Sesame Street Soul
Forty years of funky television
by Kurt Iveson
Towards the end of 1968, almost all of the pieces for a new television show aimed at inner-city kids were in place. A group of activists committed to using television to help educate disadvantaged children formed the Children’s Television Workshop. The Workshop pulled together a diverse and dedicated team of entertainment and educational professionals, who had spent months workshopping ideas for an innovative combination of fun and curriculum. Included in the mix was Jim Henson and his company, poised to launch a new crew of muppets on the world. Initial funding for the show had been secured from the federal government and the Ford and Carnegie Foundations. The CTW even had a street team in place, ready to promote the show to inner-city communities.
But with only weeks to go before shooting commenced, the show had no name and no set.
One night as the deadline drew near, producer Jon Stone was struck with a bolt of inspiration as he sat down in front of his TV. The inspiration came in the form of a public service announcement aimed to draw attention to the plight of the very inner-city kids who were at the heart of CTW’s mission. “Send your kid to a ghetto this summer,” suggested the announcement, “we have all kinds of facilities here.” It then went on to talk about ghetto pools (with pictures of fire hydrants gushing into gutters), ball fields (with pictures of kids playing stick-ball in a car-lined street), potential field trips (with pictures of vacant lots covered in rubbish), and cozy camp cabins (with pictures of kids sleeping three and four to a bed). At the end of the ad, the narrator asked, “You don’t want your kids to play here this summer? Then don’t expect ours to. Give jobs. Give money. Give a damn.”
Stone immediately realized that the new show needed a street setting. Recalling the decision later, he said, “For a preschool child in Harlem, the street is where the action is. Outside there are kids hollering, jumping double-dutch, running through the open hydrants, playing stickball. Our set had to be an inner-city street, and more particularly it had to be a brownstone so the cast and kids could ‘stoop’ in the age-old New York tradition, sitting on the front steps and watching the world go by.”(1)
By the standards of children’s television at the time, this was a radical move. The set was populated by a diverse mix of kids, adults, and muppets, so that Sesame Street (as it was finally called) became a feisty and fantastic extension of a reality its target audience could recognize.
And, reflecting the streets which provided its inspiration, Sesame Street had to have soul.
Not surprisingly, music was a fundamental part of the show. The theme song, written by Joe Raposo (with that famous harmonica provided by jazz musician “Toots” Thielemans), set the tone, with kids singing as they made their way to Sesame Street. Even more importantly, songs for the show had to be catchy enough to work like advertising jingles, lodging themselves in the heads of the kids watching—but instead of advertising products, they were advertising the numbers and letters that sponsored each episode.
The studio musicians assembled by Raposo also had the occasional chance to stretch in providing incidental music for the documentary-like segments that peppered the show, which took viewers to the zoo or to a playground or some other place.
And, of course, some incredible musicians also made memorable guest appearances on the show. Indeed, as the show built a large audience and critical acclaim, guests were lining up to take part. Folks like Lou Rawls, Leena Horne, Smokey Robinson, and Ray Charles turned up to sing along with kids, joined by muppets and the Sesame Street house band. Stevie Wonder took over the street with his whole band.
Alongside the guest musicians, other celebrities like James Earl Jones, Jackie Robinson, Bill Cosby, and Richard Pryor showed up to read the alphabet or count some numbers. Jesse Jackson even did a spot leading a bunch of Sesame Street kids in a recitation of “I Am Somebody.”
So, to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the show, here’s a list of some of Sesame Street’s soulful highlights.
1. Stone is quoted in Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street, by Mark Davis (Viking, 2008).
Sesame Street Songs
“Pinball Number Count” (featuring the Pointer Sisters)
This tune is plain ridiculous. There were eleven versions in all, one for each number, two through twelve. Funky as hell, despite the tricky time signatures, it accompanied some very trippy pinball animations to match. DJ Food released a 12-inch edit through Ninja Tune a few years back that now commands high prices, and the Neil Cowley Trio included a nice cover of the track on their 2006 LP, Displaced. Individual segments are available on the Sesame Street YouTube channel, but for the full number count edited together into a seven-minute extravaganza, check:
A series of piano-driven jazz grooves for some more animations featuring different numbers. More weird time signatures, more psychedelic cartoons.
