ENCORE: Bill Henderson By Marcia Hillman
To quote Bill Henderson: “The one constant in my life has been singing.” So, it is not surprising that in his 83rd year he is still recording and performing live. Born in Chicago, Henderson made his show business debut as a singer and dancer at the age of four, winning in Phil Baker's Artist and Models amateur show. He did a two-year stint in the Army, serving in Europe with a Special Services orchestra and sharing vocal duties with Vic Damone. Returning to Chicago's musically rich South Side as a civilian, Henderson obtained a steady gig at a club called Stelzer Lounge, performing with the then little-known Ramsey Lewis Trio.
New York City beckoned Henderson in 1956. It was there he recalls that he “got my first sanction as a singer. I was singing at the Village Vanguard and Sonny Rollins was backstage with his sax. Before I knew it, he was onstage, sitting in and playing behind me. What a thrill!” Henderson's first big break came in 1957 when Horace Silver hired him to record a vocal version of Silver's popular instrumental “Senor Blues” for Blue Note Records. This recording still stands as one of the biggest selling singles in the label's history.
After touring with Silver and a second recording of “Angel Eyes” for Blue Note, this time backed by the Jimmy Smith Trio, Henderson started recording for the Vee-Jay label and remained with them from 1958 to 1961, “I got to work with musicians such as Ramsey, Tommy Flanagan, Eddie Higgins and Eddie Harris and arrangers like Jimmy Jones and Thad Jones. Also, during that time, I toured Japan with an edition of Blakey's Jazz Messengers that included Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter and Bobby Timmons.” A 1963 album with Oscar Peterson, which remains the biggest seller of his career, was followed by the more commercial When My Dreamboat Comes Home for Verve.
Then, in 1965 and at the recommendation of Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Henderson joined the Count Basie band. He remembers telling Basie, “I'm not gonna do Joe Williams material. Most of the time when you do that, people think of you as an imitator.” During his two years with the band, only one song featuring Henderson (an arrangement of The Beatles' “Yesterday”) appeared on vinyl on the Verve album Basie's Beatles Bag. It was also during his time with Basie that he received his “second sanction”. It was in New York City at the now defunct club Basin Street East and it came in the person of Frank Sinatra. It seems that Henderson was getting ready to go on and Sinatra appeared on stage. “It was a setup,” he recalls. “The band had his arrangements ready and everything. So, Sinatra did four tunes and then introduced me!”
After this, Henderson stepped into his “second” career. At the suggestion of his friend Bill Cosby, he decided to pursue an acting career and in 1967 relocated to Hollywood. Henderson started with mostly voice-overs and commercials but they were shortly followed by a steady stream of TV and movie roles. His television credits include such shows as Sanford and Son, Happy Days, Hill Street Blues, In The Heat of the Night, NYPD Blue, ER, Cold Case and, most recently, My Name Is Earl. Henderson's movie work includes appearances in Silver Streak, Mother, Juggs & Speed, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, Fletch, City Slickers, White Men Can't Jump, Maverick, Conspiracy Theory, Lethal Weapon 4 and The Alibi.
Henderson did not, however, stop singing even though for a time acting was his first priority. But he has stepped up his singing career over the past few years, cutting back on acting because of his aversion to many of the roles that have been offered of late. “When you get to a certain age,” he explains, “they think of you as a grandfather and they always want you to be angry. When the roles started getting funny, I thought I'd better cool it. I said I'd better go back to singing again. That's the thing that I really started out to do.” In addition to more singing engagements, his renewed vocal activity has resulted in a new CD Beautiful Memory, recorded live three days after his 81st birthday in 2007. It demonstrates that the quality of his powerful voice and his feel for the songs he chooses to sing have not diminished. Although Henderson speaks of having “two sanctions” in his lifetime, he has had more than that. The legendary critic Leonard Feather called him “one of the few totally qualified male singers still extant”--a description that still holds true. And he recalls that Johnny Mercer once said to him, “Oh, you're the one they say sounds like me. But you sound better.”
Now in his “third career,” the California-based vocalist looks forward to coming east to perform at the 2009 Litchfield Jazz Festival. “I love the idea of the Litchfield Jazz Camp,” Henderson says. “You have to extend the jazz to the next generation. Let them be exposed to the good stuff.” And this 83-year-old gentleman is ready to do just that. As he puts it: “There's a young guy inside of me and he's waiting to get out.”
Bill Henderson, The Complete Vee-Jay Recordings, Vol. 1 & 2 (Vee-Jay, 1959-61)
Bill Henderson, With The Oscar Peterson Trio (MGM-Verve, 1963)
Bill Henderson, Live at The Times (Discovery, 1975)
Bill Henderson, Street of Dreams (Discovery, 1979)
Bill Henderson, Tribute to Johnny Mercer (Discovery, 1981)
Bill Henderson, Beautiful Memory: Live at the Vic (Ahuh Prod., 2007)
See Bill Henderson's artist profile page for more information about his performance on Saturday, August 1st at 7:00 PM.