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Singer François Clemmons '67 Visits Oberlin for Residency and Concerts

February 20, 2015
Erich Burnett
François Clemmons
François Clemmons ’67 led a master class with vocal students from the conservatory on Thursday, February 26. Photo credit: Yevhen Gulenko

Dr. François Clemmons ’67, an accomplished singer of opera and spirituals who is perhaps best known as Officer Clemmons from the beloved children’s program Mister Rogers Neighborhood, will take part in three public events in February during a weeklong residency at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music.

The week opens with a performance of American spirituals featuring the affable tenor and his longtime friend and collaborator, pianist Kate Gridley, on Tuesday, February 24, in Stull Recital Hall. The concert begins at 8 p.m. and will be followed by a reception for the artists.

At 4:30 p.m. Thursday, February 26, Clemmons will lead a vocal/spiritual master class with Oberlin students in Stull Hall, followed by a question-and-answer session.

The residency concludes Saturday, February 28, with Songs for Fun & for Life!, a concert for children at Oberlin Public Library (65 S. Main St., call 440-775-4790), led by Clemmons and Rev. Nancy Roth on keyboard. The 11 a.m. performance in the library's community room will feature songs made popular through Clemmons' role on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.

All three events are free and open to the public.

Clemmons studied voice as an Oberlin undergraduate in the mid-1960s. He later earned a master's degree from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where he met Fred Rogers at the church they both attended. At Rogers’ urging, Clemmons made a guest appearance on the show—and went on to become a fixture of the fictional neighborhood for the next 25 years.

At the same time, Clemmons enjoyed a vibrant stage career. He performed for seven years with the Metropolitan Opera in cities throughout the country, all the while committing several days each month to recording his PBS program with Rogers. Clemmons sang the role of Sportin’ Life in Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess more than 250 times—and his 1973 performance with the Cleveland Orchestra earned him a Grammy Award.

With encouragement from his friend and mentor Rogers, among others, Clemmons eventually turned his career focus from opera to spirituals, which his mother used to sing around the house throughout his childhood. When the singer found few outlets for the music as an adult, he founded the Harlem Spiritual Ensemble with the goal of keeping American spiritual music alive. To this day, he tours regularly with the ensemble across America, Europe, and Asia.

Clemmons served for 16 years as artist in residence at Middlebury College in Vermont until his retirement in 2013. He received an honorary doctorate from Middlebury in 1996 and a lifetime achievement award from Carnegie Mellon in 2004.

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