By JEFFRY GREENBERG
West County residents likely know Elizabeth Exarhou Henderson simply as Liz or maybe just as the blonde singer who lights up the stage with Butch Wax and the Hollywoods.
The band, which is undeniably a local favorite, will celebrate its 35th anniversary in 2020. But Liz has been singing even longer than that. In 1979, Liz moved to the Ladue School District. It was the middle of her fifth-grade year and Conway Elementary was the scene of her first solo.
“Not until I moved to Ladue did I have singing opportunities,” Liz explained. “That’s when teachers recognized I had talent. Mrs. [Jo Anne] Smiley [who spent 30 years as director of choral music in the Ladue School District], came into my life in junior high. She was then transferred to Ladue High where she continued to be my choir teacher and musical director. She was such an amazing person in my life when I was growing up!”
In high school, Liz got the lead in the school musical nearly every year. As a freshman, she played Rosemary in “How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying.” Ironically, her daughter Sarah recently played that lead role, too.
After graduating from Ladue High in 1986, Liz attended the University of Missouri-Kansas City, spent some time at Berklee School of Music in Boston and eventually moved to Nashville.
“I heard they were holding auditions in the city for Nashville shows,” Liz said. “I asked my mom, ‘Can I move to Nashville in two weeks?’ She helped me pack up and make the move. I was there for several years doing five shows a day at [Opryland] and on the General Jackson showboat. I even got to perform with Brenda Lee and Porter Waggoner on the Grand Ole Opry stage!”
She met her husband, Jon Henderson, while working as a waitress in Nashville. They married, had kids and for 10 years she didn’t sing. In 2005, the Hendersons moved back to St. Louis and found a house in Clarkson Woods. Shortly after that, those musical opportunities Liz found in Ladue began to find her in Chesterfield. First, with Gus Buehner, now the leader of the Encore Band. She met Buehner after an impromptu singing appearance at Villa Farotto.
“He said, ‘Learn these 100 songs’ and little by little, he called me, saying things like, ‘My singer didn’t show up. Can you be here in 30 minutes?’ Before you knew it, I was singing 10 times a month,” Liz said. “I did 100 gigs a year with Gus for six years and with Leonardo Price for the Encore Band for six years.”
Sometime in 2016, Gene Ackmann asked Liz to fill in with Butch Wax and the Hollywoods. After New Year’s Eve, she went full-time with them and part-time with Garden Party.
“She does a great job with country and country rock and is so easy to work with,” Ackmann said of Liz’s Garden Party inclusion. “We do a lot of Vince Gill, Linda Ronstadt, Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton and music from so many others.”
“It’s such a joy and passion for me,” Liz said of her career. “This past weekend [Oct. 18-20], we played four gigs in 36 hours, with 12 hours of singing! Some of our fans went to every gig. It’s amazing to me! I’m so lucky and blessed!”
Meanwhile, Butch Wax and the Hollywoods will be celebrating its 35th anniversary sometime in 2020. Both the band’s name and the brand of music changed in the early years, but both have been consistent over recent decades.
“It’s been a fantastic thing!” Ackmann said of Butch Wax’s popularity. “We’re so grateful for all our fans and also for people who sign up for our private shows.”
He said there have been changes in the past 35 years, including the band’s moniker.
“Chaser was the name of our group at the start,” Ackmann said. “We did one-half Top 40 and one-half oldies. People would say, ‘Hey, we want to hire you, but want you to play all oldies.’ So, we needed to come up with a retro band name. I thought of Butch Wax after the hair dressing from the 1950s. My original thought was Butch Wax and the Cadillacs. But one of my members at the time said, ‘How about the Hollywoods?’”
Through its nearly 35 years, Butch Wax has opened up for and/or played with notable musicians including Chuck Berry, Johnnie Johnson, Tammy Wynette, Bonnie Raitt and Bruce Hornsby. “I think the thing I’m most proud of is playing these 35 years non-stop, and true to playing oldies,” Ackmann said. “We’ve been to so many places and have met so many great people we wouldn’t have met otherwise. I’m also proud of our reputation! We are known to always give good, professional shows – ones you can take your entire family to.”
It’s a tradition Ackmann and Liz hope to continue for years to come.