Skitch Henderson

Conductor/pianist and musical director for Frank Sinatra
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The Independent Online

Skitch Henderson was a pianist and conductor whose career covered many styles of music, whether it be accompanying Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, providing the orchestral backing for The Tonight Show or conducting the New York Pops.

Although he appeared quintessentially American, he was born Lyle Henderson in Birmingham, to Scandinavian parents, in 1918. After his mother died in 1920, he was raised in America by his aunt. Henderson soon acquired an aptitude for the piano and although he had studied classical music, his first breaks were playing in clubs around Montana and Minnesota during the 1930s.

In 1938, when a pianist was ill, he was invited to accompany Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney on a promotional tour for their Andy Hardy films. Henderson recalled, "Mickey did a monologue and I played something and Judy sang a couple of songs and, basically, we told everybody how wonderful MGM was." MGM was impressed with Henderson and, as a result, he became one of their studio musicians.

He worked with Dolores Reed and then with her husband, Bob Hope, on the top-rated radio programme The Pepsodent Show. Hope introduced him to Bing Crosby, who thought Lyle Henderson was not a suitable show-business name. Henderson recalled,

I was called the Sketch Kid because of the way I would quickly sketch out a new score. Bing said, "If you're going to compete, get your name straightened out. People always forget Christian names, but they never forget nicknames."

"Sketch" Henderson became "Skitch".

In 1942 Frank Sinatra was the featured vocalist with Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra, but he wanted to make some solo records. The musicians, including Henderson, were recruited in secrecy, as the "Old Man" (Dorsey) would be infuriated. They recorded "The Song is You" and "The Night We Called it a Day" and soon Sinatra wanted Henderson on his solo bookings. Sinatra told him, "The Old Man has goosed me with his trombone for the last time. I'm leaving the band."

During the Second World War, Henderson did some flying, first for the Royal Air Force and then, after becoming a US citizen, for the Army Air Corps.

In 1946 Henderson was the musical director for both Bing Crosby's and Frank Sinatra's radio shows. Crosby had The Philco Hour, while Sinatra's Light Up Time promoted Lucky Strike cigarettes. As a result, Sinatra asked Henderson to be his musical director for a season at the Copacabana night-club in New York in March 1950.

Sinatra was smoking heavily (presumably Lucky Strikes) and drinking hard and one night he appeared on stage and nothing came out. Diagnosed with hysterical aphonia, he was ordered to rest his voice and the rest of the engagement was cancelled.

While still working during the daytime, Henderson studied music theory with Arnold Schoenberg. In 1953 he conducted a concert of popular classics for New York Philharmonic Orchestra at Carnegie Hall and, from then on, he would be a guest conductor with symphony orchestras around the world. His first residency was with the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra in 1971.

In 1956 Henderson worked for NBC and became the bandleader for Steve Allen and later Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, a role he held for 10 years. He was a charismatic conductor, often wearing fancy waistcoats. He released several albums of middle of the road favourites, notably Skitch . . . Tonight! (1965). His album Great Scenes from Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess", with Leontyne Price and William Warfield, was nominated for a Grammy in 1963. Also in 1963, he conducted for Sinatra at a historic concert at the United Nations building: surveying the hall, Sinatra quipped, "Anyone want to buy a used casino?"

After a seven-year marriage to the actress Faye Emerson, Henderson married Ruth Einsiedel and they developed a professional partnership. From 1972, they owned and operated the Silo Inc, a shop, art gallery and cookery school in New Milford, Connecticut.

In 1983, Henderson founded the New York Pops orchestra, with his wife as president, with a view to introducing popular classics to a broader audience. "Our business is a very tough profession," he said. "I'm lucky to keep working."

Spencer Leigh