Tom Hensley is finally retired.
The pianist spent 40 years on the road with Neil Diamond, and a great many more performing musical gigs in the Midwest and Los Angeles.
In retirement, Hensley, BS’65, wants to take the time to finish a slew of personal projects he’s started over the years. One has been gestating for the better part of a century.
In the ‘60s, collaborator, Fluxus artist and fellow IU graduate David E. Thompson, MFA, 67, wrote lyrics for a planned album, but Hensley never put music to them because he just couldn’t figure out to do with them at the time.
Thompson died of a heart attack in 1996, and since then Hensley has felt a duty to finish the project the two set out on long ago – back when they’d collaborate frequently, Thompson exhibiting his artwork and performance pieces while Hensley performed with his psychedelic rock band, the Masters of Deceit.
“I promised him that I would finish those songs someday, and so I decided to finish them now,” Hensley said. “I sort of owed that to him, because I got all these extra years that he didn’t.”
Much has changed since Hensley got his start, both inside and outside of his profession, and even within his own life. He’s performed with Diane and Buster Keaton – two parts of what he dubbed the “Keaton Trifecta” before learning that the actor Michael Keaton is, in fact, named Michael Douglas – and recorded more sessions than he could even begin to recount. He even recorded a commercial and wrote a magazine called the Brown County Almanack. Both are still in circulation, he says, though the latter entirely without his permission. Not that he minds.
“I used to have a car that was so old that it didn’t have a CD player, and now I have a car that’s so new that it doesn’t have a CD player,” Hensley mused.
At IU, where Hensley studied for a total of seven years before graduating in 1965, he ended up a radio and television major because he felt the university’s music program was better suited to music education and classical performance. Its fledgling jazz program didn’t feel like a good fit for him either.
“Basically everything that I was taught in the Radio and TV Department is now obsolete and no longer true,” he said. “I guess I got something out of school, because I managed to make my way through life.”
It took Hensley so long to complete his education because of work. It was in those days that he first started touring. In 1962, he worked for Al Cobine’s local big band, a job that scored him a number of other gigs through the years.
One was a summer of state fair grandstand shows, which took him around the Midwest playing for big names and vaudeville acts alike. One of the big acts was Buster Keaton, who was performing slapstick and falling down onstage at night.
“This was my first gig on the road, and it was really cool until they began the midget auto races at 8 a.m. We were trying to sleep in after hanging out late the night before,” he said, making a loud automobile noise to simulate the cacophony of engine noises that awoke him that morning so many years ago.
Hensley hosted a jazz show for WFIU, which at the time emanated from a small Quonset hut on Jordan Avenue. He dreamed of being a DJ for a while – “back when that was an actual job,” he says – but soon learned that the only good money to be made working in radio was in selling ads.
After college, he moved to Brown County, where he got a job making jingles for a recording studio just north of Nashville, Indiana. Shortly thereafter, he went into mercantile pursuit, and he and his wife Sarah (a Jacobs School of Music alumna) owned an antique/gift shop. He also had an old-time movie theater, where he played the piano to accompany silent films, but he eventually realized he wasn’t making much money for his hard work.
For a while, he lived in Indianapolis, playing for a daily live TV show by day and performing by night in the house band accompanying singers and comics at a club called The Embers.
“I worked with a lot of people who were either on the way up or on the way down in their careers,” he said.
In 1970, he moved to Los Angeles with no job waiting and no connections other than a few acts from The Embers who’d told him to “Give me a call when you get to L.A.”
“Of course, none of them really wanted to hear from this piano player from Indianapolis,” he said. “Except for a comedian named Stanley Myron Handelman who hired me to play at the recording sessions for an album he did called ‘Spiro Agnew is a Riot!’”
He jokes that recording that comedy album is the reason he remembers Spiro T. Agnew, even though no one else does.
His career blossomed in L.A., where he began to get into studio work. But it was through a club gig some 10 years after he had performed on tour with Buster Keaton that Hensley found himself playing for Diane Keaton, who was performing ballads at the time at The Ice House, a small L.A. nightclub.
He recalls that while she was a great actress and singer, Diane wasn’t as skilled behind the wheel. When she drove to his house to carpool to the club where they would perform, she frequently collided with the trashcans in his driveway — a precursor to a very similar scene in her Oscar-winning film, “Annie Hall.”
The session work continued to grow.
“I recorded with half of the Beatles, half of Sonny and Cher and all of Hall and Oates and all of a bunch of other groups and solo acts,” Hensley said. “I did some records that were kind of hits at the time.”
Those included “Rich Girl” by Hall and Oates, “Endless Love” by Lionel Richie and Diana Ross, “Half Breed” by Cher, “Don’t Give Up on Us” by David Soul and a novelty called “Chick-a-Boom” by Daddy Dewdrop.
Along the way, he also recorded a few successful albums with Neil Diamond. After returning from a brief career hiatus, Diamond asked Hensley to tour with him as he expanded his band. Hensley had done a bit of touring, with Seals and Crofts, David Cassidy and Paul Anka, among others, and he wasn’t eager to go on the road again after finding a place in the studios.
“I thought, ‘Well OK, I’ll do that for a little while,” he said. “And a little while turned into 40 years.”