By Elayne Taylor
Volume 13 Number 1
The courtyard walls of the children's Bookstore in Toronto can barely accommodate the capacity crowd of adults and children, and the audience buzzes with an anticipatory hum as showtime approaches. The children seem breathlessly subdued, as though awaiting a first glimpse of Santa's reindeer on Christmas morning.
As strains of an oh-so-familiar tune waft over the courtyard, an instantly recognizable figure bounds down the stairs to a make-shift stage. He is as famous as Santa to the children gathered here, as well as to millions of children around the globe. He's Bob. Not just any Bob, though. He's Bob of Sesame Street!
Bob waves and shouts, "Hi!" into the mike. An exultant, resounding "Hi!" from the crowd seems to stun him with its intensity for a moment. But he hardly skips a beat, and for the next half hour Bob encourages his fans to join in singing selections from his new album If You're Happy and You Know It Sing Along With Bob. The children are ecstatic, and several diminutive fans rush the stage to hug their idol. Bob takes it all in stride and makes the interruptions part of the show. An ensuing autograph session is a near mob scene, and though his signing hand must be tired, Bob McGrath's main goal has been achieved. He is promoting his new record released by Toronto based Kids' Records, and today lots of records have been sold. It is no accident that this major American children's star has entrusted his creative reputation to the small Canadian label.
"I was fed up with the attitude of American record companies," says Bob, "and I'd heard of the work Bill Usher was producing in Canada with Kids' Records, so I called and stated my case. It was only natural that I'd do this record with Bill. He had surveyed daycares and pre-schools for the most favourite songs of children. We took the top sixty-five songs and recorded them in two volumes."
The vibrant, catchy mood throughout Sing Along With Bob is a credit to its musicians. Typically uncompromising on quality, Usher held up production for six months until a high-calibre group was assembled. The album cover credits read like a who's who of Canadian players: Jim Galloway is a well-known Toronto saxophonist and arranger, Graham Townsend plays fiddle, Tim Allen brought his banjo along from The Tommy Hunter Show, and Bob Becker took leave from his group, Nexus.
"I think it's the best album I've ever done," states McGrath. "As a singer, I'm very proud of the musicianship that's crafted this record. The recording business in Canada is much healthier than it is in the United States. . That's true for children's books as well. I think some of the priorities seem to be in better places in Canada than they are in the States."
The priorities of any company lie with the people in charge. Bill Usher is the boyish innovative president and producer of Kids' Records. Today he is taking it easy by doing only three things at once; conducting an interview, listening to demo tapes, and taking care of his three-year-old son Zachary.
"Let's listen Dad! Let me listen!" exclaims Zachary. Bill Usher adopts the distinctive smile of a proud and involved parent. "Zak keeps me on my toes. He loves to listen to everything artists send in so sometimes I end up working even when I don't want to!"
Usher began his career as a CBC radio producer. He also did stints as a studio musician, working with other record producers. Kids' Records was founded in November 1981 with the purpose, as Usher explains, "of making the kind of records we wanted our children listening to. There's a breed of artists today performing in a classy way for children and by classy I mean not crass commercialism but containing a lot of inherent goodness. .You can think about good food and junk food, and I like to think of the records Kids' creates as nourishing for young minds. Of course, an album first and foremost must be entertaining, but it can be enlightening too! Our artists are great to watch and listen to and at the same time they're writing songs with awareness. It's not sexist, not racist. We embrace a community approach rather than a heavy, materialistic approach. This is what I consider to be high quality entertainment for kids and their families."
Katherine Smithrim admits she knew nothing about the recording business when she first contacted Usher about her album idea. "I wanted to find a way to help parents relearn ways of playing with their babies which had been largely forgotten," explains Smithrim. "I just knew it would work on an album! Parents and babies love to do these things together and all they need is an introduction."
Bill Usher agreed, and The Baby Record was born. Sung by Katherine Smithrim and Bob McGrath, The Baby Record includes everything from action rhymes to lullabies, following the same successful system of play and learning Katherine evolved throughout years of teaching music to parents and babies. The instructions are clear and the song sung simply, designed so that nothing gets in the way of the parents' and babies' enjoyment.
"People have used these activities with babies since the beginning of time," Smithrim continues. "It's nothing new but the record may sound new to some people because we don't tend to live in extended families anymore. Our own mothers and fathers are miles away, and we don't have grandma and grandpa living with us. After all, they were the ones who had time to keep baby on their knee."
In 1981 Sandra Beech won a Juno for her record, Inch By Inch. After a circuitous route of other record companies, she finally feels at home with Kids' Records.
Born and raised in Ireland, Beech began singing and dancing in shows featuring her brothers (who later formed the Irish Rovers). The family didn't have extra money to buy musical instruments, so they made their own from bottle caps, shakers, spoons, and recycled paraphernalia found around the house. Beech still puts them to good use in concert and on record.
"My new record [Sidewalk Shuffle] comes directly from my childhood," says Sandra. "It's a little song I used to sing on my way to school. I became a children's entertainer when my own three children were babies. I gave them music at home to get them up and energized. What motivated me was to give them the kind of music I had as a child. We didn't have much money but we had a whole lot of happiness and it was because of music. Music was everything."
Often described as a dazzling entertainer, Beech favours fantasy costumes onstage and encourages her audience to close their eyes while she leads them in games of pretense and imagination. "My music encourages live action, participation, finger, hand-and-body movements....I give them wonder and fantasy at a time when children are being robbed of the carefree time of their lives. I'm not too happy about what's going on these days but what saves me is my magic. Children need dreams, so do adults. If you don't have dreams what have you got?"
