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Judy Henske, folk singer known as ‘Queen of the Beatniks,’ dies at 85

Her brassy, full-throated delivery seemed to have made a strong impression on Janis Joplin and Grace Slick, among others

Judy Henske, in about 1970. (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
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Judy Henske, a singer whose powerful and deep alto voice, Olympian stage presence and robust sense of humor led to her nickname “Queen of the Beatniks,” died April 27 in a Los Angeles-area hospice. She was 85 and lived in Pasadena, Calif.

The death was announced by her husband, Craig Doerge, a fellow musician.

Over the course of a career that spanned half a century, Ms. Henske was originally hailed as part of the folk music scene of the early 1960s, but she proved just as comfortable with jazz, blues, rock and stand-up comedy. She made solo recordings, and “Farewell Aldebaran” (1969), a collaboration with her first husband, guitarist Jerry Yester, has become a psychedelic cult classic.

Late at night in coffee houses and nightclubs from California to New York, she shared programs with the Kingston Trio, Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen. Allen’s fictional Annie Hall, from the Oscar-winning 1977 film of the same name, shared a birthplace with Ms. Henske — the town of Chippewa Falls, Wis. When asked, Ms. Henske said she believed Annie was a composite of her and the actresses Louise Lasser and Diane Keaton.

The late lawyer and crime writer Andrew Vachss admired Ms. Henske so much that he made her a recurring character in his series of “Burke” private-eye novels. In “Blue Belle” (1988), Vachss wrote: “If Linda Ronstadt’s a torch singer, Henske’s a flame thrower.”

“She was a folkie of a very specific type,” music historian and biographer Barry Alfonso said in an interview. “She liked the drama and rollicking spirit of folk material. She definitely didn’t see herself in the airy folk maiden mode, the kind of women who strummed instruments and sang medieval ballads in high, pristine voices. She called them ‘dulcimer girls.’ ”

Ms. Henske seemed to come out of many different traditions but was most often said to have been influenced by the vaudeville star Sophie Tucker and the blues singer Bessie Smith, both of whom belted their songs out with raucous authority rather than any hint of deference. In turn, Ms. Henske’s brassy, full-throated delivery seemed to have made a strong impression on Janis Joplin and Grace Slick, among others.

Judith Anne Henske was born in Chippewa Falls on Dec. 20, 1936. Her father was a doctor, and her mother presided over a cultured home. “Judy liked to say that poetry was dished out at her family’s dinner table along with the mashed potatoes,” Alfonso said.

“She is the only person I have ever met who could quote a Maxwell Bodenheim poem from memory,” he continued, referring to an early New York bohemian writer who celebrated Greenwich Village and free love in his work.

Ms. Henske sang in a church choir and at weddings before leaving to study music at Rosary College (now Dominican University) in Illinois and at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. She moved to San Diego in the late 1950s and presented her first solo concert at the Zen Coffee House and Motorcycle Repair Shop in Pacific Beach.

Standing more than 6 feet tall, Ms. Henske had a naturally commanding stage presence — and she loved live performance. “I liked when people were engaged, and they show it with laughter and not just clapping,” she told the Chippewa Herald in 2013. “It didn’t sound like people just sitting lifeless in their seats, admiring you. It was alive.”

In 1963, Ms. Henske recorded her first two albums, “Judy Henske” and “High Flying Bird.” She also won a weekly slot on “The Judy Garland Show” but was reportedly humiliated by a skit that she thought made fun of Midwestern farmers and by a tasteless studio band that threw in trumpet squeals during the softer passages of “God Bless the Child.”

The same year, she was cast opposite Johnny Cash in “Hootenanny Hoot,” which the writer Roy Trakin has called a “folksploitation” film. In 1964, she played the lead in “Gogo Loves You,” an off-Broadway musical remembered only as one of the last projects of Anita Loos (“Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”).

In the early 1970s, Ms. Henske turned away from recording and performing in favor of raising her daughter. She contributed lyrics to several songs by Doerge, including “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” (sung by Johnny Hallyday).

She spent the 1990s presenting occasional low-key events in Southern California and writing feature articles for the San Diego Reader, including one about competitive pigeon racing.

In 1999, Ms. Henske brought out her first album in a generation, “Loose in the World.” It was followed by “She Sang California” in 2004. Rhino Records released “Big Judy: How Far This Music Goes, 1962-2004,” a two-CD career retrospective, in 2007.

Her marriage to Yester ended in divorce. In addition to Doerge, survivors include a daughter from her first marriage, Kate DeLaPointe, and a granddaughter.

According to Alfonso, Ms. Henske was an “all-around creative person, an intellectual without pretensions, a person who loved learning and laughter and wild speculations for their own sake.”

More than anything, he admired the lack of bitterness she felt at the way lasting stardom eluded her. “The weird twists and turns in her career made her laugh,” he said. “Part of her seemed to stand apart and look back over the amazing things she’d done and take it in with wonderment and a strong sense of the absurd.”