TV Composer and Conductor Skitch Henderson dies at 87
First Tonight Show Bandleader


November 2, 2005

Skitch Henderson, the Grammy-winning conductor who lent his musical expertise to Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby before founding the New York Pops and becoming the first "Tonight Show" bandleader, died Tuesday of natural causes in New Milford, Conn. He was 87.
Born in England, Lyle Russell Cedric Henderson moved to the U.S. in the 1930s, playing vaudeville and movie music in Minnesota and Montana roadhouses.

He got his big break in 1937, when he filled in for a sick pianist touring with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. When the tour wrapped up in Chicago, he used the original pianist's ticket and went to Hollywood. There he joined the music department at MGM and played piano for Bob Hope's "The Pepsodent Show."

His friendship with Hope put him in touch with other stars of the day, including Crosby, who became a mentor to Henderson. He studied with the noted composer Arnold Schoenberg, and Henderson's talented ear brought him renown among some of the era's most successful musicians.

"I could sketch out a score in different keys, a new way each time," Henderson said earlier this year.

That quicksilver ability earned him the nickname "the sketch kid," which Crosby urged him to adapt to "Skitch." It stuck.

During WWII, Henderson flew for both the Royal Air Force and the U.S. Army Air Corps.

After the war, Henderson toured as Sinatra's musical director and then moved to New York, where he served as musical director for the "Lucky Strike" radio show and "The Philco Hour" with Crosby. When NBC moved to television, the studio brought Henderson along as musical director. In 1954 NBC pegged him as the bandleader for Steve Allen's "Tonight Show." Even as the hosts changed from Allen to Jack Paar to Johnny Carson, Henderson was a constant.

He founded the New York Pops in 1983, using popular tunes to make orchestral music exciting.

Even in his late 80s, Henderson maintained a tireless work schedule as music director for the Pops, where he regularly served as conductor.

He is survived by his wife, Ruth; a daughter; and a son.