Bandleader for Original Tonight Show
Music Icon Skitch Henderson Passes at 87
Newe Milford, CT—Skitch Henderson, the versatile Grammy-winning conductor who collaborated with such stars as Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby before founding the New York Pops and becoming the bandleader of Steve Allen’s Tonight Show, died Tuesday. He was 87.
Henderson, who was born Lyle Russell Cedric Henderson, died of natural causes at his home in New Milford, Connecticut.
Henderson’s peripatetic career began in the 1930s when he moved from his native England to the United States, where he supported himself as a piano player at various rough-and-tumble roadhouses in Minnesota and Montana.
In 1937, using the ticket of a pianist whom he replaced on a tour with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland when the original musician fell ill, Henderson moved to Los Angeles to pursue work in Hollywood.
He found work in the MGM music department and as a piano player for Bob Hope’s The Pepsodent Show. Through Hope, who became a friend, Henderson met many other major celebrities, including Crosby, who became an important mentor.
Henderson, who studied with Arthur Schoenberg, the renowned Austrian composer who immigrated to California and joined the faculty at UCLA, had such an uncanny ear and a knack for sketching out musical scores that he acquired the nickname “the sketch kid,” which Crosby modified to “Skitch.”
During World War II, Henderson became a pilot and flew for both the Royal Air Force and the United States Army Air Corps.
After the war, he became Frank Sinatra’s musical director and toured the country with various bands. He eventually settled in New York when Sinatra urged him to relocate to become musical director of Sinatra’s radio program, The Lucky Strike Show. He later performed the same role for The Philco Hour, with Crosby. When NBC expanded into television, Henderson became its musical director as well.
Henderson’s relationship with NBC gave him a national profile when, in 1954, he became bandleader for Steve Allen's Tonight Show, where he remained through the tenures of Jack Paar and Johnny Carson prior to Carson’s relocation to California.
In 1972, Henderson and his wife, Ruth, established The Silo, Inc., a store, art gallery and cooking school in New Milford. They published two cookbooks Ruth and Skitch Henderson’s Seasons in the Country and Ruth and Skitch Henderson’s Christmas in the Country, which was packaged with a CD of holiday music by the New York Pops, which Henderson founded in 1983. Based at Carnegie Hall, its concept was to use popular songs to expand interest in orchestral music. It remains active and successful today.
In addition to his wife, Henderson is survived their children, Heidi Maria and Hans Christian.
Lyle "Skitch" Henderson was interviewed by the Television Academy Foundation’s Archive of American Television in 2002. The entire interview may be screened at the archive offices at the Television Academy in North Hollywood. For more information, call (818) 509-2260.