Once a good record is created, it is the job of the marketing department to distribute the product to the right retailers. Over the past year, Kids' Records has tripled business in the United States, with solid distribution bases in New York, California, New Jersey, Atlanta, Florida, and Vermont. Lyndon Fournier, director of marketing and sales, comments: "We expect the same dramatic growth in U.S. sales next year. I get letters daily from previously unknown distributors across the U.S. looking to supply the specialty and educational market with our product. Even mainstream record retailers are waking up to the huge demand for quality children's recordings that the specialty and educational markets have been catering to for years.
"Our best U.S. release to date has been Musical Chairs, featuring the six-piece Chamber Orchestra of Camerata. Having American artists Rosenshontz and Laura Simms [the story-teller] is advantageous because their music is being exposed south of the border."
"Distribution is really a matter of the retailer and the record company discovering one another. The demand for our type of product is out there, we just have to scout for it."
Although Kids' Records is headed by Usher, two other partners are directly involves with the company's day-to-day business dealings. While they are busy with their own contemporary label, Ready Records, Andy Crosby and Angus MacKay were with Kids' from day one.
"When the three of us started out, we had the idea of merging my experience in the children's area with Andy and Angus' experience in the general recording industry," reflects Usher. "We wanted to build up a catalogue of records with great appeal for all members of the family ... records with substance that would stand the test of time. Our label motto, "Grow With Us" isn't just an empty slogan. There's no other record company right now in the children's area that has as many records from different artists as we do. We try to get a diversity."
Diversity took on another dimension with the addition of Robert Munsch. The irrepressible Munsch, who has sold 1.25 million books worldwide, had been employing a deceptively simple formula for perfecting his stories when Kids' Records "discovered" him. Working as a professor of childcare studies at the University of Guelph, Munsch began concocting stories to entertain nursery school kids. His stories were honed through the telling and are repeatedly requested by a loyal and tireless audience.
Reproducing the best of Munsch on vinyl was the result of a creative merger between independent publisher Annick Press and Kids' Records. Munsch had been a best-selling author with Annick for some time when he decided his stories might work on an album.
To capture the essential Munsch, a recording crew simply sat in on a live storytelling session. The resulting albums, Favourite Stories and Murmel Murmel Munsch effectively preserve the audience's rapturous concentration and an exuberant performance by the author.
After several hours of conversation with artists who have joined the Kids' family, it became clear that all shared a common philosophical bond: each possessed a sense of integrity and responsibility about entertainment presented to children. While their compositions vary in style and content, they all display an over riding sense of social consciousness. Giving children twelve catchy tunes on vinyl and a rousing stage show is not the sole motivating factor for Kids' entertainers.
"If I can convey a sense of hope to children-that there is a tomorrow to live for -then I'm doing my job," says Deborah Dunleavy, Kids' latest addition to the roster. "I don't make it a blatant theme in all my music, but it's always there in subtle ways. On Jibbery Jive [her just-released recording] I have a purpose and a responsibility to present a world to young people that is hopeful. I don't want to waste my music by being shallow or condescending."
A snappy, AM-radio sound characterizes Deborah's recent work. The title cut, Jibbery Jive, is based on funky rhythms, interspersed with synthesizer and special percussive effects. Deborah does a punchy, rap-style vocal on top, with background by the Jivetones, a tight septet of grade-school vocalists. Putting her teaching degree to good use, Deborah has included a booklet containing lyrics and suggested activities for dance, movement, drama and art that children can do while listening.
Just as concerned about content in their material are Kim and Jerry Brodey. The Brodeys' selections span continents and generations. Their LP, Simple Magic, includes a song in native Ugandan tongue and a traditional Hopi Indian song, "Ya-Ha Na Ho-Ya." As the lyric sheet explains, "When a woman in the Hopi tribe is having a baby, all the women of the tribe gather around outside her teepee and sing this song." Kim learned this song while working as a midwife. "I introduce "Ya-Ha Na Ho-Ya" to our audience by asking if they know what a midwife is," explains Kim, "and then I describe her as a woman who helps other women have their babies and it's usually at home. The song means "Be Strong As a Bear," and it gives kids a sense that there are other ways to do routine things we take for granted."
"We have songs from a lot of different cultures," enthuses Jerry, "and every time I hear the term "children's music" I cringe because music should not be slotted away. When I was a kid I grew up on Rogers and Hammerstein. My parents just said it was great music and we all listened to it. We valued family activities."
"We have two children who are twelve and ten," adds Kim, "and every morning we sit down at the breakfast table and read the paper together. We look at the news and what's going on and discuss it. I think children should be exposed to the world. That way they can develop tools to deal with current events."
"Our goal is to bring families together to play; doing something creative and positive. In a time when mothers are working, fathers are working and children are in daycare centres, it's essential time is spent doing happy things as a family. And I think children's records can make it happen."
Usher sums up the philosophy governing Kids' Records: "As our children grow older, their musical horizons become severely limited by a need to conform to the popular culture around them. However, it's our premise at Kids' (without succumbing to the whole Superbaby ethos), that as parents we have a wonderful opportunity to provide our children, when they're young, with a great diversity of cultural riches that will carry through their lifetime."
"We are building a name for ourselves so that in years to come, parents will see the Kids' label and know it's high quality, worthwhile entertainment for their family."
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