Cookie Monster in a concert performance spoof of “Shaft”…seriously. After a dramatic Isaac Hayes-style entrance, complete with gold chain-link cape and black beard, the backup singers kick it off: “He’s shaggy, he’s blue, and he knows how to chew…Cookie!” Like Cookie says, “It’s really a trip to watch me chew chocolate chip!” Stick with it to the end for the typical Cookie resolution.
Sesame Street Albums
The CTW released a string of albums in the 1970s, featuring songs and sketches performed on the show. Worth seeking out in the crates for their covers alone, they all contain some great moments. And of course, the disco version of “C is for Cookie” that appeared on Sesame Street Fever has a sought-after break, and the Larry Levan 12-inch edit now trades for considerable sums.
Musical Guest Appearances
Stevie Wonder “Superstition,” “1-2-3 Sesame,” and Grover sketch
In 1973, Stevie brought his touring band to Sesame Street, and the producers made the most of it. Along with a blistering seven-minute performance of “Superstition,” Stevie also performed his own jingle for Sesame Street (with some great vocoder action), and then did a singing sketch with Grover. Check for the kids dancing on the fire escapes and in the street during the performances.
Herbie Hancock makes sounds
Ever the gadget man, Herbie Hancock turned up on set with a Fairlight and a technician. He then proceeded to show Maria and a group of kids how it worked by sampling their voices.
Listen My Brother “Counting Song”
Listen My Brother were a gospel group of sixteen Harlem youngsters put together by Apollo Theater manager Peter Long (whose wife Loretta played Susan on Sesame Street). They made a couple of great appearances, singing their songs (complete with a live band) on fire escape ladders and brownstone steps. The group featured a young Luther Vandross.
Ray Charles “I’ve Got a Song” (with Bert and Ernie), and the alphabet
Totally sweet version of “I’ve Got a Song,” with Bert and Ernie chipping in some drums, bass, and backups.
Charles also took some kids through a soulful version of the alphabet. This was a bit of a tradition on Sesame Street—Lou Rawls, Lena Horne, and Patti Labelle are among the many others who have contributed their versions of the alphabet over the years.
Other guest appearances
Richard Pryor does the alphabet
“That’s an ‘a.’ And here’s a ‘b.’ Ain’t nobody care about no ‘c.’ And nobody’s interested in ‘d,’ right? That’s ’cause ‘e’s got it all covered.” And so on it goes. He could even make the alphabet funny…
Jesse Jackson does “I Am Somebody”
Jesse leads a group of kids through a recitation of “I Am Somebody.” He’s sporting a huge medallion around his neck and while the kids seem a bit bemused to be saying “I may be on welfare,” Jackson also makes some lovely changes to reflect the fact that he’s talking to kids not grown-ups.
“Sno-cones in the City”
A fantastic early 1970s summer street scene mini-doc with kids playing basketball, skipping, rolling tires, and getting served sno-cones from a street cart. It’s only a minute long and perfectly accompanied by a powerful Tito Puente jam.
“Lost Wheel in the City”
Another mini-doc spot, in which a bike wheel rolls its way through the streets until it’s finally caught by a neighborhood kid. Accompanied by a simple but brilliant Rhodes and congas groove.
“A Drum From a Barrel”
Fantastic clip of a bunch of kids finding a steel barrel in an abandoned lot, rolling it through the city to a drum maker, and culminating in a steel drum show on a stoop. Exactly the kind of urban neighborhood scenes Jon Stone had imagined.
Sesame Street Parodies
Bert and Ernie: “Ante Up”
If you are not one of the three million plus folks who have already seen this brilliant sync of Bert and Ernie videos to M.O.P.’s “Ante Up,” you need to see this right now!
Kurt Iveson interviewed Wah Wah Watson and Herbie Hancock for Issue 37.