A History Of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs

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July 17, 2020  

PLEDGE WEEK: “Ain’t Got No Home” by Clarence “Frogman” Henry

July 17, 2020

Welcome to the fifth in the Pledge Week series of episodes, putting up old bonus episodes posted to my Patreon in an attempt to encourage more subscriptions. If you like this, consider subscribing to the Patreon at http://patreon.com/join/andrewhickey .

This one is about "Ain't Got No Home" by Clarence "Frogman" Henry, a classic of both novelty music and New Orleans R&B.

Click the cut to view a transcript of this episode:

This episode is almost a request one -- Daniel Helton asked during the question and answer sessions last week if I'd thought about covering this song in an episode, and I said then that I'd do it as a Patreon bonus. I may do other songs suggested by backers in future bonus episodes, we'll see, but this one is a song that genuinely deserves at least a brief look:

[Excerpt: Clarence "Frogman" Henry, "Ain't Got No Home"]

Clarence "Frogman" Henry is from New Orleans, as you can immediately hear from the record. It's yet another of those classic records made in Cosimo Matassa's studio, but Henry was young enough that he grew up listening to those earlier records -- as a teenager, he was a fan of Fats Domino and Professor Longhair.

He started playing in bars in his teens, with various local bands, and he soon developed a unique vocal technique. At the time Shirley and Lee were one of the biggest acts in New Orleans, and everyone wanted to hear their material:

[Excerpt: Shirley and Lee, "Let the Good Times Roll"]

But Henry was the only singer with the bands he was in, and so he would sing both Shirley's vocal part and Lee's, and he developed ways to make his voice sound more feminine. He would also play around with his voice and try other unusual voices, including one that sounded like a bullfrog -- he used to imitate frogs and alligators in school to scare the girls.

And then one night, performing in a club at two o'clock in the morning, far past when he wanted to go to bed, he started wondering if the audience had no homes to go to, and improvised a song around that theme, "Ain't Got No Home", using his different voices.

[Excerpt: Clarence "Frogman" Henry, "Ain't Got No Home"]

The song was very loosely based on one he'd already written called "Lonely Tramp", but sped up and turned into a showcase for his vocal tricks.

The song became a regular in his sets, and he eventually came to the attention of Paul Gayten, a musician in New Orleans who also worked as an A&R man for Chess Records. Gayten signed Henry to Chess' new subsidiary Argo, and they went into Cosimo Matassa's studio to record a single. "Ain't Got No Home" was intended for the B-side -- the A-side was a Fats Domino style song called "Troubles, Troubles":

[Excerpt: Clarence "Frogman" Henry, "Troubles, Troubles"]

Leonard Chess initially didn't want to release the single at all, but then the New Orleans DJ known as "Poppa Stoppa" played an acetate of it. "Poppa Stoppa" was one of several white men who performed under that name, playing a character initially created by a black man and pretending to *be* black, and he was to New Orleans what Alan Freed was to Cleveland, Huggy Boy to LA, and Dewey Phillips to Memphis -- the white DJ who could make or break black music in the mass market.

"Poppa Stoppa" played both sides of the record, but it was the B-side that made listeners sit up and take note -- they kept calling in to hear "the song by the frog man". Poppa Stoppa turned to Henry, who was in the studio with him, and said "from now on you're Frogman".

The record went out with "Ain't Got No Home" on the A-side, and it became a big hit, going to number three on the R&B charts and hitting the top twenty in the pop charts. However, the follow-up, "Lonely Tramp", didn't chart:

[Excerpt: Clarence "Frogman" Henry, "Lonely Tramp"]

After a couple more failed attempts at follow-ups, Henry went back to just being a live performer, and didn't make a record for three years. But then in 1961 he teamed up with the songwriter Bobby Charles.

Charles was a white Cajun songwriter who had been as influenced by Fats Domino as Henry was. He'd written hits for Domino, but was best known for his song "Later Alligator", which as "See You Later Alligator" had been a big hit for Bill Haley:

[Excerpt: Bobby Charles, "Later Alligator"]

Charles and Gayten wrote a ballad called "I Don't Know Why (But I Do)" which they gave to Henry to sing. Allen Toussaint produced, arranged, and played piano, and the result was absolutely nothing like his first hit, but a catchy pop ballad that became a perennial classic:

[Excerpt: Clarence "Frogman" Henry, "But I Do"]

"But I Do" became a worldwide hit, reaching number four in the pop charts and number three in the UK. Several follow-ups also charted, though less well. Many listeners believed Henry to be white -- something that Chess encouraged by putting a stock photo of a white man with his head in his hands on the cover of his first album. This was a common technique in the early sixties when a black artist had crossover appeal.

Clarence "Frogman" Henry was no longer a one-hit wonder who'd had a hit with a novelty record, but a serious artist who'd had multiple big hits. While he would never again reach the heights of "But I Do", that was enough to ensure him a career which continues to this day.

For decades Henry had a residency in a club on Bourbon Street, New Orleans, but he also spent lengthy periods in Britain, where he had a big following. His most famous British fans were the Beatles, who invited him to perform as their opening act on their first US tour. He'd first met them on a UK tour a little earlier, and they had occasionally played "But I Do" in their set when that had been in the charts.

But he had other UK fans as well, and would occasionally perform with them, as this record from 1983 shows:

[Excerpt: Clarence "Frogman" Henry with Chas and Dave, "That Old Piano"]

That's Frogman with Chas and Dave, remaking one of their songs, released on Chas & Dave's "Rockney" record label. He also toured with Cannon & Ball around that time.

Clarence "Frogman" Henry is still alive, aged eighty-two, and was still performing at least as recently as May 2017, the most recent gig I've been able to find for him, still playing his classic hits. Here's hoping he carries on for many more years.