Soul balladeer/funkster Michael Henderson dies; From “You Are My Starship” to “Wide Receiver,” he took sexual innuendo to a whole different level

(July 20, 2022).  We’re losing our soul legends left and right.  Earlier this week we paid tribute to William Hart of the Delfonics, who died after a brief illness on July 14. 

Now, just five days later, it’s time to say goodbye to influential jazz-fusion bassist and R&B singer Michael Henderson, who died July 19 at his home in Atlanta, GA.  He was 71.

Michael Henderson, 71, died July 19, 2022 in Atlanta

Henderson, best known for his smooth, soulful ballads and his raw funk jams as the 1970s gave way to the ‘80s, played with some jazz and soul greats early in his career.  He was credited on several Miles Davis albums in the early ‘70s (including Jack JohnsonLive-Evil, and Agharta) and performed with legends like Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, the Dramatics and jazz drummer Norman Connors.  When he embarked on his own solo career in 1976, his albums often made the soul, jazz and pop charts, with his biggest, In The Night Time, reaching gold certification status.

It was the vocals he provided for Connors on the spacey 1976 hit ballad “You Are My Starship” that really showcased Henderson’s singing talents and let the world know he would be a force to be reckoned with—both musically and vocally—in the coming years.  

“Starship,” which Henderson wrote and on which he also played bass, rocketed to the top five on the soul chart and crossed over to the pop top 30 in late 1976.  Its mainstream success came at a time when music was becoming increasingly romantic and particularly provocative in the wake of earlier ‘70s classics like Sylvia Robinson’s steamy “Pillow Talk,” Gaye’s pleading “Let’s Get It On,” and Donna Summer’s orgasmic “Love To Love You Baby,” all of which were famous for their unabashed sexual innuendo.

Those artists’ success helped open the door for Henderson to approach that same level of sensuality with his own songs.  “Starship,” with its soaring vocal performance, appealed to his target audience—women—who swooned over lyrics like “have me anyway you want” and “come take me up tonight.”

But it was a particularly subtle line in that song’s hook that pushed the envelope and sent more than a few astute minds straight to the gutter…

“And don’t you come too soon.”

That provocative command ended each chorus of “Starship,” with a long enough instrumental break afterwards to give everyone enough time to think: “did he just say that?” The otherworldly ballad made it clear that Henderson wasn’t afraid to push a few buttons while showing off his amazing tenor and falsetto (except to a 10-year-old like me at the time who thought that “don’t you come too soon” was just him telling his girlfriend not to arrive too early for their imaginary spaceship ride, which was exactly what a 10-year-old was supposed to think).

With that risqué line, Henderson had moved past the tame-by-comparison messages of “let’s get it on” heard in Marvin Gaye’s earlier smash. It was Henderson confidently asserting that we’re gonna get it on and your greatest challenge will be not to reach climax before I do.

(And to think radio had a problem with Starland Vocal Band’s “Afternoon Delight” earlier that year.)

The late Michael Henderson singing on Norman Connors’ “You Are My Starship”

Following the success of “Starship,” Henderson focused on that solo career that saw him release eight studio albums from 1976-86, including seven on the Buddah label. 

The third of those, 1978’s In The Night Time, produced two R&B hits in “Take Me I’m Yours” (No. 3) and the title track (No. 15), Henderson’s highest solo chart positions up to that point.

While those two ballads were not as suggestive as “Starship,” they kept things in the slow-jam lane and in the bedroom, which was apparently where Henderson felt most comfortable lyrically. Or at least that’s where his record label thought he had the best chance of landing hits off his albums, all of which also included uptempo funk grooves that just didn’t see the light of day.

Michael Henderson’s ‘Wide Receiver’ album

All of that changed in 1980.

None of the earlier innuendo of his 1970s ballads prepared the R&B faithful for what was to come with his fifth LP (and his second-biggest after In The Night Time: 1980’s Wide Receiver. More specifically, its title track.

If “Starship” was considered far out at the time for its not-so-subtle reference to the unspeakable sin of climaxing early, it was the much funkier “Wide Receiver” that blew the (rear) doors off and let everyone know that Henderson was preparing us for the kind of atmospheric re-entry that no one had dared touch musically before then.

