CLARENCE "FROGMAN" HENRY
Born 19 March 1937, New Orleans, Louisiana
He could sing like a girl and he could sing like a frog. Clarence Henry used three distinctive singing voices : his normal voice, a high falsetto shriek and a deep voice that he created by inhaling and singing at the same time, earning him the "Frogman" nickname.
Born in New Orleans, Clarence Henry was raised with one brother and four sisters. In 1948 the family moved to Algiers, across the Mississippi River. By that time Clarence was taking classical piano lessons. In high school he took up the trombone as a second instrument. Among his fellow high school students was Bobby Mitchell, who had a rhythm and blues group, the Toppers. Clarence joined the group in 1952, playing trombone and piano. Mitchell recorded for Imperial between 1953 and 1958, but Clarence played only on the first session (trombone). In 1955 he was fired by Mitchell and started singing solo in West Bank clubs like the Fatman and the Chicken Shack. One club owner connected him with saxophonist Eddie Smith, in whose band Henry improvised the basic structure of "Ain't Got No Home". The crowd loved it and at subsequent performances Clarence starting adding sections, first "I can sing like a frog" and later the part where he sang in a high-pitched voice like a girl (an impersonation of the squeaky voice of Shirley Goodman, of Shirley and Lee). Clarence auditioned his novelty tune for bandleader Paul Gayten, who was at that time acting as a local talent scout and A&R man for Chicago's Chess label. The New Orleans veteran recognized the song's potential and suggested that label owner Leonard Chess fly south to check out this young piano player and his hot song.
Signed to Chess, Clarence went into Cosimo Matassa's studio for his first session in September 1956. Gayten augmented Clarence's band with several top local musicians and helped him write the flipside, "Troubles Troubles", a song that belied its happy bouncy tune by having suicidal lyrics. Henry's debut single was released on the Argo subsidiary in the last week of October 1956. It was deejay Poppa Stoppa (Clarence Hayman) who broke "Ain't Got No Home" and announced it as "the frog song by the frog man". The nickname stuck. The song peaked at # 3 R&B and # 20 pop in January 1957. From there Clarence went to a year of continuous touring with one rock 'n' roll package after another. The follow-up, consisting of the two other songs from the "Ain't Got No Home" session ("I'm A Country Boy"/"Lonely Tramp"), did well in New Orleans, but little nationally. There was nothing wrong with the next two singles, "I Found A Home"/"It Won't Be Long" and "I'm In Love"/"Baby Baby Please", but Henry seemed stuck with the novelty tag. His music was not being taken seriously and it looked as if he would just be another one-hit wonder.
Then in 1961, the Frogman returned with a vengeance. "But I Do" went to # 4 on the Billboard pop charts and to # 3 in the UK. The song had first been tried (as "I Don't Know Why") at Henry's first session in 1956, but was not used. Paul Gayten and Robert Charles Guidry (Bobby Charles) rewrote the number and the latter would become the main supplier of Clarence's material. Production duties were taken over by Allen Toussaint, who was hotter than a firecracker at that time. Next came "You Always Hurt the One You Love" (a # 1 hit in 1944 for the Mills Brothers), which peaked at # 12 pop and # 11 R&B (also # 6 UK). "Lonely Street" (# 57), "On Bended Knees" (# 64) and "A Little Too Much" (# 77) - all from the pen of Bobby Charles - also made the pop charts in 1961-62, but then the hits dried up.
After several years on the road, climaxed in 1964 by opening on 18 dates for the Beatles in Canada and the USA, things slowed down. Chess let him go in 1964, after which Henry signed with producer / entrepreneur Huey Meaux, who issued five singles over the next three years on his Parrot label (including a remake of "Ain't Got No Home"). These were followed by two 45s in the late 1960s for Buddy Killen's Nashville-based Dial Records. In 1969 Roulette issued a fine LP called "Clarence 'Frogman' Henry is alive and well, living in New Orleans, and still doin' his thing". But it failed to rekindle his career.
Henry's main source of income came from the Bourbon Street strip, where he played for 19 years. In 1983 he spent some time in the UK, recording an album and an excellent single ("That Old Piano"). A reissue of "But I Do" was a minor UK hit in 1993 (# 65).
For many years, Clarence was a regular at the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. He is now semi-retired, enjoying his status as a beloved elder statesman of New Orleans R&B. His house in N.O. is filled with frog memorabilia, sent by fans from all over the world.
More info : http://www.knowla.org/entry.php?rec=701
CD recommendation : Ain't Got No Home : The Best of Clarence "Frogman" Henry (MCA). 18 Argo recordings from 1956-1964 in excellent sound quality. From 1994, but still in print. Annotated by Dave Booth.
Acknowledgements : Dave Booth, John Broven, Bill Dahl.
UK discography : http://www.45cat.com/artist/clarence-frogman-henry/uk
Dik, March 2012
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