Judy Henske, a groundbreaking 1960s folk revival singer who released a string of cult albums and enjoyed international success as a songwriter, has died. She was 85 years old.
Henske died April 27, 2022 in hospice care at a Los Angeles-area facility after a long illness, her husband, Craig Doerge, said.
Known for her fervent, dramatic vocal style and commanding stage presence, Henske stands out from its peers in folk music. Her ability to temper her rousing renditions of traditional material like “Wade in the Water” and “Love, Henry” with ribald humor on stage sets her apart from typical coffeehouse performers. Henske’s 1964 single “High Flying Bird” anticipated the folk-rock revolution of the following years, opening the doors to psychedelic artists like Janis Joplin and Grace Slick. The song, written by Billy Edd Wheeler, was later covered by Richie Havens, Jefferson Airplane and many others.
Dubbed “the queen of the beatniks” by producer Jack Nitzsche, Henske’s lively personality and quick wit made her a legendary figure beyond the recording industry. Woody Allen drew inspiration from his personal style and small-town experience for his film’s lead character Annie Hall. Mystery writer Andrew Vachss included it as a musical leitmotif in a series of novels. His circle of friendship was wide and fiercely loyal, including notables as diverse as Phil Ochs, Jackson Browne, Pauline Kael, Eve Babitz and Shel Silverstein.
Judith Anne Henske was born on December 20, 1936 in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. Her father was a doctor, her mother a housewife. She showed talent as a singer as a teenager and began to devote herself more seriously to music as a student at Rosary College in River Forest, Illinois, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. . By 1959 she had moved to San Diego, where she performed at local coffeehouses before hitting venues in Los Angeles. At the Unicorn, she opened for Lenny Bruce (among others) and gained notoriety for her folk ballads.
While performing in Oklahoma City in 1962, Henske was recruited by former Kingston Trio member Dave Guard to join the Whiskey Hill Singers, with whom she recorded an album. From there she was signed as a solo artist to Elektra Records and released a pair of albums combining folk, blues, jazz and stand-up comedy. Now living in New York, she has become a mainstay of the Greenwich Village folk scene and has appeared in popular clubs such as the Village Gate and the Bitter End.
Henske’s notable TV appearances during this time included a featured spot on The Judy Garland Show. She appeared alongside Johnny Cash in the 1963 folkloric exploitation film, Hootenanny Hoot. The following year, she played the lead role in gogo love youan Off-Broadway musical written by gentlemen prefer blondes author Anita Loos.
After releasing albums on Mercury and Reprise, Henske began to focus on her songwriting. His highly literate touch as a lyricist found expression on Farewell Aldebaran, released on Frank Zappa’s Straight label in 1969. Henske’s tender-to-fierce vocals, enhanced by the swirling psych-baroque production of her first husband, composer Jerry Yester (who had replaced Zal Yanovsky in Lovin’ Spoonful), helped make the album an enduring cult favorite. In 1971, she co-founded and recorded with Rosebud, a folk-rock quintet which released an eponymous album on Straight Records.
Watch a trailer for a reissue of Farewell Aldebaran
After Rosebud, Henske turned away from recording and performing to raise her daughter, Kate. She turned to writing lyrics, collaborating on songs with keyboardist and songwriter Craig Doerge (whom she married in 1973). “Yellow Beach Umbrella” (covered by Three Dog Night and Bette Midler), “Might as Well Have a Good Time” (recorded by Crosby, Stills and Nash) and “Sauvez-Moi” (a No. 1 single in France for Johnny Hallyday) were among the duo’s most successful efforts.
Related: Musicians and other celebrities we lost in 2022
The 1990s found Henske performing small club dates around Los Angeles. As a journalist, she wrote feature articles for the San Diego Reader and other publications.
In 1999, Henske returned to recording with Free in the worldfollowed by She sang California in 2004. In 2007, Rhino Records released Big Judy: How Far Does This Music Go, 1962-2004, a career retrospective on two CDs. From the following decade, a new generation began to discover his work. In 2013, cabaret artist Meredith Di Menna brought her show Queen of the Beatniks: The Songs of Judy Henske on New York nightclub stages. Los Angeles dance company BodyTraffic created Death defying dancesa choreographed production inspired by Henske’s first recordings, in 2016.
During her later years, Henske worked on a memoir of her life and experiences. She also continued to write songs.
Henske is survived by her husband Craig Doerge, daughter Kate DeLaPointe and granddaughter Claire DeLaPointe. Plans for a memorial are pending.
Watch Henske performs “Wade in the Water” on Hootenanny Hoot