Soul Retrospective: Michael Henderson

Michael Henderson has had a rich, varied and successful career as a virtuoso bass player, producer/writer and romantic crooner. Born in 1951 in Yazoo City, Mississippi, Henderson is a self-taught bassist and James Jamerson acolyte. His family moved to Detroit when he was a child and by the time he was in his teens, he had played with acts such as The Detroit Emeralds and the Fantastic Four.

By the late ‘60s, Henderson had also done session work for Motown and toured with Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder. In 1970 while he was doing live dates with Stevie Wonder, the legendary trumpeter Miles Davis came up to Wonder and reportedly said, “I’m taking your f****n’ bassist.” Henderson left Wonder for Miles Davis and stayed in his band from 1970-1976. Henderson’s bass was a major part of Davis’ adventurous fusion years and played on titles including “Jack Johnson,” “On the Corner,” “Big Fun,” “Get Up With It,” and “Agartha.” In the early ’70s, Henderson was also a member of Marvin Gaye’s band and worked on the proposed album that was to be released in between What’s Goin’ On and Let’s Get It On. “You’re The Man (Alternate Version 2)” in particular is a great example of Henderson’s mellifluous mix of jazz and R&B playing.

Henderson’s varied work in fusion and R&B served him well in his next endeavors. He was featured on Norman Connors’s 1975 album Saturday Night Special, and the album’s biggest hit was a Henderson-penned track “Valentine Love,” which was a duet with Jean Carn.

Henderson worked on the Dramatics’ debut for ABC, Drama V, and wrote and produced “Dramatics Theme/Treat Me Like a Man” and “Just Shopping (Not Buying Anything).” He also appeared on The Dramatics’ 1976’s Joyride and he wrote, produced, and played bass on “Be My Girl” and “After the Dance.” He also played bass on the track “Say the Word.”

In 1976, Henderson and Phyllis Hyman were both featured on the sensual “We Both Need Each Other.” He also wrote the album’s title track and the effort’s biggest song, the top 5 R&B single “You Are My Starship.” The success of “You Are My Starship” launched Henderson’s solo career and he signed to Buddah Records. Henderson’s first album, Solid, was released in 1976. The album was recorded at United Studio Sound in Detroit and featured a cross section of players and styles as Henderson’s bass playing and crooning vocals brought it all together. For the album, Henderson recorded versions of songs made famous a bit earlier including a spare version of “Be My Girl,” as well as a solo and slowed down take on “Valentine Love.” Solid was recorded at United Studio Sound in Detroit and featured a cross section of jazz and R&B players and Henderson’s bass playing and his vocals brought it all together. Solid is best known for the Henderson crooned solo versions of “Be My Girl,” “Treat Me Like a Man” as well as a slowed down take on “Valentine Love.”

His next album, 1977’s Goin’ Places, was representative of his ballad style and the album was perhaps best for displaying Henderson’s loping, jazz based bass lines in a commercial R&B setting. The album featured three classics including the great, bass-heavy title track, the quiet storm favorite “Let Me Love You,” and the Latin-tinged and evocative “At the Concert,” a romantic duet with Roberta Flack. Henderson’s success and work made him a favorite R&B singer and artist. By the late ‘70s, Henderson was promoted as a sex symbol due to his romantic songs and his stage presentation. 1978’s In the Night Time seemed to capitalize on this fact. Recorded at Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia, the effort was one of Henderson’s smoothest albums and featured mid-tempo tracks like his duet with Rene Scott, “Take Me I’m Yours,” and “Whisper In My Ear.” The album went gold. Henderson appeared on Soul Train twice in 1978 and performed “Let Me Love You” and “In The Nighttime” among other songs.

Do It All followed in the same vein and boasted the smooth track “Everybody Wants to Know Why” and the hit single “In the Summertime.”

All of the constant success caused Henderson to become an even bigger star. In 1978, Buddah Records became distributed by Arista and soon Henderson was more featured in magazines like Billboard, Ebony, and Jet, and he also was a part of Arista’s label wide promotion of acts.

The Arista signing also seemed to augur a few musical changes in Henderson’s album repertoire. Although fans often expected more songs like “Valentine Love” and “You Are My Starship,” he didn’t want to repeat himself. 1980’s diverse Wide Receiver was a big hit on the strength of the playful title track. Wide Receiver also featured covers of “Reach Out For Me,” and “Ask the Lonely,” as well his trademark romantic songs “There’s No One Like You,” “What I’m Feeling,” and the hooky and breezy “You’re My Choice.” Henderson appeared on Soul Train in late 1980 and performed “Wide Receiver.”

Slingshot followed and was a bit better. Although the album was best known for its cheesecake cover, the effort better integrated Henderson’s continued search for new sounds as well as his customary balladry. Not surprisingly, the best song from the album was another duet with Phyllis Hyman; the dramatic “Can’t We Fall In Love Again” displayed the singers’ chemistry. For many, songs like  “Can’t We Fall in Love Again” and the ballads “Take Care” and “Come to Me” were precisely the kind of mature fare a lot of his fans wanted to hear from him.

1983’s Fickle seemed the most surprising album in Henderson’s oeuvre and featured production by former Commodore Thomas McClary and Paul Laurence. The album had more melody- based songs like “Feeling Like Myself Once Again” and “Thin Walls,” which McCleary co-composed. Laurence produced the title track and “You Wouldn’t Have to Work At All,” adding a contemporary ’80s electro funk sheen. Despite the good work and intriguing sounds, Fickle received little promotion and was Henderson’s last album for Arista Records.

During that same time, Henderson’s work appeared on the soundtrack albums for films like Armed and Dangerous and About Last Night. Henderson signed to Capitol Records in 1986 and released Bedtime Stories. Most of the album had him exploring new sounds while retaining his sense of melody and musicality. Although the album wasn’t a big seller, it featured his tender remake of Angela Bofill’s “Tonight I Give In” and the poignant ballad “The Soldier.”

Henderson’s work with Norman Connors has been reissued on the albums Saturday Night Special, You Are My Starship, and any number of compilations. In the mid- to late ‘90s, Capitol/The Right Stuff re-issued Solid, Goin’ Places, In The Nighttime, Wide Receiver, and Slingshot. In 2014, Funkytowngrooves reissued Henderson’s albums from 1976-1983, along with the original 7” and 12″ versions of the singles.

Michael Henderson continues to perform worldwide to multi-generational and  enthusiastic crowds.

—Jason Elias

Jason Elias is a pop culture historian and music journalist.

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