Judy Henske, a fixture of the ‘60s folk-revival scene, died on April 27 in hospice care in Los Angeles after a long illness, according to her husband, Craig Doerge.
The imposing, six-foot-plus-tall Heske commanded the stage, combining traditional material like “Wade in the Water” and “Love Henry” with an onstage act marked by frank, witty on-stage banter. Her 1964 single “High Flying Bird” anticipated the psychedelic blues of emerging rock singers like Janis Joplin and Grace Slick.
Dubbed “The Queen of the Beatniks” by producer Jack Nitzsche, Henske’s sarcasm was reportedly channeled by Woody Allen for Diane Keaton’s title character in “Annie Hall,” who not coincidentally also came from Chippewa Falls. Henske would often appear on double bills at L.A. coffee houses such as the Unicorn on Sunset Strip alongside comics like Allen and Lenny Bruce. Crime fiction author Andrew Vachss included her as a musical leitmotif in a series of novels. Her friends included such legendary figures as Phil Ochs, Jackson Browne, film critic Pauline Kael, writer Eve Babitz and Shel Silverstein. In Vachss’ novel “Blue Belle,” he wrote: “If Linda Ronstadt’s a torch singer, Henske’s a flame thrower.”
Judith Anne Henske was born December 20, 1936, in small-town Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, her father a doctor and mother a homemaker. She began to pursue music at Rosary College in River Forest, Illinois, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. By 1959, she had relocated to San Diego, where she performed at local coffee houses before moving on to venues in Los Angeles, gaining notice for her full throttle, foot-stomping, hard-belting delivery of folk ballads.
While performing in Oklahoma City in 1962, Henske was recruited by ex-Kingston Trio member Dave Guard to join the Whisky Hill Singers, with whom she recorded an album. Through her manager, the notorious Herb Cohen (who managed Frank Zappa), she was signed as a solo artist to Elektra Records by Jac Holzman, releasing a pair of albums that combined folk, blues, jazz, and standup comedy. The first of these, a recording of a nightclub performance, highlighted the offbeat humor in her live performances with musical arrangements by Onzy Matthews; the second featured Billy Edd Wheeler’s “High Flying Bird,” a minor hit in 1963 that was later covered by several bands, including Jefferson Airplane.
Henske’s notable television appearances during this time included a featured spot on “The Judy Garland Show” and a role opposite Johnny Cash in the 1963 folksploitation film, “Hootenanny Hoot.” The following year, she played the lead in “Gogo Loves You,” an Off-Broadway musical written by “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” author Anita Loos.
After releasing albums on Mercury and Reprise, Henske began to concentrate on her songwriting. Her literate touch as a lyricist found expression on “Farewell Aldebaran,” released on Zappa’s Straight label in 1969. Henske’s whisper-to-a-scream style — a product of the swirling psych-baroque production of her first husband, composer Jerry Yester — made it a favorite among folk cultists. In 1971, she co-founded and recorded with Rosebud, a folk-rock quintet that released an eponymous album on Straight Records.
Following that, Henske turned away from recording and performing in favor of raising her daughter, Kate. She shifted her focus to lyrics, collaborating on songs with keyboardist and composer, 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 & Nash) and “Sauvez-Moi” (a chart-topping single in France for Johnny Hallyday) were among the pair’s most successful efforts.
The ‘90s 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 “Loose in the World,” followed by “She Sang California” in 2004. In 2007, Rhino Records released “Big Judy: How Far This Music Goes, 1962-2004,” a two-CD career retrospective.
In 2013, cabaret artist Meredith Di Menna brought her show “Queen of the Beatniks: The Songs of Judy Henske” to nightclub stages in New York. The Los Angeles dance company BodyTraffic premiered “Death Defying Dances,” a choreographed production inspired by Henske’s early recordings, in 2016.
In her last years, Henske worked on a memoir of her life and experiences. She continued to write songs as well.
In 2013 Henske told a reporter from her hometown Chippewa Herald how she combined humor and music in her act, “I liked when people were engaged, and they show it with laughter and not just clapping. It didn’t sound like people just sitting lifeless in their seats, admiring you. It was alive.”
Henske is survived by Doerge, daughter Kate DeLaPointe and granddaughter Claire DeLaPointe. Plans for a memorial are pending.