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Space Age Music Maker

Mel Henke

  • Born 4 August 1915, Chicago, Illinois
  • Died 31 March 1979, Canoga Park, California

One of the masterminds behind that mix of music and sound effects in 1960s commercials that's since embedded itself deep in our subconscious. Henke got his start as a pianist, first playing in the house band at the Chez Paris nightclub in Chicago, then working in small combos in clubs around the city in the late 1930s. He joined Horace Heidt's band in 1943, replacing Frankie Carle, who left to form his own group. He worked in radio and television after World War II, and performed on camera on George Gobel's and Gary Moore's variety shows.

For the first ten years or so after settling in L.A., Henke continued to work as a performer, usually leading a trio with Bill Newman on guitar and Bob Reed on bass. He recorded two albums with the trio, supplemented by Shelly Manne and Sammy Weiss on drums, for Contemporary Records--just about the time he called his performing career quits.

In 1955, he joined the television department at Disney, where he composed most of their commercials and for a few television series, most notably , Disneyland, the first incarnation of Walt Disney's long-running series. He also became a partner at TV Spots, Inc., a production house that specialized in commercials. Unlike many musicians who dismissed commercial work as hack work, Henke took to the format immediately, and he was soon experimenting, adding sound effects and snatches of dialogue along with musical passages. He and graphic artist Eyvind Earle collaborated on numerous trailers for Hollywood movies, including "West Side Story."

He released a few albums in the early 1960s that applied this approach to current hits, standards, and original compositions. The most famous of these is La Dolce Henke, which mixes jazzy compositions with sound effects (mostly simulated by musical instruments) and voice-overs to create miniature sonic dramas, like a double-entendre skit where a girl objects to her boyfriend's sporty driving--or is it his sporty moves on her? Dynamic Adventures in Sound is less tongue-in-cheek and more cartoonish, very much along the lines of Ray Martin's The Sight of Sound.

A swinging cat with some crazy mixed-up wry-fidelity way-out concepts, dig?


  • Dig Mel Henke, Contemporary C5001
  • Now Spin This! Mel Henke Vol. 2, Contemporary C5003
  • Selections on Garry Moore Presents My Kind of Music, Columbia CL 717
  • Dynamic Adventures in Sound, Warner Brothers WB 1447
  • La Dolce Henke, Warner Brothers WB 1472
  • Shock Treatment, Tempo 7003
  • Love Touch, Dobre Records DR 1031

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