The song “Wide Receiver” was just as the title suggested: a quirky, metaphor-filled novelty with plenty of sports innuendo, various interpolations of popular commercial jingles of the day, plus some Mattel Electronic Football handheld game sound effects for added fun. Plus it had an undeniably funky groove with enough synth bass and thunderous handclaps to even make George Clinton proud.

It was actually better than anything either Clinton (“The Big Bang Theory,” Agony of De Feet”) or fellow Funkateer Bootsy Collins (“Mug Push”) put out that year… and far more suggestive.

For instance, when Henderson sang “I need a five-finger gap,” it’s not hard to imagine that he had more than football X’s and O’s on his mind.  Same goes for “out for the long one…forty-nickel, double sting,” a reference to a popular football defensive scheme that somehow became the main refrain for “Wide Receiver.”

“Busted your clothes doing sit-ups.  C’mon baby, let me show you my chin-ups.”  I doubt Henderson had exercise bars in his sights when writing those lines.  

Or how about when he urgently groaned “I’m ready for a blitz”?   Does a threesome (or more) situation come to mind?

And then there were the popular TV commercial references, like the then-overused “Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t” jingle.

That was easily one of the most popular slogans of the 20th century, which likely sold millions of Mounds and Almond Joy candy bars.  But would you have put it past Henderson to have a different context given his track record up to this point?

“Thanks, Mean Joe!”

No innuendo there.  That was simply Henderson’s nod to one of the most popular TV ads of all time in which a little kid thanks Pittsburgh Steelers’ Hall of Fame defensive linebacker Mean Joe Greene for kindly giving him his t-shirt while passing the young adolescent in the stadium tunnel after a game (and after the kid shares his Coca-Cola with the football legend, of course).

Henderson’s version of ‘Mean Joe’ had a far different reaction to the kid, though.  

“Go away, kid!! And take that smelly t-shirt with ya!”  Again, no innuendo intended…or was there?

Henderson kept the parodic fun going throughout the song’s entire eight minutes. 

For example, there was “assault me with a friendly weapon.”  And “get in the back because I love ya.”

And then the ultimate trolling, albeit homo-erotic moment: “Hey, yoo-hoo, yoo-hoo?  Any of you fellas need a tight end?” Henderson blurted that line out in an exaggeratedly effeminate tone while portraying a player being summoned off the bench and into the game by his coach: “go on in, Ricky!  Go on in!”

Apparently, according to an interview Henderson gave Soul Train’s Don Cornelius following a 1980 performance of “Wide Receiver,” the world needed a “football” song. Henderson even remarked that he had been contacted by the NFL for potential sponsorship following the song’s success.

Either the NFL wasn’t as stodgy back then as it is today or they had no clue what Henderson was really talking about in his song.

Check out this video where Henderson literally throws a football to the Soul Train dancers as he sings “out for the long one.”

Henderson didn’t just make “Wide Receiver” about football and its erotic imagery, though.  

“Baseball’s been very, very good to me” he mockingly states as the song concludes, a somewhat left-field nod to Garrett Morris’ popular Chico Escuela character from Saturday Night Live’s earlier days. 

It was as safe a way to finish what had been a wild eight-minute romp through all the sexual innuendo one could squeeze from a sports metaphor, safe even as a sultry female voice continuously moaned the refrain “forty-nickel, double sting” as the song faded.

Funk music was on the rise in the post-disco early-1980s.  Henderson, whose biggest hits before then had all been ballads, capitalized on the trend.

“Wide Receiver” found itself at home on R&B radio amidst equally funky tunes of the day by Zapp, Tom Browne, Cameo, Fatback, Dynasty, Ray Parker, Jr. and others.  It peaked at a very high No. 4 on the Billboard Soul Singles chart but, like so many uptempo funk jams of the early 1980s by Black artists, it missed the pop chart altogether (that snub, by the way, was not solely the result of Henderson’s provocative lyrics).

“Wide Receiver” doesn’t receive the recognition that hits by funk contemporaries Zapp (“More Bounce to the Ounce”), Tom Browne (“Funkin For Jamaica”), Cameo (“Shake Your Pants”) and others have gained in the years after they simultaneously dominated Black radio.  In fact, very few of Henderson’s songs get that kind of recognition today. 

But they’re definitely worthy!

Especially now as we again mourn the passing of one of the era’s great musicians. 

Michael Henderson (1951-2022)

R.I.P. Michael Henderson (July 7, 1951 – July 19, 2022).

DJRob 

DJRob (he/him/his) is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.

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