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Saturday, August 8, 2009


A number of people from the generation of Americans my age and older still remember Skitch - the bandleader who was a prominent musician in the new medium of television. He was identified by his well-maintained goatee and strange laugh. His real name was Lyle Russell Cedric Henderson (1918-2005), but was commonly referred to as "Skitch" by his friends - a nickname he acquired for his uncanny ability to sketch and transcribe complex music directly onto score paper by ear.

"Skitch" Henderson
had a rather amazing career in music and he accomplished it without formal conservatory training. Known for his pianistic abilities and great ear, he studied conducting privately with Fritz Reiner, Albert Coates, and Arturo Toscanini (who invited him to conduct the NBC Orchestra).

What I find interesting is that he studied with some prominent composers of the day too - notably Ernst Toch and Arnold Schoenberg. I really wonder how he got along with Schoenberg, and what they talked about.

Here are a few bullet items from his illustrious career:

* During WWII flew for both the Royal Air Force and the United States Army Air Corps

* Played piano for Bob Hope's "The Pepsodent Show"

* Accompanied Judy Garland singing "Over the Rainbow"

* Musical director for "Lucky Strike" radio show and"The Philco Hour" with Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra

* He made three films (1948, 1959, and 1952)

* Composed "Baby Made a Change in Me" for the 1948 movie "On Our Merry Way"

* Bandleader for NBC's the "Tonight Show" (1954 to 1957) with hosts Steve Allen, Jack Paar, and Johnny Carson

* Frequent guest conductor with orchestras around the world, including the Boston Pops where he was rumored to be a possible successor to Arthur Fiedler (John Williams got the job).

* Conductor of the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra (1971)

* Owned a restaurant in Manhattan called "Daley's Dandelion"

* From 1972 until his death in 2005 ran (with his wife) an art gallery and cooking school in New Milford, CT called "The Silo."

* Founded the New York Pops in 1983

A less known fact is that Skitch Henderson spent six months in Federal prison in 1975 and was fined $10,000 for his crime. He had donated his personal papers to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and allegedly claimed a deduction of $350,000 for it on his 1969-70 tax return. Once walking up Seventh Ave with a colleague, Henderson met someone he had known while in prison. Later he explained "prison friends are the best friends."

Here is a short interview about his early days at MGM studios...

Here is Skitch on the Tonight Show playing "Stump the Band" with Johnny Carson in 1963...