Judy Henske, a Distinctive Voice on the Folk Scene, Dies at 85

Judy Henske, who made a splash on the folk scene of the early 1960s with a versatile voice that could conjure Billie Holiday or foreshadow Janis Joplin, and performances full of offbeat stage patter, died on April 27 in hospice deva in Los Angeles. She was 85.

The death was announced by her husband, the keyboardist Craig Doerge.

Ms. Henske played in clubs and coffee houses on the West Coast in the late 1950s and early ’60s — she opened for Lenny Bruce at the Los Angeles club the Unicorn — before heading east to be part of the vibrant Greenwich Village scene. By 1963, when Robert Shelton of The New York Times sampled the up-and-coming talent in those clubs, she had made a strong impression.

“Standing head and shoulders above the new contenders,” Mr. Shelton wrote, “is Judy Henske, a six-foot hollyhock who is blooming with talent.”

“She is praiseworthy for her singing of blues, folk ballads and popular songs,” he added, “as well as for her freely improvised patter, which has been called ‘cafe of the absurd.’”

That same year, her debut album, called simply “Judy Henske,” was released, and she appeared in a feature sinema, “Hootenanny Hoot,” playing herself, alongside Johnny Cash, the Brothers Four and other musical acts.

“I was the only folk singer who looked good in a swimsuit,” she told The Santa Cruz Sentinel of California in 2000, explaining her presence in that forgotten movie.

In 1964 her second album, “High Flying Bird,” was released. Its title track, written by Billy Edd Wheeler, was among her better-known songs, and the record also included a bluesy version of the standard “Until the Real Thing Comes Along” and a mournful cover of “God Bless the Child.”

“The Death-Defying Judy Henske,” recorded live in front of an audience in a studio in 1966, captured some of her trademark banter. One of that album’s tracks, “Betty and Dupree,” is almost 11 minutes long and begins with Ms. Henske telling an improbable yarn about two octogenarians looking for love that goes on for four minutes before she starts singing. But the record also included plenty of folk, soul and blues.

“Henske’s ability to mark her territory in all of these genres, define it, and then burn it down is decidedly spellbinding,” Matthew Greenwald wrote on the website Analog Planet when the album was rereleased some 40 years later.

Ms. Henske performing with Paul Butterfield at the Cafe au Go Go in Greenwich Village in 1968. Credit…Don Paulsen/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

In 1969 Ms. Henske and her husband at the time, the musician and arranger Jerry Yester, released the album “Farewell Aldebaran,” which took her into even more uncharted territory with its use of synthesizers and psychedelic flourishes. In the early 1970s she recorded with a quintet called Rosebud, but then — after her first marriage ended in divorce and she married Mr. Doerge, a fellow member of Rosebud, in 1973 — came a long absence from recording.

In the late 1990s, though, people began to rediscover her, thanks to an internet fan site and to her mentions in the crime novels of Andrew Vachss, whose main character, a private detective named Burke, was a Henske fan.

In 1999 she released her first album in decades, “Loose in the World.” The next year found her back onstage in Manhattan, playing the Bottom Line with Dave Van Ronk. Another album, “She Sang California,” came out in 2004. Old fans were surprised, in a good way.

“They say, ‘Oh, you’re doing so well. We wondered what happened to you,’” she told The Marin Independent Journal of California in 2005. “It’s like I’m some kind of relative that they liked, or some kind of acquaintance they only had a good time with. And now here’s that person again. And they’re so glad to see me.”

Judith Anne Henske was born on Dec. 20, 1936, in Chippewa Falls, Wis. Her father, William, was a doctor, and her mother, Dorothy (Thornton) Henske, studied nursing and worked for a time at the local woolen mill.

While growing up, Judy sang at local events, including weddings — but only if her mother was in attendance.

“I went to more weddings of people I didn’t even know,” Dorothy Henske told The Chippewa Herald-Telegram in 1962.

Judy also sang in her church choir.

“She told me evvel she had such a powerful voice because one of the nuns in Chippewa Falls stood on her chest on a book to help her develop vocal power,” Mr. Doerge said by email. “Hard to know if that’s true, but no one questions the power of her voice.”

Ms. Henske studied at Rosary College in Illinois and the University of Wisconsin in Madison. By 1959 she was in San Diego, performing at coffee houses; soon she made her way to Los Angeles.

Ms. Henske with Jerry Yester at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles in 2016, almost 50 years after they released “Farewell Aldebaran,” an album that took her into uncharted territory with use of synthesizers and psychedelic flourishes.Credit… Rebecca Sapp/WireImage for The Recording Academy

In 1962 she was playing a club in Oklahoma City when Dave Guard, who had recently left the Kingston Trio, asked her to join a new group, the Whiskeyhill Singers. The group made two albums and increased Ms. Henske’s visibility, but it didn’t last long. After it broke up, she became a fixture in New York.

Judy Collins, in her book “Sweet Judy Blue Eyes: My Life in Music” (2011), wrote that Albert Grossman, the manager who had been instrumental in forming the group Peter, Paul and Mary, suggested that she, Ms. Henske and Jo Mapes form a trio, which he proposed to call the Brown-Eyed Girls. “You can get some brown contact lenses,” he told Ms. Collins.

That idea fizzled, but Ms. Henske was doing fine on her own. Mr. Doerge said that he first met her when, home from college on Christmas break in 1964, he was asked to fill in as her backing pianist for a show she was doing at La Cave, a club in Cleveland.

“Judy was already famous then,” he said, “and I was in awe.”

That same year, Ms. Henske toured with a young comedian named Woody Allen, with whom she had sometimes shared the bill at the Village Gate and other New York clubs. In later years she was often said to have inspired Mr. Allen’s character Annie Hall (who like Ms. Henske was from Chippewa Falls), something she was asked about so often that, she said in the 2000 interview with the Santa Cruz newspaper, it irked her a bit.

“Woody used a lot of people as models for his people in his movies,” she said. “Annie Hall was an amalgam of maybe three different people. I think it was Louise Lasser, me and what’s-her-name, the movie actress.”

Diane Keaton? the interviewer prompted.

“Yeah, Diane Keaton.”

“So,” she added, “let’s move on from Woody.”

In addition to her husband, Ms. Henske, who lived in Los Angeles, is survived by a daughter from her first marriage, Kate DeLaPointe, and a granddaughter.

Though Ms. Henske was best known as a performer, she also wrote or co-wrote numerous songs, many with Mr. Doerge. Their “Yellow Beach Umbrella” was covered by, among others, Bette Midler and Perry Como.

Her witty shows, though, were something to savor — even when there were glitches. Mr. Doerge recalled a show they did in 2001 at Freight & Salvage, a performance spot in Berkeley, Calif.

“At the last step up from the dressing room to the stage Judy tripped on her hem and fell flat on her face onto the floor while holding her banjo,” he said. The audience went silent.

“She gets up and goes to the mic, pauses, and says, ‘Perfection is so lifeless,’” he recalled. “The crowd loved it, relaxed, and she had more or less won them over before we played one song.

“Live, she was peerless.”

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