Frogman Finds A Home

Way down yonder in the Bayouland, past twisting urban blight and rotting moral fibers, a lone green thing, rana N’waleenzius, sits on the banks of the Mississippi and laments the conflicting conditions of alienation and restlessness in the modern world:

“Wooo-ooo-ooo! Woooo-ooo-ooo! Ain’t gawht no home! No place to roam!”

The cry of the homeless frog was recorded by Buddy Holly, The Band and Joe Ely. It was used in the movie Diner as a symbol of teenage wanderlust and to express the homesickness of teenage vampires in The Lost Boys. Sadly, the song is now twisted by a bombastic radio talk show host into a tirade against the homeless.

Who can forget the nickname the lily-pad-paradise-lost lament inspired, one that would make “the Boss,” “the Genius,” and the various “Kings” a handsome green with envy? But all handsome frog stories must have a beginning, so let us start there.

Once upon a time—March 19, 1937, to be exact—Clarence Henry, Jr. was born in New Orleans. At age six, Clarence talked his mother into taking the piano lessons that his sister shunned. “She wanted me to play classical music and when she would leave to go to work I would get there [on the piano] and play boogie.”

Little Clarence’s boredom with the long-haired stuff seemed to be justified when, in the sixth grade, he shut down the school’s little girl virtuoso with his black-and-red checked jacket and some lowdown boogie: “I was playing Professor Longhair and Fats Domino and the kids just went wild.”

William Houston, Henry’s music teacher at L.B. Landry High School in Algiers (where the Henrys had moved in 1948), put Clarence playing trombone in the school band and in Bobby Mitchell’s teenage R&B group the Toppers in 1952, who soon recorded with Dave Bartholomew for Imperial. “[One night] at the Fun Pavilion in Raceland, Bobby didn’t show up, so they told me you sing. I started singing ‘I Got a Woman’ and all that stuff and the people just went haywire.”

“During school, about two months before I graduated I had a shotgun wedding. On the night of my wedding [April Fool's, 1955], we were supposed to play at Tony Amarico’s club on Royal Street and I couldn’t make it.” Fired by Bobby, Clarence was forced to find his own small gigs. Working for Pops Marcello at the Joy Lounge, Henry and the house group, consisting of Eddie Smith (tenor), Walter Epps (guitar) and Eugene Jones (drums), played all night gigs that one night culminated in a song.

“One night we started at nine o’clock and it must have been about six or eight o’clock in the morning, ’cause the sun was out and we was still playing. Every time it was time to get off this guy would walk outside the club. I was angry, but I couldn’t say anything to him [Eddie], ’cause he was my leader, so I just hit the piano—BAM! “AIN’T GOT NO HOME!” I was telling the people I wanted to go home and I started singing ‘You ain’t got no home,’ the man, the chicken, the frog and everybody.”

Paul Gayten, a popular bandleader and producer for Chess Records in New Orleans soon heard the song: “He was playing every Monday night in my place at the Brass Rail. I just fell in love with him when I heard him singing that song. We took him into the studio. You know what? They didn’t want me to cut ‘Ain’t Got No Home.’ And that was one of the biggest records of that year. Nobody said that would be a hit.”

Frogman recorded the song with his band, plus Lee Allen (tenor), Edgar Myles (trombone), Frank Fields (bass) and Gayten (piano). “They told me to take out the chicken and all this other stuff,” says Henry, “so we worked it up pretty good and I went in on September 1956 and recorded ‘Ain’t Got No Home’ and ‘Troubles, Troubles,’ and they had me on a trial disc. The leading disc jockey here in New Orleans, Poppa Stoppa on WJMR, [got requests for] ‘The Frog Song’ by ‘The Frogman’—they didn’t know who was singin’ the song. That’s when Poppa Stoppa said, ‘Your name is ‘Frogman Henry’.”

“Ain’t Got No Home” made #3 on the R&B charts in early 1957, and in New Orleans, Frogman actually kept his idol Fats Domino out of the number one spot for a week.

“I went on my first tour in 1957, January 2 at the Apollo Theatre with Clyde McPhatter, the Big Bopper, Buddy Holly, the Spaniels, and—oh! we had a big show!”

Henry and his band learned something about homelessness in those days of segregation: “I came through the era that when you’d travel on the road there was no place for you to eat. I’ve seen my band and me come all the way from Columbus, Ohio eating Lance cookies and Coke when we could catch it in service stations outside. A lot of service stations we couldn’t use the restrooms—we had to stop on the highway and relieve ourselves. And to sleep, a lot of times we stopped on the highways and slept on the road. We couldn’t find places to sleep.”

One of the most interesting road trips Frogman made during this time was his first overseas trip to Jamaica with Bullmoose Jackson, Lewis Lymon & the Teenchords and Edna McGriff in September 1957. Local teens loved New Orleans sounds: “‘Blueberry Hill’ was the biggest thing over there,” recalls Henry, “and I sang it.”

