jazz & blues music blog with news, reviews, concerts & more, with a Canadian focus

November 4, 2005

Tonight Show bandleader and NY Pops founder Skitch Henderson dead at 87

Written by
cindy mcleod

Grammy-winning conductor Skitch Henderson, founder of the New York Pops and the first “Tonight Show” bandleader, died Tuesday of natural causes. He was 87.

Henderson worked with stars such as Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in the 1930s and 1940s, before going on to become the bandleader for Steve Allen’s “Tonight Show” in 1954. When Jack Paar took over as host he lost his job, but returned in 1962 as bandleader for the first four years of Johnny Carson’s reign on the popular late-night show.

He founded the New York Pops in 1983, turning the New York Pops into the nation’s largest independent symphonic pops orchestra specializing in popular American music.

Born as Lyle Russell Cedrick Henderson on Jan. 27, 1918, in Birmingham, England, Henderson moved to the US in the 1930s, playing piano in vaudeville and performing movie music in roadhouses.

In 1937 he relocated to Hollywood, where he joined the music department at MGM and played piano for Bob Hope’s “The Pepsodent Show.” Hope introduced him to other stars of the day, including Crosby, who became a mentor to Henderson.

He studied under with the great composer Arnold Schoenberg, and developed his talent for “sketching out a score in different keys with new ideas”, earning him the nickname “the sketch kid.” Crosby later adapted the nickname to “Skitch.”

After the war, Henderson toured with Frank Sinatra as his musical director, who convinced Henderson to relocate to New York. The move placed him in touch with NBC, spawning his career as musical director for their “Lucky Strike” and “The Philco Hour” radio shows. When NBC launched into television, they brought Henderson along as musical director.

Well into his late 80s, Henderson continued to carry the baton for the Pops, keeping up a busy schedule as conductor. He also was a frequent guest conductor at a number of orchestras around the world.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.