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 Monday. He was 87.
Henderson died at his home in New Milford, Conn., of natural causes, said Barbara Burnside, director of marketing and public relations at New Milford Hospital.
Born in England, Lyle Russell Cedric Henderson moved to the United States in the 1930s. He eked 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 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 was Hope put him in touch with other stars of the day, including Bing Crosby, who became a mentor to Henderson.
He studied with the noted composer Arnold Schoenberg, and Henderson’s talented ear brought him renown from 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.”
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