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Mel Henke

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Biography

Coming up in a variety of Chicago bands in the '40s, this pianist had an unusual career that included recording downright weird tunes such as "Shock Treatment," "Cocky Coo-Coo Clock," and "Frenzied Flight," as well as creating what might be one of the masterpieces in the genre of lounge music, although experts in this style have been a bit relaxed about establishing an exact opinion. Henke shows up in the rhythm section on some Louis Armstrong records, and meanwhile over in Nashville, he once successfully placed a song with Conway Twitty. Henke was trained to please in writing ad copy, an influence that has been considered both a pro and con factor in his recorded works. Perhaps Henke's greatest influence as a musician was in the advertising field itself, as he was innovative in mixing music and sound effects as an attention-grabbing factor in the commercials of the '60s. He began to work professionally in music as a nightclub pianist, establishing himself in several Chicago venues by the late '30s. In 1943 he replaced Frankie Carle on Horace Heidt's bandstand. He also worked behind leaders such as saxophonist Bud Freeman. Following the second World War, he was active in radio and television, performing on variety shows hosted by stars such as George Gobel and Gary Moore. By the early '40s he had settled in Los Angeles, leading his own trio on the side. This outfit landed a deal to make a pair of albums on the Contemporary label, which is where jazz buffs inevitably come across him. Fans of the type of challenging jazz often presented on this label may find the concoctions of Henke a bit bubbly; his followers seem to drift in more from the aforementioned loungey or space age waiting rooms. In 1955 he went to work for Disney's television department, writing material for a great deal of the studio's commercials as well as incidental music for the Disneyland television series. Henke ran his own production company as well, and was known for experimenting with sound effects and the concept of mixing dialogue into musical passages. Inevitably, he created a series of albums combining these techniques with full-length musical performances and instrumental skullduggery. La Dolce Henke, worth hunting down for its title alone, is considered his masterpiece. ~ Eugene Chadbourne
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