Skitch Henderson collection, 1936-1969


Skitch Henderson was born Lyle Russell Cedric Henderson in Birmingham, England in 1918. He moved to the United States when he was 14 and began playing piano in dance bands and went on study music at UCLA and at the Julliard School. His teachers included Arnold Schoenberg and Fritz Reiner. In the 1930s he became rehearsal accompanist for Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, and soon was playing piano for The Bob Hope Pepsodent Show on radio. During World War II he was a fighter pilot in the Army Air Corps. After the war he became music arranger and conductor for shows such as Songs by Sinatra (1946), I Deal in Crime (1946), Philco Radio Time (1946), Ethel Merman Show (1949), Frank Sinatra’s Light Up Time (1950), as well as leading his own orchestra on the road. Bing Crosby called him Sketch Kid because of the quick piano sketches Henderson would make for Bing’s orchestrator. He moved to a staff position at NBC and eventually succeeded Arturo Toscanini as music director for the network. He became the first bandleader for the Tonight Show with Steve Allen (1954-56) and later Johnny Carson (1962-66), there devising the “Stump the Band” routine, in which audience members suggest obscure song titles for the band to then try to play. The bands he assembled for the Tonight Show were noteworthy for the first-rate jazz players such as trumpeters Terry Clarke and Doc Severinsen.

In 1963 he received a Grammy Award for an album of selections from Porgy and Bess, with the RCA Orchestra, Leontyne Price and William Warfield. After leaving NBC, Henderson became a fixture of the New York musical scene for years, founding and conducting the New York Pops. He made appearances as guest conductor of orchestras in San Diego, Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, Tulsa and Stamford, Conn., and pops orchestras in Virginia, Florida and Kentucky. Abroad, he conducted the Royal Philharmonic and the London Symphony. In 1997 he was awarded the Handel Medallion, New York City’s highest honor for the arts. He died in 2005 at his home in New Milford, Conn.