James Henke, the first curator at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, died on Monday morning (July 8) at age 65 after a long battle with dementia.
Henke’s death was confirmed to the Cleveland Plain Dealer by his eldest son, Arthur; Henke was orignally diagnosed with dementia in 2013, a year after he left the Rock Hall after a 19-year stint at the museum in Cleveland as Chief Curator.
Henke joined the Rock Hall before the groundbreaking on the repository of musical treasures designed by famed architect I.M. Pei had even taken place, following a 16-year run at Rolling Stone magazine, where he was credited with helping to write landmark stories on everyone from U2 — penning the first major profile of the group in the U.S. before the release of their 1981 debut, Boy — to Bruce Springsteen and The Clash.
“Jim was a friend for many years and I owe him for his stewardship of the Rolling Stone music section for many years and then taking the responsibility of helping to found the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner said in a statement. “He will be missed by all of us.” The magazine noted that it was Henke who gave U2 singer Bono the MLK biography Let the Trumpet Sound: A Life of Martin Luther King Jr., which inspired the band’s singer to write the iconic 1984 homage to the civil rights leader, “Pride (In the Name of Love).”
Henke began his run at RS after graduating with a degree in journalism from Ohio Wesleyan University, making his mark early on by covering the 1979 tragedy at a Who concert in Cincinnati, where 11 fans were trampled to death by a stampede before the band’s show. He would hit the road in 1988 with Amnesty International’s Human Rights Now! tour — which featured Springsteen and the E Street Band, Peter Gabriel, Tracy Chapman and Youssou N’Dour — which he turned into that year’s book Human Rights Now! He also penned illustrated books on Bob Marley and John Lennon as well as the Jim Morrison Scrapbook and the 3D history of rock called The Rock Pack.
“Jim made an enormous contribution to rock history with his work at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum,’’ Lauren Onkey, who worked with him at the museum as vice president of education and public programs, told the Plain Dealer. “His deep knowledge of the music and relationships with artists brought credibility to the Museum in its very early days. He brought in exciting and historically significant artifacts that fans loved. And his journalism chops meant that he cared passionately about getting the story right in exhibits and publications.”
He left the magazine to work as vice president of Product Development at Elektra Records, where he worked with acts including Moby and the Breeders, before taking the chief curator role at the Rock Hall in 1994. It was there that Henke made his most lasting mark by helping the then-nascent institution acquire many items in its permanent collection during his run as the head of the curatorial department until 2012. “We are so grateful for the life we spent with our father,” sons Arthur and Chris Henke said in a statement to RS. “His legacy of generosity and passion for music lives on in the lives of everyone he touched through his writing.”