By Mary Giorgio

During the 1950s and 1960s, Belford “Sinky” Hendricks was one of the most highly regarded arrangers and conductors in the music industry. Working with some of the biggest stars of his era—singers like Nat King Cole, Dinah Washington, Brook Benton, and Sarah Vaughan—Hendricks co-authored and arranged hit songs of his generation.

The versatile musician crossed genres, arranging music and conducting studio orchestras for big bands, blues, R&B, ballads, soul, and even country and western.  If you wanted your recording to have the best sound, he was the man for the job.

Born on May 11, 1909, in Evansville, Indiana, Belford Hendricks developed a love for music at an early age and his father encouraged his musical talent by purchasing a piano for the family, a substantial purchase at the time. Hendricks soon mastered the instrument.

In 1924, Hendricks graduated from Douglas High School. After working for a few years, he enrolled at Terre Haute’s Indiana State Normal School (later Indiana State Teacher’s College then Indiana State University). There, Hendricks studied science and music. Having come from a family of modest means, Hendricks paid his own way through school with side work and musical gigs. When money became extremely tight, Hendricks left school for a semester to work full-time. He persevered, however, and eventually graduated in 1934.

Postal worker Belford Hendricks, on his way to becoming ‘Sinky’

While enrolled at Indiana State Teacher’s College, Hendricks met fellow student Etta Bean. The couple eventually married and settled in Evansville, where Hendricks tried to make a living as a musician. He soon found, however, that the erratic pay could not support a family. In 1939, Hendricks took a job as a postal carrier to make ends meet and was one of the first African-Americans to serve as a postal carrier in Evansville.

In 1942, Hendricks was drafted into the U.S. Army. He served in a medical unit that was stationed in New York, Arizona, and Hawaii. While in the Army, Hendricks was often asked to accompany performers who visited a base to entertain troops. In fact, some of the stars that Hendricks would meet, like Lena Horne, would later become allies as he began his professional musical career. In 1943, Hendricks had a big break when his song, “Marching Through Berlin,” which was performed by Ethel Merman in the movie Stage Door Canteen.

Following his military service, Hendricks returned to Evansville. There, he co-hosted Toast and Coffee, one of the first interracial radio programs in the United States. He also played music on the radio program, The Breakfast Club.

By the end of the decade, Hendricks and his wife had divorced. Hendricks, who was determined to focus on his musical career, moved to New York City. There, he studied composition at New York University and took organ lessons at Columbia University. Within a few years, he had remarried. His new bride, Emma Clayton, was a native of New Harmony, Indiana.

Shortly after arriving in New York City, Hendricks befriended a member of the Count Basie Orchestra. Through their association, Hendricks was occasionally hired to fill in for a musician who was unable to perform. Count Basie was impressed by Hendricks’s talent and asked him to collaborate on the album, King of Swing (1954).

Hendricks finally got his big break in the mid-1950s, when he befriended Clyde Otis. In 1957, Otis became the first African American man hired as a director of music at Mercury Records. He immediately offered Hendricks a job. After beginning his new job at Mercury Records, Hendricks worked with some of the biggest names of his career. Most significantly, he was paired with Dinah Washington, who, in the early 1950s, was an up-and-coming star.

In 1958, Washington chose Hendricks and his orchestra to accompany her new album, All of Me. The album was a big success and became a jumping-off point for a fruitful working relationship between the two performers. In the ensuing years, Hendricks arranged and conducted close to 100 songs for Washington. One of their greatest collaborations, “What a Difference a Day Makes,” reached the number 4 spot on the US Billboard R&B chart and the number 8 spot in US pop charts. Other hits included “Unforgettable” and “It’s Just a Matter of Time.” Hendricks also collaborated with Washington and Brook Benton on the duet, “Baby (You’ve Got What It Takes),” which reached the number 1 spot in the US R&B charts and netted over $1 million.

Benton became a friend and collaborator. Together Hendricks and Benton co-wrote numerous songs over the next decade, including “It’s Just a Matter of Time“(1959). The song would go on to earn a spot among the most beloved country songs, and would later be subject to interpretations by other famous musicians. To date, it remains in the top 100 most licensed songs of the 20th century.

Hendricks also became a key collaborator with Sarah Vaughan. He arranged many hits for her, including “Smooth Operator.” Hendricks and his orchestra accompanied Vaughan on her recording of “Broken Hearted Melody,” one of the singer’s most famous tunes.

After a few tremendously successful years with Mercury Records, Otis was recruited by Columbia Records in 1960. Hendricks went with him. At Columbia Records, the team worked with a young Aretha Franklin. At the time, Franklin had not yet achieved stardom, and the dozens of tracks arranged for her met with little success. In fact, Columbia lost around $90,000 from the recordings.

In 1962, jazz legend Nat King Cole approached Hendricks to arrange his song, “‘Ramblin’ Rose.” Cole had previously worked with Hendricks in the 1950s on a few arrangements. The song was an instant hit, and Hendricks was asked to arrange an entire album for the star. The album, Dear Lonely Hearts, became an instant hit, and its title song reached the number 2 spot on the easy listening charts. Hendricks also arranged Cole’s recording of “When You’re Smiling.”

During his career, Hendricks composed over 100 songs and arranged and conducted hundreds of popular tunes for countless stars. Some of the greatest American singers of his era considered him to be one of the most talented arrangers around. Despite these successes, Hendricks never achieved widespread fame during his career. That’s not surprising, however, considering that Hendricks’ job was to make other performers shine.

Hendricks died on September 24, 1977. He was still writing music to the very end.