Skitch Henderson

Lyle Skitch Henderson

Henderson (left) on the The Tonight Show, New Year's Eve 1962 with Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon
Background information
Birth name Lyle Russel Henderson
Born (1918-01-27)January 27, 1918
Halstad, Norman County, Minnesota, U.S.
Died November 1, 2005(2005-11-01) (aged 87)
New Milford, Connecticut, U.S.
Genres Classical, jazz
Occupation(s) Composer, conductor, pianist
Instruments Piano
Years active 1937–2005
Associated acts The New York Pops, The Tonight Show Band

Lyle Russel “Skitch” Henderson (January 27, 1918 – November 1, 2005) was a pianist, conductor, and composer. His nickname ("Skitch") reportedly derived from his ability to quickly "re-sketch" a song in a different key.

Early years

Lyle "Skitch" Henderson was born on a farm near Halstad, Minnesota, to Joseph and Josephine Henderson, both of Norwegian descent. His mother died shortly after his birth, and he was then sent to live with his aunt Hattie Henderson Gift and uncle Frank Gift, who raised him. She taught him piano, starting at the age of four. Although he didn't receive formal conservatory education in music, Henderson received classical training under Fritz Reiner, Albert Coates, Arnold Schoenberg, Ernst Toch and Arturo Toscanini, who invited him to conduct the NBC Symphony Orchestra. Henderson would later recount his learning the ropes by playing in taverns with popular singers of the day.


After starting his professional career in the 1930s playing piano in the roadhouses of the American Midwest, Henderson's major break came when he was an accompanist on a 1937 MGM promotional tour featuring Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. Henderson later said that as a member of MGM's music department, he worked with Garland to learn "Over the Rainbow" during rehearsals for The Wizard of Oz and played piano for her first public performance of the song at a local nightclub before the film was finished. However this account is at odds with the memoirs of the tune's composer, Harold Arlen, who said he first performed the song for the 14-year-old Garland.


Blue Network Varieties, which began May 20, 1940, on NBC's Pacific Blue network, featured Henderson in charge of the music, leading "a novelty instrumental group."[1]

After the war, Henderson worked for NBC Radio Network, where he was the musical director for Frank Sinatra's Light-Up Time.[2] He was also accompanist on Philco Radio Time with Bing Crosby on the new ABC network. Henderson also played on Bob Hope's Pepsodent Show.

In 1946, Henderson and the Golden Gate Quartet headlined a 13-week summer replacement program on NBC, sponsored by Old Gold cigarettes.[3]

In 1950, Henderson had a disc jockey program on WNBC in New York City.[4]

Henderson also recorded transcriptions for the Capitol Transcriptions service.[5]


Henderson credited the invention to Bing Crosby who said he (Henderson) should have a nickname. Crosby settled on "Skitch", which came from "The Sketch Kid", referring to Henderson's ability to quickly transcribe music to a written score. Other reports, however, claim that the name came from something that a young Skitch and his buddies would say to act cool and hip, "skitchadudawawa", long before he met Crosby.

He was indicted on July 2, 1974, on charges of tax evasion for the years of 1969 and 1970 for claims about the value (allegedly $350,000) of a music library he donated to the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He further claimed that he had consulted on the value of his collection with Leonard Bernstein and Henry Mancini, both of whom denied the claims. A signature on an acceptance letter from the library director was also deemed a forgery.

Henderson was sentenced on January 17, 1975 to 6 months in prison and fined $10,000. He began serving his sentence at a minimum-security Federal prison on April 9, 1975 and was released after four months, on August 4, 1975.

Conducting career

In 1983, he founded The New York Pops orchestra, which makes its home at Carnegie Hall in New York City. He served as the music director and conductor of the orchestra until his death in 2005. Henderson also conducted numerous symphonic orchestras throughout the world.

His radio work included:


In a career at NBC spanning 1951 to 1966, he succeeded Arturo Toscanini as music director for NBC Television and was the original conductor of the orchestras for The Tonight Show and The Today Show.

Henderson served as the original bandleader for The Tonight Show with founding host Steve Allen (as well as for Allen's Sunday-night variety show), then came back to Tonight after the departure of host Jack Paar and his orchestra director José Melis. Henderson left Tonight again in 1966, during Johnny Carson's early years as host, and was replaced first by Milton DeLugg and then trumpeter Doc Severinsen, who headed the NBC orchestra until Carson's 1992 retirement.

