François Clemmons in 2009
April 23, 1945 |
Birmingham, Alabama, U.S.
|Alma mater||Oberlin College
Carnegie Mellon University
|Known for||Mister Rogers' Neighborhood|
François Scarborough Clemmons (born April 23, 1945) is an African-American singer, actor, playwright and university lecturer. He is perhaps best known for his appearances on the PBS television series Mister Rogers' Neighborhood throughout the 1970s.
Early life and education
Clemmons was born in Birmingham, Alabama and raised in Youngstown, Ohio. When it was discovered that he had an excellent singing voice, he began performing locally at church functions. He became choir director of his church at the age of 10. His first songs were the spirituals of pre-Civil War America, passed down to him by his mother. He soon branched out across genres, singing with various community groups. For a while, he was the lead singer of a rock 'n' roll group called the Jokers.
Clemmons received a Bachelor of Music degree from Oberlin College, and a Master of Fine Arts from Carnegie Mellon University. He also received an honorary degree of Doctor of Arts from Middlebury College.
In 1968, Clemmons won the Metropolitan Opera auditions in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He went on to Cleveland, Ohio, where he won a position in the Metropolitan Opera Studio. He sang there professionally for seven seasons, performing over 70 roles with companies including The New York City Opera, Los Angeles Civic Light Opera, and Washington Civic Opera.
Clemmons sang with numerous orchestras, including the Cleveland Orchestra, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and the Philadelphia Orchestra. In 1973, he won a Grammy Award for a recording of Porgy and Bess; he performed the role of "Sportin' Life" in that musical over 100 times.
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. As "Officer Clemmons", he became one of the first African Americans to have a recurring role on a kids' TV series. Clemmons told the story of how he became "Officer Clemmons" on StoryCorps.
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.
From 1997 until his retirement in 2013, Clemmons was the Alexander Twilight Artist in Residence and director of the Martin Luther King Spiritual Choir at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont. He “played the role of professor, choirmaster, resident vocal soloist, advisor, confidant, and community cheerleader”. He is also well known in the Middlebury community for his superb rendition of the Star Spangled Banner, which he sings at the Middlebury College men's basketball games.
Writing and arranging
Clemmons actively writes across genres for a variety of age groups. Currently, he is writing his autobiography entitled DivaMan: My Life in Song, a children's story entitled ButterCup and the Majic Cane, and a volume of poetry entitled A Place Of My Own. Some of his published works include a volume of spirituals named Songs for Today and a stage musical called My Name Is Hayes based on the life of Roland Hayes. He also commissioned a choral work composed of spirituals entitled Changed My Name, arranged by Linda Twine.
While attending Oberlin College, Clemmons realized that he was gay, but remained closeted, fearing disapproval from his religious family and the community. In 1968, Fred Rogers told Clemmons that while his sexuality did not matter to him personally, Clemmons could not be "out" while appearing on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. Rogers suggested that Clemmons get married as a cover for his sexual orientation, which he did. His marriage to wife Carol did not work out, and Clemmons divorced in 1974 so that he could live openly as a gay man. Rogers still did not allow him to be out on his show, however, even refusing to allow him to wear an earring in his left ear (a signal of homosexuality in the 1970s) during filming. Clemmons and Rogers still remained good friends, however.
Clemmons lives and works in Middlebury, Vermont, where he is the Emeritus Artist in Residence of Middlebury College. He is a member of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, the national fraternity for men in music.
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