From Down Beat, August 2005
Choosing between a paying gig and a romantic evening with your significant other can be tough, and if you count on that gig for income, the romance often loses out. But if he hadn’t agreed to get married on the same day as a big gig with Bobby Mitchell and the Toppers, Clarence Henry might never have had the inspiration to sing like a frog — a voice that earned him a recording contract with Argo Records and a nickname for the rest of his life.
“The night that I was supposed to play, I had to get married — with a long shotgun behind my neck!” says Henry, who has been known as the “Frogman” for the better part of his 69 years because of his signature frog croak on the classic R&B hit, “Ain’t Got No Home.” Henry was fired from Mitchell’s group for missing the date, but quickly joined saxophonist, Eddie Smith’s band, trading trombone for piano and lead vocal before venturing out on his own.
And every year at Jazz Fest when Frogman performs, New Orleanians love to rehash the story of how the song came to be and how it kick-started Henry’s career as an R&B legend and a missing link between R&B and early rock and roll. One night at the Joy Lounge in Gretna, Louisiana in 1955, Smith’s band had hit at eight in the evening. It was getting close to eight in the morning but the people in the club just wouldn’t leave. “So I just hit a riff on the piano, ‘Ain’t Got No Home,’” says Henry, a few days after his set at the Fairgrounds. “I thought it would get the people to go home.”
Singing the lines, “I can sing like a girl” in a falsetto and then “I can sing like a frog” in a deep croak, he caught the ear of A&R rep, Paul Gayten. It wasn’t long before Henry was leading his own band in Cosimo Matassa’s studio, recording a single called “Troubles, Troubles” for Argo Records, the jazz subsidiary of Chess.
The label put “Ain’t Got No Home” on the B-side of a trial disc, assuming that “Troubles, Troubles,” co-written by Henry and Gayten would make better hit material. “[Local DJ] Poppa Stoppa flipped over the record and played ‘Ain’t Got No Home,’” Henry explains. “People in New Orleans was requesting the song, sayin’ ‘Play the frog song by the frog man!’ I happened to be in the studio this one time and Poppa Stoppa said, ‘From now on your name is Frogman.’”
Half a century and dozens of accolades later, Frogman remains one of New Orleans’ living legends and favorite music celebrities. Although he doesn’t play in the clubs around town much anymore, his 19-year stint on Bourbon Street was central to the international appreciation of Louisiana R&B that shaped the late 50s and early 60s, landing him a spot on tour with the Beatles and fans like Paul McCartney, who Frog affectionately refers to as “my Beatle,” and Buddy Holly who famously covered the tune.
This year, Frogman says it’s almost time to retire, which is part of the reason Offbeat magazine put his face on the cover of their annual “Jazz Fest Bible” issue. His set at the Jazz Fest Blues Stage on April 29 created human gridlock along some of the more popular routes from the main stage over to his stage. But those who pushed through the traffic jams were treated to other hits like “You Always Hurt the One You Love” and “Don’t Know Why I Love You (But I Do).”
“I been out here 52 years,” he said, standing up from the chair he now requires during shows, no thanks to recurring back problems. “At 60, I’m goin’ to retire. Tha’s it!” The crowd yelled a resounding “no,” in unison. He made a few cracks directed at his new son-in-law, gave some shout-outs to his family, and then the band his the first few notes of “Ain’t Got No Home.”
Despite the love his fans show for him when he does perform, Henry’s presence has waned on the local scene in recent years. In the days when “go-cups” on Bourbon Street were actually made of glass and the locals outnumbered tourists in the French Quarter, you could hear Henry perform any night of the week at almost any club on the strip. But after nearly two decades of being a Bourbon Street staple, Henry traded his place in the spotlight for a quiet life across the river in Algiers, on New Orleans’ West Bank, not far from where he was born.
Two stone frog statues stand guard as sentinels outside his home on Lawrence Street, across from a lot that’s currently inhabited by FEMA trailers and government rescue workers. Inside the modest house, a piano occupies most of the main room, which is virtually wallpapered by framed photographs of milestones in Henry’s career. He still jumps up to play the piano when some music inspires him, and he still spends a lot of time listening to the people who he came up with in the 50s and 60s, like Bobby Charles.
“The first time I met Frog, I remember he was doin’ a session with Allen Toussaint,” says Charles from his trailer in Abbeville, Louisiana (his house was completely destroyed when Rita swept over his town). “I’d written some songs for Frog and we recorded them. Then I used to go see Frog on Bourbon Street when I had just come on the scene. Last time I saw him was a couple years ago, he came and sang with me on an album I was doing. He also wrote some arrangements. Man, I just love the way he sings. He has this unique style. He’s always good.”
Recognized for his contributions to music by the Delta Music Museum Hall of Fame, the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, the Big Easy Entertainment Awards and a recipient of the Armstrong Cultural Ambassador to New Orleans Award, Henry’s living legend status is sealed.