Bea Arthur & Luther Henderson
Sunday April 26th 2009, 3:36 pm
Filed under: This 'n' That

On August 15, 2005, at 11 AM, Bea Arthur buzzed me through the gate to her Brentwood home on North Rockingham. When she opened the font door wearing a terry-cloth robe and skippers I thought perhaps she had been out by a pool. “Forgive me,” she said, “I forgot you were coming. Make yourself comfortable.” It took her only a few moments to throw on a jogging suit and fold her 6-foot-9-plus-inch frame into the pillows of a comfortable couch. “Good thing this was not a video interview. Looking good takes so much effort these days.” Bea Arthur shared a few personality traits her most famous characters, Maude Findlay and golden girl Dorothy Zbornak, so I easily imagined each of them explaining that the golden years are not always so golden.

I had met Ms. Arthur almost a year earlier at a memorial service for Luther Henderson. He had played a major role in the careers of many singers. From 1947 to 1950, he worked as pianist and musical director for Lena Horne, and during that time, and for decades to follow, all the singers wanted him to write their shows, Bea Arthur, Robert Goulet, Diahann Carroll, Nancy Wilson, Goldie Hawn, and Florence Henderson among them.

At the memorial, Bea Arthur told us a story about her invitation to sing a song called “It Amazes Me” at an affair honoring Cy Coleman twenty-five years earlier.

“I thought, ‘I know there’s going to be a lot of terrific talent honoring Cy,’ and I decided that rather than just slide in and go to rehearsal next day, I thought, ‘No. I’m going to go a day earlier and work with Luther and really kill the people.”

“So I did, and we worked; we worked all that day. Quite wonderful. And then the night of the event, which was, I remember, at Peacock Alley at the Waldorf – black tie, oh, I mean it was fabulous – a number of people got up and performed Cy’s stuff. And then Tony Bennett came and started singing and, of course, he leveled the place, just tore the place up to such a degree that – I don’t know if you remember this, Billy – that he had to do an encore. So Cy sat down at the piano and Tony sang…“It Amazes Me.” I never in my life … I was so devastated! So after that, we just went to the bar and got loaded.”

And after telling the story, Ms. Arthur, then casually dressed in white pants, tunic top, and sandals, regal as ever, began to sing, accompanied by Billy Goldenberg. Even without a microphone, her voice was strong and sure, her delivery, striking.

I wanted to know more about her relationship with Luther Henderson and that is what had brought me to her house for an interview. She was very apologetic about her memory, but she provided a few pieces to the the jigsaw puzzle of Luther’s life. He first worked with Ms. Arthur in her ingenue days (late 1940s) and she remembered going to his studio:

I was told about Luther, who was a coach and had an arrangement with a voice teacher. I forget exactly what street it was on. I was going to say 48th. No, the theater, the New School theater was there. But I started working with Luther who saw something in me because he never charged me because I didn’t have any money anyway.

It was the time when everyone was emulating Lena Horne. And Luther taught me, among other things, to play the lyrics, to make sure you hear the lyrics, which of course was Lena’s big thing.

And he took me, I don’t know, some place up in Harlem to some black club there where I sang. I, with Luther’s help, auditioned for one night club called One Fifth Avenue. I remember they billed me as “Bea Arthur, Songs from the Heart.” I think I lasted one night. I mean I was fine when I was singing, but I never knew what to do in between songs. I was so up tight, I couldn’t say, ‘Thank you ladies and gentlemen … for my next number I’d like ….’ I just kind of froze there with a shit-eating grin on my face, you know?

This reminiscence corroborates other accounts. Luther’s notes about studying the Schillinger method at the NYU Graduate School of Music (1946-47) included a mention: “During this time I had set up a studio as a freelance arranger/orchestrator and vocal coach on 47th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues.” That would have been Vamp Studios. According to a newspaper advertisement saved in Luther’s papers at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, VAMP stands for “Voice Action Music Production,” and Luther, along with Richard Camillucci and Buster Newman, offered “songs, arrangements, and special material written.”

After the initial coaching, Ms. Arthur remembered only two other professional interactions — an episode of Maude required her to sing, so they brought in Luther for a guest appearance, and the Cy Colman story told at Luther’s memorial — but they remained friends throughout the years. I asked her when she last saw Luther and to describe him for me.

“When we played Broadway and I was in New York for three or four months, I had a couple of dinners with Luther and Billie at Picholine, I think. … Luther was fuzzy. Kind of fuzzy and ticklish. You know, his humor was very low key and impish.”

Those dinners took place in 2002. Ms. Arthur remarked on how old Luther looked (“I was rather surprised to see him older”) but I doubt that she knew about his ongoing cancer battle as that was something Luther did not often discuss. She also mentioned a recent Ellington project (“he really got slammed”). The bad review actually occurred in at the end of September, 2000, almost 18 months before these dinners. Ms. Arthur may or may not have read the review in The New York Times from her Southern California home, but around the time of those dinners Luther was actively seeking funding for a follow-up project, Classic Ellington II, so his endeavors and the bad review were very much on his mind and likely discussed over meals with friends.

Piecing together snippets of someone’s life story and interviewing all sorts of people is the fun part of writing biographies. Many snippets never find their way into the final product, and whether Luther’s brief encounters with Ms. Arthur merit more than a mention in the final Seeking Harmony manuscript remains to be seen. Yet knowing all sort of seemingly trivial details informs the big picture, even if in intangible ways.

I have interviewed all sorts of people that I would never had met otherwise, and I am grateful that Ms. Arthur allowed me to spend a few hours with her.