Henry was unable to follow up on his hit, and lived through some hard times as a laborer until Frank Carracci hired him, first at the 500 Club and then at the Court of Two Sisters in the French Quarter.

Leonard Chess decided to record Clarence again in August 1960 with Allen Toussaint producing. “But I Do” was written by Cajun Bobby Charles of “See You Later, Alligator” and “Walking to New Orleans” fame for his mother when she was dying. “I sang ‘em this song,” says Charles, “and they liked it. Allen Toussaint did a great arrangement on it and it was a big record.”

“But I Do” went all the way to #4 on the pop charts in the spring of 1961, causing the lonely frog to spend the honeymoon for his second marriage with Dick Clark and his Caravan of Stars. He was on tour in Chicago when Toussaint was flown up to supervise the session that produced Henry’s version of the Mills Brothers (and Bobby Mitchell) song “You Always Hurt the One You Love,” which made #12 in the early summer. Henry had some success with other Bobby Charles songs, the best of which was “The Jealous Kind,” and stayed on the road.

“Bob Astor was my manager since he met me at the old Joy Lounge until he died in ’84. We had some wonderful times together. We’ve been all over the world—New Zealand, England, Germany, Ireland, the Fiji Islands, New Guinea, Jamaica, Canada…and he put me on some big shows, a lot of shows maybe Fats Domino didn’t work on, and it made me feel proud. I worked with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Dick Clark, Paul Anka, the Shirelles, Ray Charles, Etta James, Duane Eddy, Brenda Lee, Little Richard, Jackie DeShannon…

“I started going to England at that time. I was in a club where the Beatles were playing around Piccadilly Circus, and they weren’t real known then. Then a couple of years later here come the Beatles. I met ‘em in Philadelphia and we did about 28 or 31 dates. We had a two-day vacation in West Palm Beach right out of Miami. We tried to get the Beatles to play the blues like Jimmy Reed stuff, but they couldn’t play that beat.”

Record buyers turned a cold shoulder to Henry’s homespun recordings with Huey Meaux in Shreveport in 1964-65 and with Buddy Killen in Nashville (notable the hilarious “That’s When I Guessed”) in 1967, though Frog reports that he personally sold a ton of his fine New Orleans-made hits album on Roulette from 1969 at his French Quarter shows, where he developed his risqué comic stage show style.

Henry played three different Frank Carracci clubs in the ’70s, and released another good album of standards in 1979 shortly before poor health brought his six-day-a-week, 21-year Bourbon Street grind to a grinding halt.

A 1983 trip to England showed Henry’s popularity over there, when after a three-month tour with numerous TV and radio appearances, he was invited back for three more months. He recorded a disappointing, over-synthesized album there, but also produced a sizzling single—”That Old Piano,” backed with Jay McShann’s “Keep Your Hands Off Her.”

Ironically, with Frogman’s world-hopping to adoring fans he had trouble knowing where home was. “The first time I felt like the people of New Orleans accepted me was at the [1984] World’s Fair. The crowds were just great and they made me feel like I was overseas.”

Three years ago, Henry came into his greatest and most infamous fame in recent years when national radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh (pronounced “Russ Limbo” by Frog) started using “Ain’t Got No Home” to hammer home his arch-conservative views about (not) helping the homeless. Henry didn’t listen to Limbaugh’s show, but a friend took him to see the talk show host when he visited New Orleans last year. “I met him at the Fairgrounds and he said, ‘Would you do a video with me?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ And when he called for the video I wasn’t home and I just mentioned I’d take the job. And he flew me and the band to do one song in Sacramento.” Frog then appeared on Limbaugh’s Caribbean cruise for well-heeled conservatives. On March 9th, they will be appearing together for the first time in New Orleans at the UNO Lakefront Arena (you should be warned that Frogman only performs in Limbaugh’s ill-conceived political skits. He will be seen as he should be at the Jazz Festival on April 28th).

There’s never been any doubt that Frogman Henry’s home and heart is in New Orleans, albeit on the West Bank in Algiers, where he lives with his fourth wife, kids, adopted kids, grand-kids and hundreds of frogs. He has been one of New Orleans’ greatest musical ambassadors, but he also takes care of his own backyard. He participated in the New Orleans Artists for the Hungry and Homeless concerts, and he is an easy mark as landlord of his own apartment buildings. “I only evicted one in the whole ten years. I had to put his stuff out on the street. Most of the guys, sometimes they owe me a year’s rent or so…I know how it is to have hardship.”

Rick Coleman is a longtime writer on New Orleans R&B who received the National Association of Independent Record Dealers award for Best Liner Notes last year for his biographical essay in the boxed set Little Richard: The Specialty Sessions. This is the first in a series of articles on the legends of New Orleans R&B.