The first conductor on the late-night show, who got his early break with Judy Garland, was 87

By Stephen M. Silverman
Updated November 02, 2005 08:35 AM

Grammy-winning conductor Skitch Henderson, the bearded first bandleader on NBC’s Tonight Show, died of natural causes on Tuesday at his home in New Milford, Conn., said Barbara Burnside, spokeswoman for New Milford Hospital. He was 87.

Born in England, Lyle Russell Cedric Henderson moved to the United States in the 1930s, getting his big break in 1937, when he filled in for a sick pianist touring with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney.

After the tour wrapped, Henderson used the original pianist’s ticket and went to Hollywood, where he joined the MGM music department and played piano for Bob Hope’s radio show – which, in turn, led to his meeting Bing Crosby, who became Henderson’s mentor.

When Tonight started in 1954, with host Steve Allen, Henderson led the band – a gig he continued for a time with the next host, Jack Paar. In 1983, Henderson founded the New York Pops.