Dr. François Scarborough Clemmons (born April 23, 1945) is an Afro-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 and 1980s.
Maestro Clemmons was born on April 23, 1945 in Birmingham, Alabama. He was raised in Youngstown, Ohio. When it was discovered that he had a singing voice of purity and power, he began performing locally at church functions. 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 even the lead singer of a rock ‘n’ roll group called The Jokers.
Dr. 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 Doctor of Arts degree from Middlebury College.
Opera and Orchestras
In 1968, Dr. 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 various companies such as: The New York City Opera, Cincinnati Opera, Los Angeles Civic Light Opera, Opera Ebony, Opera South, Toledo Opera, and Washington Civic Opera.
In 1976 he received a GRAMMY award (Best Opera Recording) as part of the Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus’ recording of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.
Maestro Clemmons sang with numerous orchestras including the Cleveland Orchestra, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Indianapolis Symphony, the Milwaukee Symphony, the Colorado State Orchestra, the Memphis Symphony, the Jackson Symphony, the JacksonvilleSymphony, the Florida State Symphony, the Springfield Symphony, the Youngstown Symphony, the Salina Orchestra, and the Hanover Rundfunk Symphony Orchestra.
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood
For 25 years, Dr. Clemmons performed the role (which he created) of Officer Clemmons, a friendly neighborhood policeman, in the “Neighborhood of Make-Believe” on the Peabody award winning children’s television show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. In the neighborhood itself, Clemmons ran a singing and performance studio located in the building diagonally across from Mr. Rogers’ house.
The Harlem Spiritual Ensemble
In the early 1980s, Maestro 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 an ensemble like the one he envisioned, Dr. Clemmons decided to create one, The Harlem Spiritual Ensemble, which was dedicated to preserving, sustaining and commissioning new and traditional arrangements of American negro spirituals for future generations.
From 1997 until his retirement in 2013, Maestro Clemmons was the Alexander Twilight Artist in Residence and director of the Martin Luther King Spiritual Choir at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont. He “fulfilled the role of professor, choirmaster, resident vocal soloist, adviser, confidant, mentor, 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, swimming meets, and other community fundraising events.
Writing and arranging
Dr. Clemmons actively writes across genres for a variety of age groups. He is currently writing his autobiography entitled Officer Clemmons: A Memoir; a series of five children’s stories entitled Little 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 choral arrangements of spirituals titled Songs for Todayand a stage musical titled My Name Is Hayes based on the life of the great tenor, Roland Hayes. He also commissioned a choral work composed of American Negro Spirituals entitled Changed My Name, arranged by Linda Twine, and published by Henshaw Music in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Dr. Clemmons currently lives and works in Middlebury, Vermont, where he serves as the Emeritus Artist in Residence at Middlebury College. He is a member of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, the national fraternity for men in music, of which Fred Rogers was also a member. His constant companion is his beloved Tibetan Terrier, HRH The Princess Nepal.
A Message from François…
I was 12 years old when I first saw the Otto Preminger movie version of George Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess in a small segregated theater in Youngstown, Ohio. I had no idea of the impact this musical would have on my singing career. Through the years I saw the film over a dozen times and it never failed to bring me back to what my singing was all about: maybe some Black or disadvantaged child would see me on stage as I saw Dorothy Dandridge, Sidney Poitier, Pearl Bailey, and Sammy Davis Jr. and say, “I can do that, too!”. There weren’t very many positive images of Black people in films in those days and Otto Preminger was a pioneer in Hollywood in more ways than one. What he did for and with Black people in films is equal to what Gershwin did in the theater world. During the Harlem Renaissance and later, Gershwin and his brother Ira, brought to the attention of white, moneyed audiences the value and profound uniqueness of Black culture: Spirituals, Gospel music, blues, and jazz; all of which he used in the score of Porgy and Bess. In my opinion, “Gershwin is Gershwin” and always will be, but he could only have done what he did because he was white. In those days most of the work of Black artists was on the chittlin’ (chitterlings=pig guts) circuit! Ninety-nine percent of Black people did not characteristically go to or perform at Carnegie Hall or with any of the major symphonies or opera companies in New York, America, or the world. The likes of Duke Ellington, Luis Armstrong, Fats Waller, and Jelly Roll Morton were laying down their legacy for future generations but primarily for a Black audience. The exceptions were when they went to places like the Cotton Club in Harlem or the Ritz where Black people were not permitted to come in the front door or sit and have a drink at the bar.
Racism of this nature was known and fully accepted in those days. This was a world that Gershwin knew and took for granted. He, however, moved very easily between Black and white worlds. None of his biographies which I have read speak of his relationship with Ann Brown for whom he wrote the role of Bess. Contrariwise, Otto Preminger’s affair with Dorothy has been written about in several of her biographies. And I refer back to President Thomas Jefferson and the final proof we have today (due to DNA evidence) that he
and Sally Hemings were more than master and servant. Rumors were riff as to why a successful white Jewish composer of Gershwin’s stature would descend to live with Black people on Catfish Row (Cabbage Row) and spend so much of his personal fortune on the writing and off-Broadway development of this non-descript folk opera about a disabled Black man. So after the success of his American in Paris and Rhapsody in Blue, and amidst his successes on Broadway and among pop songwriters, he set out to conquer the Opera
world. Unfortunately, Gershwin had no idea how entrenched the classical racism was in America, and not until 1985 did his beloved opera make its deserved debut at the famed Metropolitan Opera in Manhattan (for which, I might add, it was written!). By that time it had already been performed and honored in every major European musical capital, Asia, SouthAmerica and Canada. National and international touring companies were a standard of any productions of the great folk opera. For years it begged the question, “Why not in America?…Why not at the Met?”
When Loren Maazel first tapped me in 1972 to sing the role of Sportin’ Life for our now famous Grammy Award winning production I was thrilled. It blew the top off of the glass ceiling I found on my burgeoning operatic career. Along with my role as Officer Clemmons on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, I now had name recognition and could make a living singing and not waiting tables in New York City. It was eye-opening and exhilarating. Years later because of my work with The Harlem Spiritual Ensemble, I was asked to prepare the choruses for Porgy for a famed production in Berlin and added to my career the role of conductor. Fifty years later I am still singing, conducting, and enjoying this nothing-short-of-brilliant interpretation of the enduring and endearing legend of the disabled beggar, Porgy. I thank you for choosing to share your musical time with us.