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Bandleader Skitch Henderson dead at 87

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NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- 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. He was 87.

Henderson died of natural causes at his New Milford home, said Barbara Burnside, director of marketing and public relations for New Milford Hospital.

Henderson worked with stars such as Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in the 1930s and 1940s, but he became a household name in television's infancy when NBC pegged him as the bandleader for Steve Allen's “Tonight Show" in 1954. Henderson lost the job after Jack Paar took over as host, but got it back in 1962 and was bandleader for the first four years of Johnny Carson's late-night reign.

He founded the New York Pops in 1983, using popular tunes to make orchestral music exciting. He turned the New York Pops into the nation's largest independent symphonic pops orchestra and the only one in New York specializing in popular American music.

Born as Lyle Russell Cedrick Henderson on Jan. 27, 1918, in Birmingham, England, Henderson moved to the United States in the 1930s, eking out a living as a pianist, 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 Garland and Rooney. When the tour wrapped up in Chicago, he used the original pianist's ticket and went to Hollywood.

It was there that he joined the music department at MGM and played piano for 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 under with the great composer Arnold Schoenberg, and Henderson's talented ear earned him a reputation 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 this year.

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

During World War II, Henderson flew for both the Royal Air Force and the United States Army Air Corps. At his estate in New Milford, which he shared with his wife, Ruth, Henderson kept a collection of aviation memorabilia. Even at 87, he said earlier this year that he hoped to fly the Atlantic once more.

After the war, Henderson toured as Frank Sinatra's musical director and lived what he called a “gypsy lifestyle," touring the country with various bands. It was Sinatra's phone call that lured Henderson to New York.

“Frank said, 'I'm moving the “Lucky Strike Show" to New York. Get rid of those gypsies and get back here where you belong,"' Henderson recalled in 1985.

He served as musical director for the “Lucky Strike" radio show and “The Philco Hour" with Crosby. And when NBC moved to television, the studio brought Henderson along as musical director.

In his later years, Henderson and his wife were active in the New Milford community and helped raise money for New Milford Hospital every year, said Burnside, the hospital administrator.

“They were very giving people," Burnside said. “They gave of themselves without expecting anything in return. Skitch brought so much talent, so much enthusiasm, so much joy to every event he was at"

Comedian-actor Denis Leary and his wife have taken over hosting the annual fundraiser for the hospital. Last month, Henderson passed an actual baton to Leary to mark the change of fundraising hosts, Burnside said.

Even in his late 80s, Henderson maintained a tireless work schedule as music director for the Pops, where he regularly served as conductor. He also was a frequent guest conductor at a number of orchestras around the world.

“I watch the public like a hawk. If I see boredom, I worry," Henderson said. “You can tell by the applause: There's perfunctory applause, there's light applause, and then there's real applause. When it's right, applause sounds like vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce."

-- Associated Press

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