Frontlines

Music for kids with the glint of gold

Constance Brissenden November 26 1979
Frontlines

Music for kids with the glint of gold

Constance Brissenden November 26 1979

Music for kids with the glint of gold

Constance Brissenden

On their first album cover, they’re beaming; on their latest, surrounded by kids and food, they’re still grinning from ear to ear. They never forget to link hands before swinging into their first song of a performance and afterward they stand cheerfully for hours, autographing albums. If Sharon, Lois and Bram didn’t really mean it when they say they love what they do, they could be downright insufferable. As it is, they’re charming; ask almost any Canadian kid.

In just more than a year, these three former music instructors from Toronto have gone from nowhere to the top-ofthe-pops in the children’s recording in-

dustry. And if they smile outrageously on their albums, it’s not only because their first, One Elephant/Deux Eléphants, went “gold” (with sales of more than 50,000 in 11 months) or that their second, Smorgasbord, recently released at 60,000 copies, went gold after six weeks. It’s also because after 40 combined years of playing and singing, Sharon, Lois and Bram took a gamble on borrowed money—and it has paid off.

Since One Elephant was released in September, 1978, the trio, along with percussionist Bill Usher, 33, has been belting out songs for kids that even adults can’t resist. Whether it’s 38year-old Bram Morrison’s slyly teasing Candy Man/Salty Dog or Lois Lilienstein, 43, and Sharon Hampson, 36, in an endearingly jaunty rendition of Cheerio, the four have a magical way with children’s music. They per-

form together with such enthusiasm and naturalness that they seem to have been at it all their lives. Yet, until a year-and-a-half ago, the idea of playing as a group had never even entered their minds.

Back in the early ’60s, Sharon Hampson and Bram Morrison were folkies, working the coffeehouse circuit of Toronto as solo performers. Both turned to teaching when the folk music bubble burst.

Lois, a classical pianist, came late, and accidentally, into the children’s music fold. In 1966, having let her training lapse, she was asked by her son’s co-op nursery to play the piano, and began exploring the folk music repertory. Eventually she began working with Sharon. who was teaching through a local folk series called Mariposa in the Schools (MITS), and Bill, an occasional MITS performer.

When the foursome met, something “osmotic” happened, says Bill. Each had a musical specialty and Bill, as a former free-lance CBC radio producer, knew how to put it all together. “There was a need for more good music for kids,” says Bram. “We decided to try and satisfy it by making an album.”

At the time, in January, 1978, the only other children’s performers selling well were the extremely popular Raffi (whose three combined albums, since 1976, have sold almost 200,000 copies) and songwriter Sandy Offenheim. But before the quartet could smell the sweet bubble-gum scent of success, there was the problem of financing. As an untested group with nary a performance together under their instruments, they knew they would never get a record company to produce them. Undeterred, they decided to start their own, Elephant Records, and turned to family and friends for the cash to rent studios, hire musicians and pay for a pressing. A total of $22,000 from 24 investors went into their gamble on 5,000 copies of One Elephant/Deux Eléphants.

The records hit Toronto music stores in September, 1978, and the lid blew off. Within three weeks, all 5,000 copies had been snatched up by enthusiastic parents. By Christmas, after a hasty repressing, 27,000 copies had been sold. The performers began doing concerts, not yet committed to being a group but eager to promote the album. Then, in January of this year, Sharon received a phone call from Chris Wooten, director of the Vancouver East Cultural Centre. Wooten’s invitation: to play at the annual International Festival for Young People hosted by the city, coming up in May. “That was the beginning of a sense of us being a group,” recalls

Sharon. “There wasn’t even time for things to settle in.”

What had already settled in—and in a large measure, it explains their success—was their unshakable belief that what’s good for kids is the same as what’s good for adults. Blending playground games with camp songs, oldtime favorites and African and Caribbean rhythms, Sharon, Lois and Bram do not condescend to their listeners.

“We aimed for a technical quality that was as good as we could make it,” says Bill, who produced both of the group’s albums, “so that whether the parents were into Conway Twitty or Joe Jackson, they wouldn’t find our music embarrassing.” The four share this philosophy on their albums, which they call “children’s records for the whole family.” And on Smorgasbord, their “whole family” appears to be getting in on the act. On top of musical arrangements by Sharon’s husband, folk-singer Joe Hampson, there’s her 11-year-old son, Geoffrey, and 16-year-old daughter, Randi, singing camp songs. Bill’s father joins in for verses of Father Papered the Parlour, with Bill’s sister in for the chorus. Then there’s Bill’s grandfather doing a solo turn on Dan, Dan the Dirty Old Man.

“I call it mind-sticking music,” says Lois. “I don’t mean to sound presumptuous but what Pete Seeger does with adults—he could get an audience to stand on its head if he asked—we want to do with children.”

Since their osmotic start, Sharon, Lois, Bram and Bill have been featured in two TV specials, one for CTV and a second for CBC. There’s also their third TV special, Jungle Jam, for the CBC, now in the works with a tentative spring air date. Ronco Teleproducts Inc. has launched a major Canadian TV promotion campaign for Smorgasbord this fall and will do the same in the U.S. starting in February, while G. Schirmer, the New York music publisher, will soon be printing songbooks of their material. Bill has also recently produced two children’s albums by other performers.

If there is an occasional lament, it’s that success, however naturally it has come, interferes with family life. “I had a date with my husband last night,” says Sharon wistfully. “We went to the movies . . . sometimes it feels as if I never get to see him.” But for Bram, their busy schedule hasn’t deterred him from his own marriage plans. In February, he’ll be taking a month off for his honeymoon: a month away from guitars and microphones and promotions and TV specials. As he told the kids at a recent recording session: “I can hardly wait.” £>