I first met Skitch Henderson in 1947 when he was a guest in the Vaughn Monroe Camel Caravan Show for radio and I was a member of Vaughn's orchestra. Skitch's basic training was in Hollywood. He started as a rehearsal pianist for the movie stars before they made soundtracks. Victor Young advised him to take conducting lessons, and he became a great interpreter of Young's music.
From them on, we met in different settings. He was on the Tonight Show with Steve Allen. As conductor of the NBC Tonight Show Orchestra, Skitch assembled many of the best jazzmen in the business from some of the best jazz bands and orchestras of that time, including: Snooky Young (from Jimmie Lunceford), Clark Terry (Duke Ellington), Al Klink (Glenn Miller), Hymie Schertzer (Benny Goodman), Jimmy Maxwell (Benny Goodman) and Bob Haggart (Bob Crosby). That orchestra really was a good cross-section of jazz bands.
Recently, he was working on a project for Arbors Records, recording Paul Whiteman's original orchestrations of the "Swinging Strings" with four violins, two guitars, a piano and bass. He was very exacting, very emphatic. When you came to him with a situation that you wanted to do, he would only say one thing: "Done!" And that was what we did. There was no squabbling or nothing.
He covered a lot of ground. He did classical music, he had a dance band and he played beautiful piano, commercially. He did almost everything everyone could want to be able to do, and I always admired Skitch for that. When I played a couple of jobs over in Madison, N.J., a place called Shanghai Jazz, he would say, "You're playing?" And I'd say, "Yeah." He'd say, "I'm coming over tomorrow night," and he'd come over and he'd sit in and play with us. He'd have the audience in the palm of his hand. He never used a microphone to make an announcement. Everybody just shut up, even though they were eating. You could hear a pin drop. That's pretty good.
I like to be associated with guys like that. I've played with a lot of different bandleaders, and when you see a bandleader in action, they all have the same trait: They all get to where they want to go in a different way. Skitch got there in his own nice little way, and it was always good for the orchestra, it was good for everybody. He was a great salesman, besides being a great musician. There's a big difference. A lot of musicians don't know how to sell themselves. He knew exactly what to do, how to act, what to play at the right time. He had it all covered.