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NY Pops, Former Tonight Show Bandleader Dies

Legendary conductor and bandleader Lyle Russell Cedrick “Skitch” Henderson died Nov. 1 of natural causes at age 87 in his New Milford, Conn. home. Henderson was best known for founding the New York Pops, his work as a Tonight Show bandleader, serving as musical director for Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby’s NBC programs and his contributions to the New Milford community and hospital.

Born Jan. 27, 1918 in Birmingham, England, Henderson moved to the United States in the 1930s to begin his career as a pianist, where for most of the decade he performed vaudeville and movie music. He earned his big break in 1937 when he replaced an ill pianist touring with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, which later led to work in Hollywood with Bob Hope’s The Pepsodent Show and also put him in touch with Bing Crosby, who became one of his mentors.

Henderson studied under the direction of composer Arnold Schoenberg, where his superior musical abilities were recognized as one of the best at the time. “I could sketch out a score in different keys, a new way each time”, said Henderson, earning him the nickname, “the sketch kid”, then later, “Skitch”, which stuck.

During World War II, Henderson flew for both the Royal Air Force and the United States Army Air Corps. He had built up a substantial collection of aviation memorabilia in his home. At 87, Henderson still had a desire to fly across the Atlantic Ocean again.

When the war ended, Henderson went back to music, working as the musical director for Frank Sinatra’s The Lucky Strike Show when it toured the nation and also when it became a stationary radio program with NBC in New York City. He also became the musical director for Bing Crosby’s radio show, The Philco Hour, and when the station became televised, he continued working as the musical director.

In 1954, Henderson became the bandleader for the Tonight Show with host Steve Allen. He lost his job when Jack Paar became the host, but returned in 1962 for the first four years that Johnny Carson was host of the late-night program.

Henderson created the New York Pops in 1983, with the vision of creating an orchestra that used popular tunes to make orchestral music exciting. The New York Pops has since become the nation’s largest independent symphonic pops orchestra and the only one in New York specializing in popular American music.

Henderson later directed his energy toward his community’s New Milford Hospital, where he helped the hospital raise funds by, for example, hosting an annual fundraiser, and bringing in additional support for the medical facility. Just this past month, he literally passed a baton to comedian and actor Denis Leary and his wife, who will now hold the fundraisers.

Prior to his death, Henderson was still working as the musical director for the New York Pops and regularly served as the conductor. He also was a frequent guest conductor for several bands around the world.

Henderson is survived by his wife of 47 years, Ruth, and their children Heidi Maria and Hans Christian.

Originally Published