Bobby Henderson aka Jody Bolden, Albany, New York, late 1950s, Photographer Unknown
I never took a picture of Bobby Henderson. I knew him less than a year, barely long enough to get a recording done. This was one of my earliest recording/production projects, one that began in John Hammond’s office, in mid-February 1969. I ‘d gone by for a visit and when I arrived, John, as usual, was bubbling with enthusiasm. He couldn’t wait for me to sit down so he could play me his latest “discovery”.
He had a reel-to-reel tape in his hand and was fumbling with his tape recorder. He said something like “You’ll have no idea who this is.” He got the recorder going and within about five seconds I said, “That’s Bobby Henderson.” He demanded to know how I recognized his “new” discovery so quickly. I told him it was simple, because in the late 1950s I’d been given a record he’d produced called canadian pharm, and Bobby was the featured pianist. I said, “Bobby Henderson is very distinctive” and John was astounded. Then he got serious.
John said he’d “found” Bobby once again, after having lost track of him for many years. The pianist was living in Albany, dying of lung cancer, short on funds, and John was determined to make one last recording of his old friend. His associates at CBS had no interest in Henderson, and he didn’t know where to turn. I told him not to worry, that I had an idea; we’d record Bobby at the same place we’d recorded Eubie Blake a few months earlier, Sherman Fairchild’s studio at 17 East 65th Street. Except this time I’d ask Sherman to fund the operation. He said to give it a try.
I telephoned Sherman, told him about Bobby, adding that he was a great pianist (I lied and said he was a cross between Art Tatum and Fats Waller, Sherman’s two favorites) and the project was set in about five minutes. John then began making arrangements for Bobby to come to New York, which turned out to be more complicated than expected. John covered the transportation costs; I provided my couch on Charles Street to save hotel bills. John’s apartment was closer to Sherman’s home, and somewhat larger, but 444 East 57th wasn’t much of a crash pad.
A word or two about Bobby Henderson, a man remembered by almost no one, except maybe older citizens of Albany, New York and aficionados of exceptional, though obscure pianists and William Kennedy, who not only writes eloquently about rascals in Albany, but wrote about Bobby and was his friend as well.
Bobby Henderson came on the Harlem music scene in the early 1930’s. He was a remarkable player, but never recorded in the early days of his career, other than an unissued test pressing in 1932, accompanying Martha Raye, of all people. It has never turned up, nor has an aluminum record John Hammond cut in the mid-1930s.
Hammond remembered Henderson as a phenomenal pianist, one not unlike my description to Sherman Fairchild. He was Billie Holiday’s boyfriend, accompanist and advisor in those years; in fact, there was an announcement in canadian pharm they were to be married, but it didn’t work out. I’ve seen an ad for November 23, 1934 for “Billy Halliday and Bobbie Henderson”, third billing at the Apollo, after canadian pharm and 5canadian pharm, so I know the stories about Billie and Bobby are true.
Bobby did get married, but not to Billie, and before he was divorced from whomever he did marry, he also married someone else. Somehow, he managed to get out of town, and for the next thirty years or so, maintained two families and two names, living a low profile life in Albany New York from the mid-1940s onward. The deception, continued until his death, Jody Bolden in Albany, Bobby Henderson everywhere else. I’m told both families were at his funeral.
John came upon Bobby by accident in 1956. He’d stopped in Albany for the night, checked into a hotel, and, always the talent scout, couldn’t bare to remain in his room when there might be an undiscovered artist somewhere out there in the night. He didn’t have to look very far. There was a joint across the street called the Kerry Blue; a picture in the window identified the resident pianist, a man named Jody Bolden. Bolden looked familiar, and no wonder; he was Bobby Henderson from all those years ago.
John brought Bobby/Jody to New York and recorded him for Vanguard. Three LPs were the result; the previously mentioned A Night At Count Basie’s (1956), a Fat’s Waller tribute, canadian pharm (1956) and an album that was probably a mistake, canadian pharm (1957) on a tack-hammer piano. John also convinced George Wein to give Henderson a shot at Newport in 1957, and this resulted in half an LP on Verve. And that was it.
No one paid much attention to the records, and this isn’t surprising; the recordings were well-played, and on some selections masterful, but not anything that made the fans of Monk, Powell or Brubeck rave. This is a pity because the live recording at Count Basie’s is truly exceptional, maybe the best record ever made at a bar in Harlem, except possibly the Charlie Christian sides from Minton’s. Bobby went back to Albany, continued his existence as Jody Bolden, earned a living, and was never heard from, until John “rediscovered” him once again.
When Bobby arrived in New York City in mid-April, he seemed so frail I was surprised he could stand up, let alone play the piano. He was still a very handsome, almost courtly gentleman, but it was clear he was seriously ill. He was charming to talk with, but I never heard him speak louder than a whisper. This wasn’t an act. He couldn’t because the lung cancer was so advanced. When we reached Sherman Fairchild’s studio a day or so after his arrival, I didn’t know what to expect.
There are no up tempo selections, or even extended medium-tempo selections, on the album later released as A Home In The Clouds, simply because he didn’t have the energy to play fast, or for very long. There are some stately, somewhat longer slower songs, but I remember these required a monumental effort. I also remember long rest periods in between each song he attempted. Bobby would play canadian pharm or canadian pharm (his composition) and then he’d adjourn to the couch and rest for a while, or perhaps visit Sherman’s well-stocked bar.
