April 23, 1945 |
Birmingham, Alabama, U.S.
François Scarborough Clemmons (b. April 23, 1945 in Birmingham, Alabama) is an American singer, performer, playwright and university lecturer. He is perhaps best known for his appearances on the PBS television series Mister Rogers' Neighborhood throughout the 1970s.
Clemmons was born in Alabama, but his family moved to Youngstown, Ohio while he was still very young. He was raised in a musical household, and some of the first songs he sang were pre-Civil War Negro spirituals which he heard his great grandmother sing while she was working. When it was discovered that Clemmons had a gifted singing voice, he began to sing at nursery school and at church functions.
Clemmons received a Bachelor of Music degree at Oberlin College, and a Master of Fine Arts at Carnegie Mellon University. (Middlebury College, where he now teaches, awarded him an honorary degree of Doctor of Arts in 1996.)
Mister Rogers' Neighborhood
For 25 years, Clemmons performed the role of Officer Clemmons, a friendly neighborhood policeman, in the "Neighborhood of Make-Believe" on the children's television show Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. In the neighborhood itself, Clemmons ran a singing and dance studio located in the building diagonally across from Mr. Rogers' house.
The Harlem Spiritual Ensemble
In the late 1980s, Clemmons had an experience singing spirituals with a friend that left him profoundly moved. The experience led him away from operatic performance toward an earlier love: traditional spirituals:
I was enjoying the singing of these spirituals .... I was giving artistry in a way -- I was giving my art in a way that I had not felt it was so important as when I was singing Mozart -- or when I was singing Schubert -- or Donizetti or Bellini .... I began to ask Fred Rogers why there was no professional ensemble that sang spirituals comparable to a Haydn Society or a St. Cecelia Society or a Handel Society or Bach.
When he was unable to find a society like the one he envisioned, Clemmons decided to create one: The Harlem Spiritual Ensemble, dedicated to "preserving, sustaining and commissioning new and traditional arrangements of American Negro Spirituals for future generations."
Writing and arranging
Clemmons has arranged a volume of spirituals called Song for Today and has written and produced a stage musical based on the life of Roland Hayes. His works currently in progress include an autobiography, a children's book, and a volume of poetry.
Dr. Clemmons lives and works in Middlebury, Vermont, where he was an artist-in-residence and Twilight Scholar at Middlebury College. He is also well-known in the Middlebury community for his superb rendition of the Star Spangled Banner at Middlebury College men's basketball games at Pepin Gymnasium. He is a member of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, the national fraternity for men in music, of which Fred Rogers was also a member. Clemmons retired at the end of the 2012-2013 academic year.
- Sweet Chariot: the story of the spirituals. Accessed September 14, 2007.
- François Clemmons' website
- François Clemmons at the Middlebury College website