The Gifts Of A Man Named Skitch

Rick Hamada
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Wednesday - November 09, 2005

He was a large man with a bearish grin. When he entered the room there was a distinct change in the atmosphere. If you were feeling cool, you were immediately warmed. If you were warm, you immediately became more comfortable. For someone who counted the celebrity elite as his best friends, he never had an air of superiority. He was at ease in his world and it seemed all he wanted to do was invite you in.

I had the immense pleasure of spending some time with Lyle Russell Cedric Henderson a few years back. You may know him better as Skitch. If you don’t know Skitch, allow me to introduce you.

Music is a means in which our souls are nourished. The impact of a perfect chord or a surging tenor can send chills through your veins akin to the moment you first realized you were in love. The creation of music is a talent shared by many, but mastered by few. Skitch was a master.

He was born in Birmingham, England, in 1918. He arrived in the United States and chose the sterile terrain of Montana and Minnesota to begin his extraordinary career. Small bars and honky-tonks were his concert halls, but in the early 1930s, getting paid for playing music was a blessing.

In great stories of success, there emerges the occasion of the “big break.” Lyle, as he was called then, took over for an ailing accompanist for an MGM promotional tour. He and the entertainers would sing some songs, play some music and extol the virtues of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Oh, by the way, he was travelling with a young Mickey Rooney and even younger Judy Garland. It was 1937 and after the tour was over, he joined the gang in Hollywood.

At the risk of minimizing young Lyle’s early career, let me just give you a brief rundown of some of the names with whom he worked intimately: Hope, Crosby, Sinatra, Allen and Carson.

Yeah, that Carson. Skitch, as he is now called (Bing Crosby gave him the name because Lyle could “sketch” out an arrangement so quickly), took over as the musical director for NBC Television and ushered in the template of live music in a talk format. He remarked that Steve Allen and Johnny Carson were two completely different entertainers. Allen was spontaneous; Carson was prepared. Ah, to be instrumental (no pun intended) in the birth of late-night TV.

Skitch wanted more and did more. He became proficient in orchestral music as a frequent guest conductor. He was awarded a Grammy for his sumptuous work with Leontyne Price and William Warfield in his recording of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess . He authored numerous movie and television scores to rave reviews. As the years went by, Skitch was as relevant and innovative as ever in his musical world.

A great triumph was recorded for music in 1983. His passionate desire to present symphonic music as more accessible to a much broader audience led to his founding of the New York Pops. It remains as the largest independent symphonic pops orchestra in the United States. His old stomping grounds are places such as Central Park, Bryant Park and, of course, Carnegie Hall. Sellouts are the norm when the Pops are playing.

Skitch remained active despite accomplishing more than the average man, or two. Guest conducting was one of his calling cards, and symphonies around the world clamored for his participation. Even our own Honolulu Symphony. And this is where I met Skitch Henderson.

On not one, but two occasions he was a guest on my radio program. He regaled us with stories from the past, but he always had his eye on the future. He’d share comments on popular music, technology, contemporary artists and his own schedule.

I think if he had read the phone book, it would have been a good visit.

I fondly recall an evening when he performed with the Honolulu Symphony at the annual ball. He and I spoke for what seemed for a brief time, but proved to be much longer. He expressed genuine interest in me, my family and career. But he also demonstrated something which I am reminded of when I think of Skitch - class.

After our conversation, I watched as he made his way through the crowded room. His tall frame with trademark goatee breezed effortlessly from one table to the next. He spent as much time as needed with each person. He was gracious, affectionate and genuine.

The cacophony of the bustling ballroom ceased and was replaced by appreciative applause. He strolled to the podium with baton in hand. With the raising of his arms the music was about to begin.

Alas, as all good things seem to do, the music came to an end. Skitch passed away last week at the age of 87.

I have had the pleasure of meeting many extraordinary people. But for me, this gentleman embodied the possibilities of the human spirit. His stellar talents and immeasurable grace are an inspiration.

Thank you, Lyle Henderson, and warmest aloha.

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