Skitch Henderson, The Tonight Show’s first bandleader, died on Tuesday of natural causes at the age of 87, according to The Associated Press.
Hailing from England, Henderson came to the states in the 1930s and worked as a pianist for years before getting his big break: playing a show with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. He went on to work with entertainment legends like Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, rising in the ranks from piano player to musical director.
He worked on The Lucky Strike Show and The Philco Hour on NBC Radio; when NBC moved to television, Henderson moved with it, serving as musical director for the network.
Henderson was hired as bandleader for The Tonight Show when it debuted in 1954 with Steve Allen as host. Henderson remained as bandleader until Jack Parr became host in 1957, but was brought back once Carson took the throne in 1962. He stayed on for Carson’s first four years on the program.
Following his years on Tonight, Henderson conducted pops concerts with orchestras including the London and New York Philharmonics. In 1983, he founded the New York Pops.