 1990 they published a cookbook, Seasons in the Country. Henderson became involved in the issue of farmland preservation, and founded the Hunt Hill Farm Trust in 2003.

He died at home in New Milford on November 1, 2005. At a memorial service in Carnegie Hall in New York, where he had performed almost 300 times, 95-year-old vocalist Kitty Carlisle Hart, a frequent Henderson collaborator, sang his praises in the form of the Irving Berlin song "Always." "He was on a first-name basis with half of New York," said the new conductor of the New York Pops, James M. Johnson, according to the New York Times, "and the other half wanted to shake his hand."

by James M. Manheim

Skitch Henderson's Career

Performed as pianist in roadhouses in upper Midwestern United States, mid-1930s; toured with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, 1938; joined music department at MGM Studios; performed and did arrangements for Bob Hope on radio program The Pepsodent Show, and for Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, early 1940s; served in Royal Air Force (U.K.) and Army Air Corps (U.S.) during World War II; served as musical director for radio programs The Philco Hour (with Crosby) and Light Up Time (with Sinatra), beginning 1946; served as musical director for Sinatra engagement at Copacabana nightclub, New York, 1950; conducted pops concert of New York Philharmonic, 1953; bandleader, Tonight show, NBC television, c. 1954-66; guest conducted symphony orchestras; became resident conductor, Tulsa Symphony Orchestra, 1971; with wife, Ruth Einsiedel Henderson, opened The Silo cooking school and shop, New Milford, CT, 1972; founded New York Pops orchestra, 1983; remained active as conductor, 1990s-early 2000s.

Skitch Henderson's Awards

Grammy Award, Best Classical Performance (with RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra), for recording of highlights from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, 1963; City of New York, Handel Medallion, 1997; Smithsonian Institution, James Smithson Bicentennial Medal, 2005.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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