Television programs


He also wrote Baby Made a Change in Me for the 1948 movie On Our Merry Way.


In 1946, Henderson formed his own orchestra and signed a contract with Capitol Records.[6] Among his hundreds of recordings, spanning the era of 78s to DVDs, were two recent releases as pianist for Arbors Records. The two albums were Swinging With Strings and Legends (with Bucky Pizzarelli). He also served as conductor of The New York Pops with Maureen McGovern on With a Song in My Heart: The Great Songs of Richard Rodgers for Reader's Digest and Centaur Records.

He conducted a 1963 recording for RCA of George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess with Leontyne Price and William Warfield, which won a Grammy.

Personal life

Henderson married movie actress and television personality Faye Emerson in 1950.[7] They were divorced seven years later. He then married Ruth Einsiedel in 1958 and raised two children, Hans and Heidi. Hans was married to Sandra Watson for 18 years, before divorcing in 2000. Heidi was married to actor William Hurt from 1989 to 1992, and they have two sons. Skitch and Ruth Henderson owned and operated "The Silo," a renowned store, art gallery, and cooking school in New Milford, Connecticut from 1972 until his death.

In 2003 Ruth and Skitch Henderson co-founded the Hunt Hill Farm Trust, an effort to preserve their farm's land and buildings and to celebrate Americana in music, art and literature through the creation of a living museum.

Awards and honors

An affiliation with the Smithsonian Institution resulted in the Trust's inaugural exhibit: Skitch Henderson: A Man and His Music. On January 29, 2005, the Smithsonian awarded him the James Smithson Bicentennial Medal in recognition of his contributions to American culture.

In 1997, Henderson was honored for the vital role he played in the cultural life of New York City by being awarded the Handel Medallion, presented by the City of New York, New York.[8]

He was also the recipient of three honorary degrees – from St. Thomas Aquinas College, the University of South Florida, and Western Connecticut State University.


The Retro Swing Band at the University of Wisconsin plays arrangements from The Tonight Show and the BBC Dance Band included in the Skitch Henderson Collection at the Mills Music Library.

Skitch Henderson's name probably served as the inspiration for the character Guy "Skitch" Patterson in the 1996 film That Thing You Do! after Guy re-arranges one of the band's songs and it becomes a popular hit single.

Henderson was known for his unique laugh on the Carson show. In addition to Ed McMahon's famously hearty laugh, Henderson could also frequently be heard laughing on the track, as "Hoo-hoo-hoo!"

See also


  1. "(untitled brief)" (PDF). Broadcasting. June 1, 1940. p. 83. Retrieved 28 May 2016.
  2. Friedwald, Will (1995). Sinatra! the Song is You: A Singer's Art. Scribner. p. 170. ISBN 9780684193687. Retrieved 27 May 2016.
  3. "Old Gold Is Set" (PDF). Broadcasting. June 10, 1946. p. 96. Retrieved 28 May 2016.
  4. DeLong, Thomas A. (1996). Radio Stars: An Illustrated Biographical Dictionary of 953 Performers, 1920 through 1960. McFarland & Company, Inc. ISBN 978-0-7864-2834-2. P. 127.
  5. "Capitol Transcriptions ad" (PDF). Broadcasting. December 23, 1946. pp. 56–57. Retrieved 28 May 2016.
  6. "(untitled brief)" (PDF). Broadcasting. March 11, 1946. p. 51. Retrieved 28 May 2016.
  7. "air-casters" (PDF). Broadcasting. December 25, 1950. p. 52. Retrieved 28 May 2016.
  8. Press release (December 8, 1997). "Mayor Presents Handel Medallion to Skitch Henderson – Founder of New York Pops Receives City's Highest Cultural Award". Mayor of New York City's Press Office. Retrieved October 11, 2011.


Wikimedia Commons has media related to Skitch Henderson.
Media offices
Preceded by
The Tonight Show bandleader
Succeeded by
José Melis
Preceded by
José Melis
The Tonight Show bandleader
Succeeded by
Milton DeLugg
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