“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in,” says mafia don Michael Corleone in “The Godfather III.” The same could be said of an equally respected godfather of New Orleans R&B, Clarence “Frogman” Henry, lured once again into the spotlight from his retirement lilypad in Algiers to headline the latest Ponderosa Stomp Revue. Presented by the illustrious Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the June 8 show at the Howlin’ Wolf also features Jean Knight, Al “Carnival Time” Johnson, and Bobby Allen, backed by Paul “Lil’ Buck” Sinegal and his Buckaroos.
This is a rare local appearance by Frogman, 74, but the pairing with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame sponsorship couldn’t be more appropriate. After all, as Frogman tells it, he learned at least some of his musical chops from several legendary Louisiana inductees, such as:
Henry Roeland Byrd, aka Professor Longhair: “I used to sneak into the Pepper Pot (in nearby Gretna) to see Professor Longhair. It was just him and a drummer, but it sounded like a whole band in there. When I played talent shows at school, I played his numbers and dressed just like him with tails and a long Indian wig.” [“The Soul of New Orleans: A Legacy of Rhythm and Blues” by Jeff Hannusch]
Antoine “Fats” Domino: “Fats was my inspiration. When I sat down at the piano, I tried to play everything he did. As far as I’m concerned, Fats is the real king of rock and roll.”
Dave Bartholomew: Frogman’s first brush with Bartholomew – Fats’ producer, bandleader, and co-writer – was during his stint with Bobby Mitchell’s Toppers, with whom Frogman got his start, eventually recording several Imperial sides with the group. According to Hannusch, “the Toppers auditioned for Imperial’s Dave Bartholomew, who thought the teenagers had potential. Henry played trombone on the group’s first session but eventually got fired because he missed a gig in order to attend his own shotgun wedding.”
The split from Mitchell and the Toppers proved to be fateful. After high school, Frogman began working as a pianist at local West Bank clubs, and it was at the legendary Joy Lounge at Fourth Street and Huey P. Long Avenue in Gretna where Henry was inspired to write his most famous song, “Ain’t Got No Home” – and thus the Frogman was born. According to a 1999 Times-Picayune profile by Bill Grady:
Henry conceived the tune in a rare moment of annoyance while playing the Joy Lounge in Gretna in 1956. The bandleader, Eddie Smith, wouldn’t let the musicians quit until the place emptied of customers, and Clarence was bushed. “I was trying to tell the people to go home, so I hit a riff on the piano and I start singing, ‘Woo-woo-oo-oo-oo, ain’t got no home,'” Henry said. “I got my nickname from a disc jockey at WJMR, Poppa Stoppa. People were requesting the song. They’d say, ‘Play the frog song by the frog man!’ So Poppa Stoppa said, ‘From now on, you Frogman.'”
Recorded for the Chess label by New Orleans bandleader Paul Gayten and powered by key Domino sidemen Lee Allen and Walter “Papoose” Nelson, the song climbed to #3 on the Billboard R&B chart and took Frogman to auditoriums all over the country, including the Apollo. Over the years it has sold more than 8 million copies, having been featured in films such as “Diner” and “The Lost Boys” and – more infamously – as theme music on Rush Limbaugh’s radio show. Other standout songs include “Lonely Tramp,” “I’m in Love,” and “You Always Hurt the One You Love,” which features piano by another Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, Allen Toussaint.
But the music didn’t stop with “Ain’t Got No Home.” With an assist from Louisiana songwriting legend and Chess labelmate Bobby Charles, Frogman scored his biggest hit with “(I Don’t Know Why) But I Do,” which reached #4 on the national pop chart and has gone on to be featured in numerous films, including “Forrest Gump.” No less an authority than sex goddess/actress Elizabeth Hurley called “But I Do,” which appeared in the Hugh Grant-James Caan film “Mickey Blue Eyes,” “one of the most heavenly songs ever recorded.”
Besides writing some of Fats Domino’s most famous tunes, Bobby Charles also contributed several other winners to the Frogman catalog: the swamp-pop power ballad “On Bended Knees” (the Charles rendition here); the dreamy “Your Picture,” also recorded by Cajun legend Johnnie Allan; “A Little Too Much”; “The Jealous Kind”; and “Just My Baby and Me.”
Oddy enough, this wasn’t Frogman’s only association with Cajun music legends. According to Hannusch, after leaving Chess, Frogman joined forces with the notorious producer Huey Meaux of Winnie, Texas, recording “five great singles for Meaux that were leased to Parrot Records including the classic ‘Cajun Honey.’” Frogman also interpreted material supplied by another swamp-pop songwriter of Bobby Charles’ caliber whose ditties Domino also had waxed: “There was a guy out of Biloxi, Jimmy Donley, that wrote great country songs. He used to write and record for Huey so there were a lot of his songs around. He wrote ‘Think It Over,’ which was one of my favorite tunes.” In recent years, this writer has heard Frogman refer to his own music as “swamp pop” – no doubt because his repertoire has never gone out of style in the dance-crazed, more rural areas of southernmost Louisiana, whose musicians in cross-fertilizing fashion crafted their own New Orleans-inspired swamp-pop tunes, fueled as they were by the sounds of Crescent City-style R&B emanating from the city’s radio stations.
In 1964 Frogman had his greatest brush with fame – that is, with Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees the Beatles, opening 18 concerts for the Fab Four, including at New Orleans’ City Park Stadium. Frogman then plied his trade on Bourbon Street, tinkling the ivories for 19 years in various clubs during a storied era when giants such as Cousin Joe, Al Hirt, Pete Fountain, and Frankie Ford still trod that famous musical conduit. His contributions to music have been recognized by his induction into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame as well as the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame, to name just a few.
One of Frogman’s later songs, ironically first recorded by British duo Chas and Dave, perfectly encapsulates the New Orleans piano tradition with goosebump-generating gusto. Pure rollicking R&B in a joyous, pounding Fats-style, “That Old Piano” tells the story of how such magical music has so often sprung from the humblest of origins, rooted in family traditions passed down from generation to generation during house parties and Saturday-night fish fries where a beat-up piano served as the centerpiece of interaction and the primary inducement for dancing. This video features Frogman performing the song live with a full band.
Though still going strong when he does gig, Frogman’s influence will now certainly live on in the music of his son, Clarence “Tadpole” Henry III, who performs R&B and soul at local clubs and festivals. Still, Ponderosa Stomp fans should come out Wednesday night to see why we think rock immortality in Cleveland should be the next stop for the Frogman, one of the treasured survivors of the golden age of New Orleans R&B. “People want to see the Frogman, but you know the Frogman wants to see the people too,” Henry once told Jeff Hannusch. So go see the Frogman, a very Special Man …