Former Rock Hall Curator And Music Journalist James Henke Dies

Jim Henke (R) in 2011 with the Doors drummer John Densmore and then-Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Vice President of Marketing and Communications Todd Mesek (L) at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City on the occasion of the Doors Induction to the RRHOF. [Todd Mesek]
Jim Henke (R) in 2011 with the Doors drummer John Densmore and then-Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Vice President of Marketing and Communications Todd Mesek (L) at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City on the occasion of the Doors' Induction to the RRHOF. [Todd Mesek]

The curator who helped tell the history of rock and roll has died.

James Henke joined the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994 and, in the course of nearly two decades, was instrumental in building the museum’s collection and exhibits. He died Monday at the age of 65 due to complications from dementia.

Henke grew up in the Cleveland area and graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University. He worked for the Plain Dealer and Rolling Stone, eventually becoming the music magazine’s managing editor. He also worked in the music industry for Elektra Entertainment, but Henke was lured back to Northeast Ohio to become the chief curator for the then-unopened Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.

During a 2010 interview with ideastream, Henke recalled that the people leading the creation of the museum had been focused on choosing its location, finding an architect, and fundraising.

“And then they finally brought in a person with a real museum background and he said, ‘What are we going to put in here?’ and no one had focused on that. And I got a call one day saying, ‘Do you want to be the curator of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?’” Henke remembered. “So I came back and basically had about a year and a half to put together the entire collection, all the exhibits and everything.”

Henke’s involvement in the founding of the museum helped give it credibility with artists who may have been skeptical about its location in Cleveland, said Lauren Onkey, former Vice President of Education and Public Programming at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

“And for him to say, ‘I want to come back to the city. I want to be in this museum. This museum is going to be a big time museum - world class,’ I think it brought tremendous credibility in the music business,” said Onkey, who is now the senior director of NPR Music. “Artists, managers – if they came to the museum or if they wanted to have a conversation about collecting, they could work with somebody who had worked at Rolling Stone magazine for many years, who’d worked in the record business and really knew how things worked. I think it was crucial to that early success.”

Retired Rock Hall president Terry Stewart worked with Henke for over a decade. He credits Henke with helping to found the museum.

“Jim loved the music. He loved the history of it. He was a real student of the music,” said Stewart. “Towards that end, it allowed him to think broadly enough as to what music should be represented in there under the heading ‘rock and roll’.”

Henke's Relationships with Artists Key to Collection

In 2010 on the 15th anniversary of the Rock Hall, Henke told ideastream about his original vision for the museum: to put together an outline of the history of rock and roll.

“Then I highlighted certain things that were crucial that if we didn’t have them it would look ridiculous like the Beatles or Sun records,” Henke recalled. “And then I put together a team to go out and get stuff and a lot of it were other music journalists that I knew because we also had no budget to buy anything. It all had to be based on our relationships with the artists.”

Henke’s relationships with artists included a close friendship with Yoko Ono who worked with Henke on a John Lennon book; traveling on the Amnesty world tour with Bruce Springsteen which lead to the singer’s cooperation in a 2009 Rock Hall exhibit; and giving U2’s Bono a copy of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s biography which inspired the band’s song “Pride (In the Name of Love)”.

“They trusted him,” said Stewart. “They wanted to work with him. They felt that he could display the artifacts and tell the story of the artist, and it would be in the same vein as the way the artist looked at themselves.”

Those examples can be found throughout the museum – from the Les Paul guitars to the 2009 Springsteen exhibit, said Onkey. But she remembered that he did not want the Rock Hall to be the Hard Rock Café “where we just put instruments up on a wall.”

“He wanted context and he wanted stories of the artists’ whole life so he was interested in artifacts from childhood or from the area where they grew up. He was really smart about choosing artifacts that would help tell a broader story,” she said, recalling an item collected from the family of the Doors’ lead singer.

“And he seemed very proud always that we had this Cub Scout uniform from Jim Morrison. And it was so unlikely, right? Jim Morrison, this sexy rock god, and then we had this humble-looking cub scout shirt. And I think what was cool was that our visitors would really enjoy seeing that kind of artifact. I think they could connect to it,” said Onkey.

Onkey said Henke’s journalistic integrity ensured that the museum told the history of the music accurately.

“He was really committed, and I think this came from being a very serious journalist, to getting the facts and the story right,” she said. “And that matters so much in a museum when you are creating labels, when you’re trying to describe artifacts, when you’re getting the bones of a story right to make sure that that story is correct. And Jim was passionately committed to that.”

Henke left his job at the Rock Hall as the vice president of exhibitions and curatorial affairs in 2012, a year before his dementia diagnosis, according to the Plain Dealer.

His sons Arthur and Chris issued a statement Monday on the passing of James Henke.

“We are so grateful for the life we spent with our father. His legacy of generosity and passion for music lives on in the lives of everyone he touched through his writing.”

The funeral and service have not yet been scheduled.

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