Michael Henderson: In Memoriam

Bassist for Miles Davis from 1971-1975; singer, producer, and fan favorite

by Marshall Bowden

By 1971 when Miles Davis hit the studio to record sessions that would become the soundtrack for a documentary film about legendary black boxer Jack Johnson, he had seriously honed down the size of the band he was working with and consequently, the music has a very different texture than In a Silent Way or Bitches Brew.   A Tribute to Jack Johnson represents a stunning crossroads where boxing, the Black Power movement, the development of rock music as an expression of vast changes in American society, the electronic amplification of jazz, and Miles Davis all come together.

Jack Johnson was also the record on which Davis first worked with a young Detroit bassist named Michael Henderson. Henderson became increasingly crucial to the music that Davis was playing because it required a bassist who could lay down a rock solid groove and stick to it no matter what was happening on top. Jazz fans and critics would criticize Henderson mercilessly for not being a jazz player or for not living up to the caliber of previous Davis bassists like Ron Carter and Dave Holland.

Miles was constructing music with the bass at the root, as was happening with funk and R&B music. James Brown and Sly Stone based their music on driving, repetitive bass riffs that could create an almost hypnotic state in the listener and over which a variety of  sounds and textures could be deployed. Unlike jazz, this wasn’t about swinging or about technical proficiency. It was about taking on the role as the anchor.

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It didn’t help that Henderson was 19 years old and that his most recent experience had been touring with Stevie Wonder. Miles reportedly told Wonder “I’m taking your fucking bass player.” ( https://www.theguardian.com/music/2003/oct/17/2 ) Henderson was mentored by James Jamerson of Motown’s Funk Brothers backing band and can be heard playing with Wonder on the 1970 release Live at Talk of the Town along with drummer Harvey Mason powering a rhythm section that drives some open-ended funk jamming on “I Was Made To Love Her” and “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” which was weeks from being released as Wonder’s next single. 

The 2003 release of The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions gives an opportunity to hear Henderson holding down a variety of grooves over which Miles and the other musicians improvise and interject, even if some of the individual cuts don’t add up to much by themselves. One thing is certain: Henderson is there to play what Miles wants and he obviously succeeded because every session and live performance Miles played from 1971 until his semi-retirement in 1975 included Henderson.

“He had conversations with everyone he worked with,” remembers Henderson. “What not to do, look out for this, but be yourself and just listen to it. He’d say, ‘Here it is, this is the way I see it, but you do what you do.’ “

It’s also powerful to hear Henderson playing with Keith Jarrett, Gary Bartz, and Jack DeJohnette on The Complete Cellar Door Sessions. This week of live performances provided much of the source material for Live-Evil, a record that was very innovative in the way that it edited live material and studio material into a seamless whole that has a vibe that’s a bit more aggressive than Bitches Brew or Jack Johnson, bristling with atmosphere. But getting to hear the actual performances, for example how Henderson and Jack DeJohnette create an airtight pocket for Keith Jarrett’s forays on the performance of “What I Say” from the second set of the first night that leads off Disc 2, lends a great deal to our understanding of Miles’ conception from this period, and how crucial Michael Henderson was to that conception.

Henderson was present again for the sessions that led to On the Corner, Davis’ controversial (weren’t they all?) 1972 release that pretty much sorted those who would listen to Miles going forward from those who definitely would not. Again it’s impossible not to see Henderson’s bass as the central figure in the ebb and flow of grooves that make up the music. On a track like “Billy Preston” his bass figure is hardly standard radio funk fare. It’s a signature line that defines the track as much as anything Miles plays.

From there Henderson played in bands with a varying group of side musicians (though the rhythm section remained rock solid), documented on such live recordings as Miles Davis In Concert and Dark Magus. The band kept getting darker and the grooves wore deeper. Miles kept adding guitarists and became the group’s only keyboard player, playing cluster chords and harsh sounds that slashed across the music’s canvas. The band’s live performances went way beyond Davis’ most recent studio recordings: if On the Corner lit the fuse, the trumpeter and his touring band were accelerating the burn, heading for a meltdown.

That came with two concerts performed in Japan on the same day in February 1975. The resulting double albums, Agharta and Pangea, are the culmination of everything that Davis had been pushing for with his electric music and they are not only among his best recordings, they point the way towards a lot of future music that would be influenced by this band and its music, and Michael Henderson was a very important part of that. 

In the early 2000s Henderson led the group Children on the Corner, a group of Miles sidemen from the electronic era revisiting the sounds of the era. “A lot of people have tried to do that music without really understanding how it was done,” he said. “Being the bass player there, you get to work out that kind of stuff. And Miles knew what he was doing. He wasn’t guessing. What we were doing was untouchable, and we knew that at the time. It was what it was. It was unique, and with a life of its own.”

After those concerts in Japan, Miles went silent for a period of five years. When it became clear that there would be no further recording sessions or tours with Davis in the near future, Henderson wasted no time, teaming up with drummer Norman Connors for whom he wrote the track “Valentine Love,” as well as turning in his first recorded vocal performance. Henderson had always wanted to be a singer but stopped for a time after being rejected by a record label that he auditioned for at the age of thirteen. 

The record was successful enough that the two teamed up again for two tracks on Connors’ follow-up album. On “We Both Need Each Other” he sings a duet with Phyllis Hyman, and on the album’s title track, “You Are My Starship,” his smooth tenor vocals are front and center. The song remains a popular one to this day, included on Time Life collections and other compilations. But though the label of the single credited it to ‘Norman Connors feat. Michael Henderson’, outside of Detroit where both artists were fairly new to the pop music audience, many listeners assumed that Connors was the vocalist they were listening to. It came to a head when Connors came in second in the category ‘best new male vocalist’ in one of the weekly trades. Henderson decided that he would record under his own name from here on out.

Henderson received a contract with Buddah Records on the strength of his hits with Connors, and he quickly released the album Solid. The album features some solid dance funk tunes (“Make Me Feel Better” and “You Haven’t Made It To the Top”), a couple of instrumentals (“Time” and the title track, which has a bit of a Stanley Clarke vibe) and a heaping helping of romantic ballads, including a remake of “Valentine Love.” 

Michael Henderson continued to release every year or so through 1985’s Bedtime Stories. He found continued success as a producer and was still popular with concert audiences. 2018 saw the release of Take Me I’m Yours: Michael Henderson–The Buddha Years Anthology. Henderson penned the liner notes for the compilation, and his words let you know how much he enjoyed playing music:  “I signed up for this some 50 years ago, but I’m a youngster compared to a lot of these guys who are still out there. Basically, we’re just big kids. And that thing that was in your eye then — that spirit — never leaves you.” 

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