If you grew up in the 1950’s and 1960’s, it was hard not to recognize the name of Skitch Henderson, the pianist and bandleader on NBC’s “Jack Paar” and “Tonight” shows. It was also hard not to forget his beautifully tailored plaid suits, distinctive laugh and sophisticated repartee. Skitch was the forerunner of later TV bandleaders such as Doc Severinsen, Paul Shaffer, and Lenny Pickett.
The Tonight Show band had a very distinctive, elegant sound. They could also swing like no other band of its era. A common goal for many music school and conservatory grads was to fill a chair in that band and become one of the “cats,” as Skitch often referred to them.
Many may not realize the impact that Skitch had upon the concert world.
When I first met Skitch 25 years ago back in the summer of 1981, he was the proprietor of Daily’s Dandelion Restaurant, a well-established Upper East Side eatery and watering hole. I had recently taken over a desk at Wedo’s Music Writing Service, a company I would buy several years later with three other Local 802 members from its founder, Wedo Marasco, who had started the company in the 1950’s.
Wedo had asked me to pick up a few orchestrations at Daily’s. When I arrived, I was directed to a small staff office on the second floor and found Skitch. He greeted me warmly and handed me a few scores written by arranger Dick Leib that were to be performed at an upcoming European concert. Back at the office, Wedo Marasco gave me the assignment to copy them, and thus began my relationship with Skitch that lasted over 20 years.
When Skitch returned from Europe he visited our office and informed Wedo that he was going back into the orchestra business. With a few pieces arranged by Jim Tyler, he took a small studio orchestra on tour throughout the Northeast — the tour was a smash hit. Skitch returned to the city and told us he had booked Carnegie Hall with a 70-piece orchestra. If he filled the house, he told us, he’d be back in the music business full-time. If not…
Needless to say, both Wedo and I attended a sold-out opening night. A few months later, Skitch opened up an office for his newly created New York Pops Orchestra in Carnegie Hall — and Wedo’s Music set up shop with him.
Not only did the New York Pops create a steady source of income for New York area musicians, arrangers, orchestrators, copyists and solo performers, but it helped establish the viability of a pops orchestra format in many other cities. This in turn provided work for many people, including perhaps hundreds of musicians.
During the 1980’s and 1990’s Skitch also guest-conducted almost every orchestra in the US and Canada, as well as many in Europe.
There are many good pianists, orchestrators, concert programmers, audience development experts, conductors, arrangers and celebrities. But no one possessed all these talents in one package the way Skitch Henderson did, and few could do it better.
Skitch died last year. He had been a Local 802 member since 1947. Skitch was a staunch union member, and as a colleague I will miss him dearly, as will music lovers all over the world.
Steven Danenberg is president of Wedo’s Music, Inc., and has been an 802 member since 1971. He is a former trombonist, and has worked as a music preparation supervisor, contractor, arranger, orchestrator, composer and producer. He lives in New York City with his wife Rosanne Soifer (also an 802 member) and his two children.