Tuesday, April 27, 2010
Before Kevin & Jay, there were Skitch & Johnny
SKITCH HENDERSON conducts the Emporia State University Orchestra in April, 1967, just a couple of months after quitting as band leader on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Moments before this unpublished photo was taken, he had displayed his discourteous side. Notice he is without suit coat. The sad story is explained below. [from Steve Crum’s showbiz memorabilia collection]
By Steve Crum
KEVIN EUBANKS’ April 12 on-air announcement that he is soon leaving The Tonight Show with Jay Leno after 18 years (15 of them as band leader) recalls a similar event 43 years ago. That was when SKITCH HENDERSON left The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson after his tenure as bandleader from 1961-67. Not long after he left, DOC SEVERINSEN took over as band director. (For the record, MILTON DELUGG was bandmaster briefly in between. Also for history’s sake, Eubanks succeeded BRANFORD MARSALIS.)
As for Skitch Henderson, born Lyle Russell Cedric Henderson on Jan. 27, 1918, his reason for leaving Johnny Carson was far from just wanting to explore new vistas, as Kevin Eubanks seemed to express to Jay Leno the night of his departure announcement. After an illustrious career that began on radio, conducting for Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby on their respective programs, Skitch led the band and did comedy bits on The Tonight Show with Steve Allen until Jack Paar took the reigns, bringing his own bandleader, Jose Melis. Then Skitch returned to The Tonight Show when Carson headlined.
Months after leaving Carson, Skitch Henderson was conducting the Emporia State University (then Kansas State Teacher’s College) orchestra in a one night performance at the Civic Auditorium in Emporia. It was standing room only. At rehearsal, he was all business, demanding, and frequently rude. An impeccable dresser, wearing a suit and tie with vest, Skitch, at one point while before the orchestra, yelled at the school’s orchestra director, Melbern Nixon, to take his coat. Evidently he was too warm. Henderson removed his coat, and purposely let it fall to the ground as the harried Emporia State director literally ran to comply. Henderson did not express any regret or apology. He rudely turned to the musicians and continued his rehearsal. The students observed their revered teacher bending over to pick up Henderson’s coat and carry it off stage like an underling. Skitch Henderson put on his familiar happy face and was full of chuckles during the actual performance the next evening. There’s no business like show business?
During an interview I had with Skitch (for the college newspaper) following rehearsal, he spoke of many things, musical and otherwise. He talked of why he left The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. “‘The Good Ship Lollipop,’ as we have always called the show, has been leaking at the seams for the past year,” Henderson said. Essentially, Henderson revealed he was leaving a sinking ship, ratting out, per se. Funny thing, The SS Tonight Show with Johnny Carson continued its nautical run as more of a super cruiser than a Titanic. Johnny Carson helmed it for another 25 years, followed by Jay Leno’s 18 years at present.
What happened to Skitch Henderson? He guest conducted in personal appearances around the world, recorded albums, composed music, and eventually was leader of the New York Pops before dying on Nov. 1, 2005. In 1975, Skitch spent four months in federal prison for tax evasion, which was probably the second time he experienced that sinking feeling.
And now...Herrrrrreeee's Johnny with Skitch Henderson from New Year's Eve, 1965: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rn5NvC2-zQY