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Remembering Michael Henderson, a funky, energizing bassist

Miles Davis Septet
Jean-Pierre Roche
Miles Davis Septet

Michael Henderson, a funky, energizing bassist who worked with Stevie Wonder and Miles Davis before launching a potent R&B career in the mid-’70s, died on July 19th. He was 71.

Born in Mississippi but raised in Detroit, Henderson joined Stevie Wonder’s band in the late ’60s. (He can be heard on the Wonder album Live at the Talk of the Town.) But the partnership was short-lived; in 1970, after a show at the Copacabana, Miles Davis famously informed Wonder that a personnel change was imminent.

“He said to Stevie, ‘I’m taking your fucking bassist,’” said Henderson to All About Jazz. “I don’t think Stevie heard him because he talked like that [Henderson’s best Miles impression]. The next thing I knew, I got a call from Miles and I asked my friend, ‘What do you know about this Miles guy?’ He said, ‘If Miles Davis is calling you, you better get your bass guitar and run.’”

During the first half of the ’70s, Henderson toured and recorded with Davis, appearing on electric albums like On the Corner and A Tribute to Jack Johnson. The experience helped Henderson find his voice as a musician.

“Miles Davis was like a father to me,” explained Henderson to All About Jazz. “We always got along. We never had any arguments and never fell out about anything. He was a great teacher for me as far as developing my style.”

But in 1975, Henderson moved away from jazz when Norman Connors released “Valentine Love,” a top ten hit on R&B radio. The luxurious slow jam was written by Henderson, and features him on both bass and vocals (alongside Jean Carne). In the latter category, it was his debut performance.

“I said, “Well, we can record it, but we have to get somebody to sing it, because I don’t sing,’” said Henderson on the Cindy Davis Show. “So we recorded the record in San Francisco, did the track, and he said, ‘Well, do a demo.’ I said, ‘Well, okay, I don’t know exactly how it’s going to go.’ So I did the demo with a lead vocal, and then Jean Carne overdubbed her part. I did the lead vocal in hopes that somebody else would come and sing it. Well they kept my voice. And that was the first hit.”

In 1976, Connors scored two more hits with Henderson on vocals: “We Both Need Each Other,” a duet with Phyllis Hyman, and the hypnotic “You Are My Starship.” The same year, Henderson released his debut album, Solid, ushering in a ten-year stretch of solo hits like “Take Me I’m Yours” and the dancey synth-bass jam “Wide Receiver.”

Henderson retreated from the spotlight after his 1986 album Bedtime Stories, but later returned to the music of Miles Davis with Children on the Corner and Miles From India. But despite a high-profile half-decade with Miles, real notoriety came after “Valentine Love.”

“At the barbecue, all of a sudden I was on the radio,” said Henderson to Cindy Davis. “Instead of everybody else on the radio. The picnic turned to me. Instead of always listening to somebody else. We were playing basketball, and swimming like everybody else. And throwing backyard parties. Now all of a sudden, guess who’s on the radio? And that’s what happened. Number one.”