Skitch Henderson: The Tonight Show’s First Bandleader


Today is the birthday of Lyle “Skitch” Henderson (1918-2005).

Piano wizard Henderson is perhaps best remembered today as the first bandleader for both The Tonight Show (under Steve Allen and the early days of Johnny Carson) as well as The Steve Allen Show (during Jack Paar’s Tonight Show tenure). He was also the musical director of NBC from 1951 to 1966.

Prior to this Henderson worked on radio for Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. His big break (which finally got him out of the grind of playing piano in roadhouses) was when he was booked by MGM as an accompanist to Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney in 1937 for a promotional tour. He also made hundreds of recordings during his career, and founded the New York Pops orchestra in 1983.

To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, to be released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.


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