Band leaders like Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington, singers like Ella Fitzgerald – many jazz musicians became household names during the twentieth century. Just as many jazz artists, however, worked out of the spotlight as composers and arrangers. Although his name rarely graced the marquee, Evansville-born composer and arranger Belford “Sinky” Hendricks was a central figure in the jazz world.
Born in 1909, the African-American musician got his start playing piano in the town’s black clubs, and such white establishments as “the McCurdy Hotel, where he also worked as a bus boy.” At 15, Hendricks entered the Indiana State Teachers College in Terre Haute, working his way through school by gigging with the Paul Stewart band, among others.
Graduating in 1935, he pursued his musical studies in New York City before serving in World War 2 and returning to Evansville. Unable to support himself as a musician there, Hendricks moved back to New York after a divorce in 1950, and started to play, compose, and arrange for the Count Basie Orchestra, while establishing connections.
In time, Hendricks began to work with a young singer named Dinah Washington – he would go on to arrange her hit versions of “What a Difference a Day Makes” and “It’s Just a Matter of Time” (the latter also his co-composition). Hendricks also worked with popular jazz great Nat King Cole, arranging some of his chart-topping songs including “Ramblin’ Rose,” “Dear Lonely Hearts,” and “When You’re Smiling.” For both Dinah Washington and Nat King Cole, Hendricks also often conducted the studio orchestra for their recordings.
By the time of his death in 1977, Hendricks had “composed over 100 songs and arranged scores of tunes for orchestras, small groups, and individual performers. His work as pianist, conductor, composer, and arranger earned him the respect of many celebrated colleagues but his life behind the scenes denied him the public acclaim his talents deserved. Additionally, Hendricks’ relative obscurity may be traced to the fact that some of his compositions appeared under the pseudonym, Bill Henry.
A Moment of Indiana History is a production of WFIU Public Radio in partnership with the Indiana Public Broadcasting Stations. Research support comes from Indiana Magazine of History published by the Indiana University Department of History.
Source: Stanley Warren, “Belford C. ‘Sinky’ Hendricks: A Musician’s Musician,” IMH June 2004