Newsroom

May 17, 1999

From Classroom to Concert Hall, Singer and Musician Françoise Clemmons Promotes Diversity

François Clemmons' talents as a singer and a musician--he is the founder and leader of the Harlem Spiritual Ensemble--make him a valued instructor at Middlebury College in Vermont. But students and colleagues at Middlebury also have a deep appreciation for the ability of this African-American instructor to talk easily and openly with students of all races about diversity. The citation for an honorary doctor of arts degree, awarded by the College to Clemmons in 1996, expressed gratitude for such talents, describing him as "a major force for joy and good feeling on campus and beyond."

A Middlebury College Twilight Artist-in-Residence (named for 1823 Middlebury graduate Alexander Twilight, the first African-American to receive a college degree), Clemmons has many roles at the College. He recently taught "The History of the American Negro Spiritual and Its Influence on Western Civilization" during the January term, a one-month period between semesters that allows students to focus on one course. Clemmons learned his first spirituals from his mother, who used to sing them as she worked at home.

Accessible to students on an informal basis, he also lectures in history classes, serves as an advisor to students, performs at campus and town events, and directs the Middlebury College Choir.

Jeffrey Marder, a pianist who accompanies Clemmons, calls him a magnetic strength. "People are drawn to his kindness, openness, and many talents," said Marder.

Keith Watts, a student who took Clemmons' course on Negro spirituals, said, "I learned a lot about the black experience and about how music can be used to motivate people and give them a sense of power. When he sings, you realize that the soul and essence of music is emotion. He was never a slave, but he brings the slaves' emotions to the music. Most of the people he sings to, at least at Middlebury, are white. They've never felt any racial oppression in any real sense, but they can relate to the music because it's on an emotional level."

Another student, Katherine Clark, said, "We talked about things that I had never had any exposure to at all. He has a familial background in the subject and he conveyed things that others couldn't have done in the same way. He has a way of drawing you in. He doesn't just teach. He lives what he teaches. This is critical for a teacher and a performer."

A resident of both Middlebury and New York City, Clemmons' career has taken him a long distance from his birthplace of Birmingham, Ala. At an early age, he moved with his family to Youngstown, Ohio. When family and teachers discovered the quality of his voice, he began singing at church functions and at nursery school. His first songs were the spirituals of pre-Civil War America. He eventually branched out, singing for different community groups and for a time as the lead singer of a rock and roll group called The Jokers.

Clemmons earned a bachelor's degree in music at Oberlin College and a master's of fine arts at Carnegie Mellon University. He is also an ordained minister in the nondenominational Christian Church, a title that further supports Clemmons' ability to serve as a mentor and supporter of tolerance amongst his students.

Clemmons' big break as a singer came in 1968 when he won the regional auditions in Pittsburgh for New York's Metropolitan Opera. This achievement allowed him to go on to the next level of competition in Cleveland, Ohio, where he won a position in the Metropolitan Opera Studio. He sang with the studio for seven seasons, performing over 70 roles with various other companies across the country, from the New York City Opera to the Cincinnati Opera. In addition, he has sung with numerous orchestras, including the Cleveland Orchestra; the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra; and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Clemmons has performed the role of Sportin' Life from George Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" over 100 times. His recording of the role on London Records with the Cleveland Orchestra won a Grammy Award in 1973.

A versatile entertainer, Clemmons created and performed the role of the friendly police officer, Officer Clemmons, on the Emmy and Peabody Award-winning television program "Mr.Rogers' Neighborhood" for 25 years. The current generation of young children is now enjoying him on reruns of the show.

In the early 1980s, Clemmons realized that there were no musical ensembles devoted to the American Negro spiritual. In response, he became founder and director of the Harlem Spiritual Ensemble in 1986. In the group's early days, he paid members from his own pocket for a performance, and used his living room as rehearsal space. Now well established, the ensemble performs regularly across America, Europe, and Asia, pursuing Clemmons' vision for preserving, sustaining, and commissioning new and traditional arrangements of the American Negro spiritual for future generations.

At Middlebury College's Mead Chapel, Clemmons' performances with the Harlem Spiritual Ensemble have always filled the building, and students continue to sign up for his course on spirituals every year.

According to Clemmons, "Middlebury is an intense intellectual atmosphere. Students are very curious about why American slavery got started. They've never been taught about the slave culture in such detail as we cover in my course. I show them another facet of the American experience. Students are always surprised to learn how much of the music, food, and methods of communication they are accustomed to spring from this culture."

Middlebury students, it seems, are as glad to have Clemmons on campus as he is to be there.

François Clemmons is available for interviews by phone. Please contact the Middlebury College public affairs office at 802-443-5198, to arrange an interview.