Home » Uncategorized » Luther Henderson and “That Doo-Wah Thing”

Luther Henderson and “That Doo-Wah Thing”


Luther Henderson (March 14, 1919 – July 29, 2003) was an American arranger, composer, orchestrator, and pianist best known for his contributions to Broadway musicals.  Henderson was born in Kansas City, Missouri, on March 14, 1919, but his family relocated to the Sugar Hill section of Harlem, NY, when he wwas age of four. Following a short stint studying mathematics at the City College of New York, he enrolled at the Juilliard School of Music, where he received a bachelor of science degree in 1942.  Drafted into the Navy during World War II, Henderson became an arranger for the Navy band stationed at the Naval Station Great Lakes, prior to becoming the staff orchestrator for The U. S. Navy School of Music in Washington, D.C. from 1944 to 1946.

Following the war, Henderson began a long professional association with a number of musical notables of the era, including Duke Ellington, Lena Horne, Jule Styne, and Richard Rodgers.   Notably, Henderson had developed a lengthy pre-professional relationship with Ellington, having been neighbors with the Ellington family as a child and schoolmate with his son, Mercer. Henderson went on to serve as classical orchestrator for Ellington’s symphonic works, receiving the nickname of being Ellington’s “classical arm.”  Henderson’s first foray into Broadway theatre was Ellington’s Beggar’s Holiday, serving as co-orchestrator alongside Billy Strayhorn. He went on to serve as orchestrator, arranger, and musical director on more than fifty Broadway musicals, including Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, Flower Drum Song, Funny Girl, No, No Nanette, Purlie Victorious, Ain’t Misbehavin,’ and Jelly’s Last Jam in which he made his Broadway songwriting debut with Jelly’s Last Jam, receiving a 1992 Tony Award nomination for Best Original Score, alongside lyricist Susan Birkenhead.

From the 1950s on, Henderson also worked extensively in television, including The Ed Sullivan Show, The Bell Telephone Hour, and specials for Dean Martin, Carol Burnett, Andy Williams, and Victor Borge. He was nominated for an Emmy Award for his work on the television presentation of Ain’t Misbehavin.  Henderson served as musical director for actress Polly Bergen and Victor Borge; and arranged music for many popular singers, including Robert Goulet, Nancy Wilson, Ben Vereen, Leslie Uggams, Eartha Kitt, Diahann Carroll, Dinah Shore, Juliet Prowse, and Liza Minnelli.  He performed as “The Professor” on the children’s television show Joya’s Fun School. Henderson was twice nominated for Broadway’s Tony Award: in 1992 for Best Original Score for Jelly’s Last Jam, and in 1997 for Best Orchestrations for Play On!   He received the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Orchestrations for his work on Jelly’s Last Jam.

In 1999, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle, recorded Henderson’s orchestrations of Ellington’s music under the title Classic Ellington. The program was repeated at Carnegie Hall in September 2000, with the St. Luke’s Orchestra conducted by Rattle including performances by jazz figures Clark Terry, Dianne Reeves, and Regina Carter.  For more than two decades, Henderson worked with the Canadian Brass, eventually arranging more than 100 songs for the group. The group’s CD of Ellington’s music, Take the “A” Train, was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2000.  Henderson also recorded six albums for Columbia Records as leader of the Luther Henderson Orchestra. Other recognitions include the 2002 AUDELCO Pioneer Award, awarded alongside his wife, actress Billie Allen.

Following a long battle with cancer, Henderson died on July 29, 2003, at the age of 84 in New York City, NY. He was survived by his wife, actress Billie Allen, three children including The Electric Company actress Melanie Henderson, Denson B. Henderson, and Dr. Luther L. Henderson III, professor of music and humanities at Los Angeles City College, two step-children, two grandchildren, one step-grandchild, and one great-grandchild.  He received a posthumous Jazz Masters Award from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2004.  In 2008 Juilliard School of Music, Henderson’s alma mater, established the Luther Henderson Scholarship Fund.

The following work by Luther Henderson is contained in my collection:

That Doo-Wah Thing (adapted from It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got That Swing by Duke Ellington)


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