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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.


  • Biography 1
  • Legal problems 2
  • Conducting career 3
  • Television 4
  • Television programs 5
  • Films 6
  • Recordings 7
  • Personal life 8
  • Awards and honors 9
  • Miscellaneous 10
  • See also 11
  • References 12
  • Sources 13
  • External links 14


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.

He started his professional career in the 1930s playing piano in the roadhouses of the American Midwest, his major break being as 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.

After the war, he worked for NBC Radio Network, where he was the musical director for Frank Sinatra's Lucky Strike Show. 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.

The origin of his nickname is often traced to this period, with Henderson crediting 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.

Legal problems

He was indicted on July 2, 1974, on charges of 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.


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 Leontyne Price and William Warfield, which won a Grammy.

Personal life

Henderson married movie actress and television personality Faye Emerson in 1950. 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.[1]

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. ^ 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.


  • Skitch Henderson, Obituaries, Los Angeles Times, November 2, 2005.
  • Ol' Blue Eyes and me. Patrice, John, Evening Mail (Birmingham, England), February 2, 2005.
  • Skitch Henderson The New York Pops biography
  • The Road From Vaudeville to Carnegie Hall
  • Associated Press: Skitch Henderson Dies at 87
  • Hunt Hill Farm Trust
  • Internet Movie Database

External links

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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