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, dies. He is 87.
Skitch was born on a farm near Halstad, Minnesota, to parents 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, who raised him. She taught him piano, starting at the age of four.
Though he did not 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. He would also his recount his learning the ropes by playing in ‘Taverns’ with many 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, where he was the musical director for Frank Sinatra’s Lucky Strike Show and The Philco Hour with Bing Crosby. 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 the name ‘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 Crosby entered his life.