By Lolis Eric Elie
Knowing I’d be interviewing Clarence "Frogman" Henry, I asked my mother if she could tell me anything about him. I thought she’d remember some song she particularly liked, or some dance or some night club where he performed. Turns out what she remembered was a talent show at L.B. Landry Senior High School in Algiers many decades ago. She did a recitation. Clarence sang. You can guess who won: The singer.
Not many years after that, Clarence Henry was recording"Ain't Got No Home" and making his way up to No. 3 on the Billboard R&B chart and No. 20 on the pop chart. It was from that performance and its frog-like vocal stylings that the Frogman got the nickname that would stick. That song has also stuck, but it wasn’t the last time a song by the singer would make its way up the charts. In 1961, "But I Do" made it up to No.4 and "You Always Hurt the One You Love" made the Top 20. On the strength of such hits, he was the opening act for the Beatles for several weeks on their first U.S. tour.
Frogman was in residence for 20 years on Bourbon Street, back in those long ago days when there was a lot of good, live, local music in the French Quarter. He's since retired from performing, but his music lives on. You can hear it in a lot of unexpected places, from 'Forrest Gump' to the 'Rush Limbaugh Show.'
I was born in the city part of New Orleans in the 7th Ward. And I was going to a music teacher, Miss Jones, on Columbus and North Claiborne streets. We moved into Algiers in 1948. What happened was I was banging on the piano at L. B. Landry and the bandleader Mr. Houston asked me to play trombone. He put me in the band and I didn't even know how to hold a trombone. I played third trombone when I joined the band. Then for three years I played first trombone. I used to play that song by Paul Gayten called “Ooh-Boo" and when I played that, look like the football team would start winning.
After high school, I was doing labor work, carrying lumber, down in the Cutoff [a section of Algiers]. A gentleman came and got me to play at the Old Joy Lounge in Gretna. It's the Gretna Tavern now, on Huey P. Long and Fourth Street. Before that I was playing at the Fat Man. That was where the high rise was at in the projects on Whitney Avenue. I played there for $5 a night, and at Bill’s Chicken Shack, which was on Elmira Street in Algiers. From 1955 to 1956, I was playing the Old Joy Lounge, and they was paying $51 for five nights. I was just playing music. From then on I didn't work any more labor work. I just played music. Fats Domino was my type of music. Him and Professor Longhair. Fats was really my idol.
Then I wrote a song called "Aint' Got No Home." Paul Gayten heard it and he sent it up to Chess Records and Leonard Chess came down and put me in the studio to record it. He hear me play it at the Brass Rail on Canal Street and he told me to go into the studio and record it. "Ain’t Got No Home” was a sleeper and it made a big hit. We went on the road for a year. Then I came back home and I started working on Bourbon Street for 21 years at the Court of Two Sisters, the 500 Club, the 500 Backstage, the La Strada and the Opera House. Those clubs were owned by Frank Caracci and Nick Karno. The first band was Warren Miles, piano; Eddie Smith, sax; Eugene Jones, drums.
Opening for the Beatles was strange to me. I didn't know the Beatles were going to be as big as they were. A lot of guys wanted to work with the Beatles for nothing, but I made $750 a week at that time.
Bill Black’s Combo was on the bill with us. Paul McCartney, the Bill Black Combo’s singer Eric, and I were like the Three Musketeers. We hung out together. It was hard doing to the show, the security was so tight. In order to go to the Beatles’ room, you had to get Paul or somebody to come get you. They had a whole floor to themselves. They had ambulances and nurses and everything at the Beatles' show. A lot places we couldn't stay. They put us out of New Orleans, Boston. A lot of cities kept us out. They didn’t want the crowds tearing up their places. People went wild over the Beatles. That were first time I had seen that.
I've just about had it playing music. I was out there 58 years. If I hear the music, that's when I miss it. But I mostly watch television now. I met a lady when I was working on Bourbon Street 30-some years ago, and she was living in St. Louis. She heard my song on the television and she called me up, and we got back together. We been together going on three years. So I came up here in Bowling Green, Kentucky, so we can be close to her family. I usually spend six months in New Orleans and six months in Bowling Green.
I've done a lot of television shows playing music, but this series, this was the first one I had been on. It was fun.