Henry, Clarence “Frogman” 1937
Clarence “Frogman” Henry 1937–
With a voice that croaked and a theme song that declared “I sing like a frog,” Clarence Henry soon became known as “Frogman.” Through a series of singles recorded for Chess Records in the 1950s and 1960s, he established himself as a rhythm and blues powerhouse. Like many singers of his era, however, his brand of music went out of style following the British Invasion during the mid-1960s, leaving Henry and his peers to make a living as best they could. These “hard times” were complicated by the fact that record companies often neglected to pay proper royalties to artists. “I don’t mind them stealing a little,” Henry told John Wirt in the Batan Rouge Advocate, “but don’t steal it all.” Far from washed up, the Frogman made a dramatic comeback in the early 1990s. “You’ll likely find him joyously reviving his classics at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival every year come spring,” noted Bill Dahl in All Music Guide, “and his croak remains as deep and melodious as ever.”
Henry was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, on March 19, 1937, and moved with his family to nearby Algiers when he was 11. He learned about music from his father, who liked the blues, and his brother, who played trombone. He also tagged along when his sister took piano lessons, eventually taking her place when she dropped out, and made a habit sneaking into clubs to hear other players perform. “When I was going to school I wanted to be Fats Domino, Professor Longhair, and I would wear a wig with two plaits and call myself Professor Longhair,” Henry told Cain Burdeau of the Associated Press. “I like the Fats Domino rhythm, but I play my own chords and my own style.” While attending L.B. Landry High School, he learned to play trombone and soon joined Bobby Mitchell and the Toppers. Although he recorded an album on Imperial with the Toppers, he was fired for missing a performance.
Henry quickly regained his footing, playing at a number of New Orleans clubs, including the Chicken Shack, the Joy Lounge, and the Fatman. It was at the Joy Lounge in 1955 that he penned his most famous song, less out of inspiration than the fact that the band had run out of material. While the band normally played until 2:00 a.m., one night the band manager insisted that they continue to play until all the customers had gone. Henry began to adlib, “Ain’t got no home, no place to roam…I can sing like a frog, rivet, rivet.” A disc jockey
Born on March 19, 1937 in New Orleans, Louisiana; married five times.
Career: Musician, 1952-; joined Bobbie Mitchell and the Toppers, 1952-55; signed to Chess Records, 1956; toured with the Beatles, 1964.
Addresses: Home —New Orleans, Louisiana.
at WJMR later took the joke one step further, bestowing the “Frogman” label on Henry, and the audience began requesting the song.
Henry liked his new song, but knew it needed work. He added a high vocal section—his other specialty—to offer contrast, and auditioned the song to Paul Gayten at Chess Records. Gayton liked what he heard and asked Leonard Chess to fly down to catch Henry’s show. Having passed the audition, Chess quickly signed the teenager and brought him into the studio to record “Ain’t Got No Home” along with “Troubles, Troubles.” Chess decided to promote “Troubles, Troubles,” though, and the initial response was lukewarm. “Finally,” Henry told Jeff Hannusch in Off Beat, “… Poppa Stoppa [Clarence Hayman] at WWEZ flipped the record over and started playing ‘Ain’t Got No Home.’ Right away people started calling the station asking for the frog song by the frog man.” The young singer came to national attention as “Ain’t Got No Home” rose to number three on Billboard’s R&B chart and number 30 on the pop charts. Henry embarked on package tours with the Teenchords and others, traveling as far as Jamaica.
Although Henrys’ star faded with his first song, it rose again in 1961 with “Lonely Street,” which reached number 19 on Billboard’s Black Singles chart. He toured nationally, and followed the hit with strong versions of “You Always Hurt the One You Love” and “On Bended Knees.” “Henry’s vocals were consistently warm and humorous,” wrote Richie Unterberger in All Music Guide, “his recordings always polished.” Henry’s string of hits also placed him the position of opening 18 dates for the Beatles in 1964. However, the British Invasion represented a new style of music that made 1950s R&B sound old fashioned. In the wake of changing musical tastes, Henry and many of his musical peers would be left to survive the best they could.
When Henry quit recording hits, Chess dropped his contract, and he started recording for smaller labels like Dial, Parrot, and Roulette. Although the quality of his work remained high, it lacked the necessary distribution to gain attention outside of his base in New Orleans. He continued to earn a living by performing locally. “I played on Bourbon Street for 19 years…,” he told Hannusch. “I played nearly every club on the strip. Six hours a night, six nights a week. I had the best band in town.” The work was grueling, though, and by 1981 Henry needed a change. In 1982 he embarked on a tour of England and returned again the following year to tape a series of appearances for a popular British television program. He also recorded The Legendary Frogman Henry for Silvertone records while in England.
Henry’s career received a boost in the 1980s when talk show host Rush Limbaugh began using “Ain’t Got No Home” on his syndicated radio program. Unfortunately, Henry suffered from a ruptured disc in his neck around the same time, temporarily paralyzing him. A successful operation, however, returned Henry to the performing stage. Explaining his return, Henry told Wirt: “Well, it’s a miracle, and determination, motivation. I was determined that I would pull through. I had to have faith.” In 1994 Henry’s career got yet another new lease on life when “(I Don’t Know Why) But I Do” was included on the Forest Gump soundtrack, which subsequently sold eight million copies. Although the New Orleans-based singer continues to perform at Jazz Fest, he now reserves much of his time for his many grandchildren. “I don’t jump because of money,” Henry told Burdeau. “I like friendship more than money. Some people let success go to their head, but I don’t. I know where I come from and I haven’t forgotten where I come from: down there in the ghettos.”
You Always Hurt the One You Love, Argo, 1961.
Alive and Well and Living in New Orleans, Roulette, 1969.
The Legendary Frogman Henry, Silvertone, 1982.
But I Do, Charly, 1994.
Ain’t Got No Home: The Best of Clarence “Frogman” Henry, Chess, 1994.
Associated Press, October 3, 2003.
Baton Rouge (Louisiana) Advocate, July 12, 1996.
New Orleans Times-Picayune, April 23, 1999, p. 1A.
“Clarence ‘Frogman’ Henry,” All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com (May 13, 2004).
“Clarence ‘Frogman’ Henry,” Off Beat, www.offbeat.com (May 13, 2004).
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.
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