Luther Henderson, musical director, arranger, orchestrator and composer who helped form the distinctive sound of such musicals as “Funny Girl,” “Play On!” and “Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music,” died Tuesday July 29 in Manhattan after a long battle with cancer. He was 84.
His career included work on more than two dozen Broadway productions in various capacities, as well as other legit works, film, TV and recordings.
Luther Lincoln Henderson was born in to a father of the same name who was an actor and educator; his mother, Florence Black, was also an educator.
Henderson was a math major at the College of the City of New York and eventually earned a B.S. in music at Juilliard in 1942. He also attended New York U.’s Grad School of Music. As early as 1946, he was one of the orchestrators for Broadway’s “Beggar’s Holiday.” As dance arranger and/or orchestrator, his credits include “Flower Drum Song,” “Do Re Mi,” “Hallelujah Baby” and the revival of “No, No, Nanette.” He is the arranger of “Three Black Kings,” composed by Duke Ellington, originally commissioned by the Dance Theater of Harlem as “Les Trois Rois Noirs.”
In Off Broadway and regional theater, Henderson was the composer for the Amas Theater production of “The Crystal Tree” and was musical supervisor, orchestrator and arranger for “The All Night Strut!” at Ford’s Theater in D.C. and for “Jazzbo Brown” in New York City.
Henderson orchestrated and co-composed the music of Jelly Roll Morton for “Jelly’s Last Jam” (and was Tony-nominated for best score). In the inaugural year of the Tony for orchestrations, he was nominated for his work on “Play On!,” the Jazz Age take on Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.”
For NBC-TV he served as musical director, orchestrator, arranger and pianist for the Columbia Pictures television special “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” for which he received an Emmy Award nomination.
In addition, he worked on the TV special “The Helen Morgan Story,” starring Polly Bergen, as well as “The Bachelor,” “The First Victor Borge Special” and “The Second Victor Borge Special.”For film, Henderson was the composer and orchestrator for “Recess” and “The Slams.”
Among his many albums are several with the Canadian Brass and Eileen Farrell’s “I Got a Right to Sing the Blues,” re-released in 1992. For Columbia Records, the Luther Henderson Orchestra recorded six albums.His last works heard in Gotham theater were his orchestrations and arrangements for “Little Ham,” the Harlem-set musical inspired by a Langston Hughes play. It played Off-Broadway’s John Houseman Theater in 2002.
He is survived by his wife, actress-director Billie Allen.