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Skitch Henderson is best remembered for his stints as the bandleader on "The Tonight Show" in the 1950s and 1960s. He signed on as performer and musical director when NBC started "Tonight" with Steve Allen in 1954, then returned in the 1960s when Johnny Carson took over. Some viewers probably remember him more for his distinctive taste in clothes (he was never seen without a vest) than his music.
Henderson started out as a hard-score classical musician, studying piano, then conducting with Fritz Reiner, and composition with Arnold Schoenberg, and attending both Juilliard and the school of music at UCLA. But he was smart enough to see where real money was being made, and he switched to popular music, working in radio and theater orchestras before accompanying the young Judy Garland on one of her first tours. He settled in Los Angeles and joined the staff of RCA Victor, working as an orchestrator and pianist. Arranger Axel Stordahl brought him in (to replace the band's pianist, Joe Bushkin) to play on some of Frank Sinatra's most successful recordings with Tommy Dorsey.
According to some biographies, when World War Two started, he joined the Royal Air Force, trained and flew as a pilot, then switched to the Army Air Corps when the U.S. entered the war. What is certain is that he served as an instructor pilot with the Army Air Corps' Aviation Cadet program, and that he continued to be an avid private pilot for several decades thereafter; however, his RAF service has not been confirmed. Henderson was not averse to putting a certainly amount of spin to his life story, including claiming to have been born to proper English roots in Birmingham, England, rather than to midwest Scandanavian stock in Minnesota.
He moved to New York City after the war, and led and played in a variety of groups for club and radio dates, including several with Sinatra and Bing Crosby. It was Crosby who suggested Henderson's nickname. Other musicians were referring to Henderson as "the sketch kid" because of his reputation for quickly producing new arrangements, and Crosby told him to shorten it to "Skitch."
Crosby also suggested that Jimmy McCabe, the owner of the Pennsylvania Hotel hire Henderson as the house band, and Henderson had to pull together a group when McCabe accepted. Things went great while the band stayed at the hotel, but when he attempted to set up a road tour in 1949, Henderson ended up stranded and nearly broke in Lexington, Kentucky when Sinatra called to invite him to be his musical director for "Light Up Time," Sinatra's radio show sponsored by Lucky Strikes cigarettes. It was a perfect excuse, and Henderson folded the band.
Henderson accompanied Sinatra through a frenzied period, when he was doing "Light Up Time" nightly and then, hurrying over to the Copacabana nightclub for three live sets each night. Henderson recalled it as "one of the tremendous experiences of my life. The Copa was the end-of-the-line great New York club. Always sold out.... Frank did some of the most wonderful shows I have ever known..." But the pace eventually got to Sinatra's vocal chords, and he ended up cancelling his engagement after about 3 months.
While Sinatra's career took a downturn, Henderson's kept on going. He remained on the staff of NBC and worked on a variety of radio and television shows. He joined Steve Allen's "Tonight!" show not long after it started in 1954, and remained until Jack Paar came in in 1957 and NBC completely restructured the show, bringing in Jose Melis as musical director. Then, when Paar retired and Johnny Carson was signed as the new host in 1962, NBC brought Henderson back in as bandleader.
Always a stylish dresser, Henderson became known for his dapper attire, something along the lines of a flamboyant English country gentleman, if that's not an oxymoron. And though he had certified big band chops, that air of refinement alway carried over into his music as well. Henderson hired some of the best session players in New York--Ernie Royal, Clark Terry, Bobby Rosengarden, Doc Severinsen, Urbie Green--and top arrangers like Torrie Zito, Dick Reynolds, and Ernie Wilkins. But his own touch was a little too proper to really rip loose and swing.
Henderson left the show in 1966, turning over his baton to Milton Delugg, who was quickly succeed by Doc Severinsen. Although he recorded several more popular albums, he began shifting his attention to classical music. He conducted pops concerts with the New York and London Philharmonic orchestras, among many others, and led the Tulsa, Oklahoma symphony for a number of years.
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