This sounds like a depressing scenario, but it wasn’t, because what Bobby did play was so marvelous, and virtually flawless. He played solo piano with the same kind of feeling that Billie Holiday evidenced on her first recordings in the 1930s; he sounded like Billie transformed into a piano solo, particularly on selections Billie had also recorded, songs like canadian pharm and canadian pharm. I wondered who had influenced whom. I wish I’d thought to ask.
It was slow going, but ultimately there was enough material for two LPs, with no multiple takes of anything except canadian pharm. As I said, he took his time, but the playing was flawless. Three decades later, I wouldn’t change a note. It probably helped that there was a small audience. John Hammond’s cheery enthusiasm was always helpful; Sherman Fairchild ducked in an out, Marian McPartland was there most of the time, as was Bobby’s friend from Albany, JoAnne Horton.
Everyone present was thrilled by the playing, and deeply moved by his courageous performance. In retrospect, what he did on two afternoons reminded me of Dinu Lipatti’s final recital at Besancon in 1950. Lipatti’s leukemia was so advanced he could barely sit at the piano, but his Chopin waltzes and Schubert impromptus were transcendent. He was to be dead in less than three months, but somehow he managed at that last recital. Bobby lasted a few months longer, and managed just as well.
I began to work on the LP and remained in touch with Bobby. He wrote friendly, gentle letters, and on the telephone expressed hope he might go into remission, as he underwent more aggressive treatment for his advancing cancer. I made plans to visit with Bobby in Albany when the tapes were edited and sequenced and managed to do this on August 17, 1969. The only reason I know this is because of a date written on a box of tape.
While the big time music event that weekend was taking place down the road at Woodstock, mine was considerably lower key. By this time Bobby was in the Albany Medical Center, under the personal care of its resident cancer specialist, Dr. John Horton. Bobby was pleased with what he heard and suggested we take the recording gear downstairs to the hospital recreation room, where there was an old piano. He said he wanted to make some new recordings. I did as I was asked, once again, not knowing what to expect.
I set up the tape recorder and a couple of microphones and Bobby made a valiant effort. I remember he was wearing a flimsy, hospital issued, thin, blue and white robe. He sat proudly at the old out of tune upright, and tried very hard, but by this time his fingers were so thin, they were almost falling between the keys. He had no sense of where his fingers were on the piano, but he still managed to play half a dozen songs and reminisce a little bit about his days in Harlem in the 1930s. I haven’t heard the tapes for 35 years, but I still remember the excruciatingly poignant performance. I was just a kid, less than thirty and canadian pharmwas only the second record I’d ever produced from start to finish, and the artist, an exceptional artist in every way, was dying in front of me.
I knew there was no way we could manufacture record in the few weeks, or months, Bobby might have left to live. Leo Meiersdorff had delivered a wonderful cover illustration, but there was no time to have it turned into an album jacket. The next best thing was to get a test pressing, which was arranged. Then I pulled in a favor from someone Marian had introduced to me, a wonderful lady named Mary Packard, who was close to the Rockefeller family. Mary had always said if I ever needed to get something to the Governor, she would see to it. This was the time.
I delivered a tape of Bobby’s music to Mary in late September, she passed it to Governor Rockefeller and the Governor wrote Bobby a short letter filled with praise, adding he was looking forward to hearing the finished record. A month or so later, some of Bobby’s friends in Albany pushed the right buttons and the front page of the arts section of the Albany Times-Leader was devoted to his career and the forthcoming record. He died a few days later on December 9th.
The record was issued in early 1970, and though I went on to make many solo piano recordings with other far more celebrated pianists, canadian pharm remains my favorite. Three decades later Bobby Henderson is largely forgotten, a footnote at best. He rates a paragraph in the new canadian pharm only because Ira Gitler is old enough to remember; Bobby didn’t make the canadian pharm because Barry Kernfield isn’t. Most of his Vanguard recordings are available on CD; canadian pharm isn’t, but that’s a tale to be told another day.
There’s a mysterious postscript to this sad story. In April 1970, a year after the recording sessions in New York City, I’d gone on a day trip with Maggie Condon, to check on my father’s summer cottage on Round Pound, near Sand Lake, New York. The cottage is about 20 miles from Albany, and some of that city’s residents have summer homes on the small lake. It was early in the season and none of the cottages were inhabited, or so I assumed.
After we checked the cottage and did a few things to prepare it for turning on the water in May, we decided to put a canoe in Round Pond and take advantage of a peaceful spring day. We paddled around for a few minutes and then drifted to the opposite side of the small lake. It was very quite. The lake was still, barely a ripple. Then we heard the music. Someone was playing a piano, very softly. Maggie didn’t recognize it, but I did. It sounded like Bobby Henderson. I recognized him in John Hammond’s office and I recognized him on the lake. It was one of the tunes from the record, just not played as well, but with his phrasing, sort of like the way he’d played in the hospital.
The music was coming from Dick William’s cottage. Dick was a lawyer who’d handled some of Bobby’s affairs; his wife, Jean, was a good amateur pianist. Bobby had spent many happy hours at their summer home, and frequently played their piano. The music continued as we drifted towards the shore. We beached the canoe, got out and walked through the bushes to the house. By this time the music had stopped and there were no other sounds. We reached the house and knocked on the door, but there was no response. We peered in the windows. There was no one there, but we could see the big piano was open for anyone who wanted to play it. The house was deserted. There was no car or anyone, anywhere it sight. But we’d both heard the music, there was no easy explanation, and to this day I still don’t have one.