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shifty henry

biography | selected songs

Shifty Henry John Willie “Shifty” Henry was an accomplished bassist, trumpet player and composer, in the classic big band tradition with songs recorded by such artists as Charlie Parker, Dinah Washington, T-Bone Walker, Ray Charles, Louis Jordan and Benny Goodman. A contemporary of Charles Mingus, Ahmad Jamal, Charles Brown and Jimmy McCracklin, Henry was considered a jazz musician of the first rate, with a gift for a blues lyric. One of his better-known songs, Let Me Go Home Whiskey was originally recorded by Amos Milburn and later became a hit for the popular country group Asleep At The Wheel.

His compositions continue to have a presence in today’s marketplace, including tracks on The Essential T-Bone Walker, The Mercury Blues Box and The Okeh Rhythm & Blues Story (Sony). BB King recorded a new version of “Midnight Blues” on his successful 2008 release “One Kind Favor” (Universal). Shifty Henry was born on October 4, 1921 in Edna, Texas and graduated with a degree in music from Prairie View A&M near Houston in 1944 where he was a star center on the university football team. It was his coach who dubbed Henry with the nickname “Shifty” referring to his speed and agility on the field. He migrated to Los Angeles after graduation and found his musical abilities to be in great demand by the artists of the day; Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Ernie Andrews, Johnny Otis, T-Bone Walker, Big Joe Turner, Jack McVea, Ernestine Anderson, Illinois Jacquet, Clora Bryant, Jimmie Lunceford and Gerald Wilson among others. An adept and creative arranger, he wrote charts for Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, Billy Eckstine and The Trenier Twins. His warm personality, broad smile and exceptional talent found him in the thick of LA’s burgeoning music scene. Glancing through Henry’s original address book, one finds the phone numbers for Ray Charles, Bill Haley, Teddy Edwards, Dial Records and Aladdin Records. He was the consummate support player.

“Our house was the meeting place, it was ‘jazz central’ for Shifty’s creative relationships. Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, Nat Cole, Dexter Gordon, they all stopped in to share ideas. Charles Mingus and Shifty were very close, Charles ended up naming our only child Cheryl Diane. I could pick up the phone and there would be Duke Ellington on the other end, or maybe Bird. It was a very exciting time for Shifty and the growth of west coast jazz,” recalled his widow Elbie Wade, who passed away in 2004. In fact, Leo Fender himself chose Henry as a recipient of his early model Precision Fender electric bass. Shifty Henry became a pioneer on the instrument incorporating the electric bass into the modern combo.

While New York had 52nd street, Los Angeles had Central Avenue. Henry was a staple at the after-hours jazz spots and he could be heard improvising into the early morning hours at famous locales such as the Dunbar Hotel, Café Society, Ivies Chicken Shack, Club Alabam and Shepp’s Play House. During the summer months, Henry headed east with the Trenier Twins for an exclusive engagement at the upscale celebrity hangout “Club Riptide” in New Jersey. During the holiday season Henry’s own group “The Shifty Henry All-Stars” were often invited to perform at the private home of arts philanthropist Dorothy Chandler and her husband Otis Chandler, then publisher of the Los Angeles Times.

Henry made it onto the big screen, playing bass with the house band in the 1950 film noir classic, D.O.A. and was a regular band member for the popular television program “Dixie Showboat.” He was also in the studio band for the weekly TV variety show starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. “I remember tagging along with my father for his television sessions,” recalls daughter Cheryl Henry. “I was so proud of the respect he commanded around his fellow musicians. He always dressed to the ‘nines’ and every detail of his wardrobe had to be ‘just so.’”

He was schooled on several instruments including; saxophone, violin, viola, flute, clarinet and oboe. Not one to miss the value of his higher education, he often signed his name with an Esq. (esquire). Borrowing from compatriot Charles Mingus, he occasionally used Baron Von Shifte, Esq. and as a composer, he used the pseudonyms; Shifte Henri, Shifté Henré, S. Henry, Shifté Henrí and Shiftí Henrí.

He died tragically on November 30, 1958 at the age of 37. Henry left behind a widow and preteen daughter and a treasure trove of letters, documents and musical arrangements. His family quickly retreated from the world of music. Rights to Henry’s compositions languished as his family put the pieces of their life back together. The story does now come to a positive place with the successful use of Henry’s song Hyping Women Blues (originally recorded by T-Bone Walker).

London DJ Mr. Scruff sampled Hyping Women Blues in the dance hit Get A Move On which has been licensed for TV commercials by Volvo and Lincoln. Carefully researching territorial copyright provisions, U.S. renewal and termination rights along with implementation of the LaCienega Ruling, the family built a classic catalog of songs. The heirs established Henry Heritage Music (BMI) to publish Shifty Henry’s intellectual property.

The legacy of Shifty Henry has come full circle. The songs and their ongoing benefits now have a gatekeeper. The works of John Shifty Henry may now take their rightful place in the annals of American music, residing among some of the greatest blues created during the fertile period, which emerged in the late 1940’s.

selected songs

Dark Shadows

Dream Girl

Hypin' Women Blues

Late In The Evening Blues

Let Me Go Home Whiskey

Let's Get Vootin'

Lonely Boy Blues

Midnight Blues

Plain Old Down Home Blues

Triflin' Woman Blues

Spoon Calls Hootie

Straighten Up Baby

Whiskey Do Your Stuff

Wise Woman Blues