If you ask Jim Henke, 54, about music concerts he attended as a teenager growing up in the Cleveland suburb of Bay Village (pop. 16,087), he’ll show you a meticulous list he compiled on a manual typewriter in 1970: January 31—Three Dog Night, Catfish, Hoyt Axton. February 13—The Doors, Eli Radish. The list goes on and on.
Today, Henke is just as meticulous in his work as the curator for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, where he documents the ongoing history of America’s loudest and most untamed music.
“Going back to when I was a little kid, two things I always really liked were rock ’n’ roll and writing,” says Henke, who spent nearly two decades as an editor and writer at Rolling Stone magazine.
His love and in-depth knowledge of the musical genre led the museum’s board of directors to seek him out and hire him as vice president of exhibitions and curatorial affairs in 1994, one year before the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum opened.
“He’s like a walking rock ’n’ roll encyclopedia,” says Sharon Uhl, an executive assistant at the museum. “Instead of Googling something, I go ask Jim. He’s very funny, extremely smart and extremely passionate about what he does.”
Although Henke had no experience as a curator, he says the job is similar to his work as a journalist. “The way I approached it was like writing a book about rock ’n’ roll,” Henke says of his work creating the early exhibits that serve as the museum’s bedrock.
An author of several music-related books, Henke uses his storytelling skills to convey rock’s history in words as well as with guitars, cars, album covers, interactive music kiosks and sequined jackets. Under his guidance, the museum has welcomed more than 5 million visitors since opening in 1995, and has grown to include more than 14,000 rock ’n’ roll artifacts, from Chuck Berry’s guitar and Little Richard’s stage clothes to Ray Charles’ trademark sunglasses and Buddy Holly’s high school diploma. In fact, many of the museum’s artifacts can be traced directly to Henke’s persistence.
Just as he did as a music journalist, Henke makes phone calls, pounds the pavement and doesn’t take no for an answer. He spent years in talks with Apple Records in London—the Beatles’ record label—before finally lining up records, mementos and original footage for an exhibit on George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh. He logged countless hours sending e-mails and making phone calls until members of ZZ Top allowed him to fly to Houston to obtain their stage props and guitars for an exhibit.
Much of Henke’s success stems from his solid reputation and ability to put artists and their families at ease. “He was very much in tune with what we wanted,” says Janie Hendrix, sister of the late guitar legend Jimi Hendrix. While overseeing her brother’s estate, Hendrix has worked closely with Henke, and loaned the museum numerous items. “He’s very gentle, very kind, very respectful of people,” she says.
Henke also is well connected. He used his friendly relationship with the Irish rock band U2—which he first wrote about in 1980—to obtain items for a 2003 museum exhibit, including the band’s handwritten lyrics, stage costumes and even the first U2 T-shirt from the band’s teenage years.
“I enjoy it,” Henke says of his job as caretaker of an American-born art form. “I like the idea that we’re passing on the history of rock ’n’ roll.”