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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 with performances full of offbeat stage patter, died April 27 in hospice care in Los Angeles. She was 85.

The death was announced by her husband, 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,” 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 film, “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.

In 1969, Ms. Henske and her husband at the time, 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 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 Dec. 20, 1936, in Chippewa Falls, Wisc. Her father, William, was a doctor, and her mother, Dorothy (Thornton) Henske, worked for a time at the local woolen mill.

Judy sang in her church choir.

“She told me once 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,” Doerge said by e-mail. “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 Madison.

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.

In 1964, Ms. Henske toured with a young 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 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, leaves 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 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. 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.”